24 Feb 2020

Sustainability inspiration one hand-knot at a time

Are you feeling a little bit of eco-anxiety? Here is how we tried to defeat it in this project with action and collaboration. It’s the story of how a group of “like-worried” people came together to try to make a sustainable, beautiful, Nepalese rug that wouldn’t cost the earth. And in the process, they tested how to change and inspire the industry one rug at a time, through materials, design, handcraft, and stories.

The year 2020 has just begun, but we’re already seeing the devastating impacts of the climate crisis, from destructive fires in Australia to deadly floods in Indonesia. Climate experts predict that by 2100, global temperatures could rise by three to five degrees Celsius and we might only have until 2030 to reverse this trend and avoid changes that might be irreversible.

In the middle of the climate, social and political crisis, more and more people claim to suffer from eco- or climate-anxiety, a new state of mind that seems to be growing uncontrollably out of fear and uncertainty about the future.

This is the setting the stage for the beginning of our adventure, but it’s also what motived all of us to try to cure humanity’s climate anxieties. Maybe it resonates with you and might be the antidote to your worries too.

So, the story starts when our team at Aquafil met Michael Christie over a year ago. He came to our plant to give a presentation about trends in handmade rugs. His first thought when we contacted him was, “What am I going to do at a synthetic fibers’ manufacturer?” Because Michael is better known as The Ruggist, among one of the most knowledgeable persons in the world of handmade rugs, high-end products mostly done with natural fibers.

And we, at Aquafil, are producers of synthetic fibers and especially the ECONYL® nylon, a regenerated yarn, also used in rugs, that comes from waste materials instead of oil.

The waste material used to make ECONYL® regenerated nylon.

The waste material used to make ECONYL® regenerated nylon.

At that meeting and in that visit in Italy, a couple of seeds of what then became this project were planted. From Michael’s presentation we discovered about a rug producer — Sarawagi Carpet — in Nepal that was doing incredible work and that was interested in using alternative sustainable fibers like our ECONYL® nylon. The other seed that we like to think was planted in Michael’s mind was that recycled synthetic fibers could be a material worth looking into, especially when sustainability concerns are at an all-time high.

Those seeds developed into the project to make a hand-knotted rug in Nepal by Sarawagi carpet, using ECONYL® regenerated nylon. The purpose was to create a more sustainable product that was made of recycled material but could also be recyclable afterwards.

So, a step back is needed here. ECONYL® is a special nylon that was invented by the Italian company Aquafil about nine years ago and has spread quickly in the fashion and in the design world. It is made from 100% waste materials like fishing nets, old carpets, plastic components and textile scraps. It’s regenerated from waste but also regenerable an infinite number of times without ever losing quality and its key performance aspects.

The background story of the ingredient, and especially the recovery of fishing nets, was what inspired the design of the rug in this project. And here is where Isobel Morris comes in.

ECONYL® x Sarawagi

Isobel is a British rug designer who loves interior design, surface patterns, and furniture. Her pieces are inspired by the amazing force of nature and the cool simplicity of mid-century design. Previously, she was a finalist for ‘young designer’, exhibiting her carpet, ‘Monach’ at Domotex in 2014. This year she designed the rug for our project.

In her words, “This new rug design emphasizes the detrimental impact on our oceans with a focus on the environmental sustainability of reusing textiles with a rug created 100% from waste (old carpets and fishing nets)”. Her vision, “Showcases the familiar sight of ocean ripples mirrored on the seabed with the tangle of fishing nets. Chilled turquoise blues with cool white tones and dramatic deep navy, with a zap of orange, bring to life the challenge of our polluted oceans”.

The two styles designed for this project by Isobel Morris.

So, the rug was displayed at Domotex in the Framing Trends area and the project was presented in a panel discussion with Michael Christie (The Ruggist), Dev Sarawagi, owner of Sarawagi rugs, and Giulio Bonazzi, CEO and President of Aquafil.
The panel discussion at Domotex with Dev Sarawagi, Giulio Bonazzi, and Michael Christie.

The panel discussion at Domotex with Dev Sarawagi, Giulio Bonazzi, and Michael Christie.

People reacted very positively. In the words of Michael, “People were genuinely surprised at the texture of the rug. Both ‘Nylon Engulfed’ and the sample Sarawagi made for me. There is a bias against synthetics — which I was formerly guilty of possessing — that assumes the fiber to be cold, and lifeless to the hand. It is not and as the idiom states: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’”.

You can see some pictures from the beautiful installation at Domotex here and you can also catch up with all the “behind the scene” and technical information about the production of this rug in the five articles that Michael wrote about this project.

#1 — Ideation

#2 — Context

#3 — Impetus

#4 — Crafting

#5 — Fruition

What have we learned?

As Michael said in this brief interview at Domotex, the beauty of this project is that we were different companies and people from different parts of the world and with different specialties that got together pushed by a common concern and were able to create something beautiful and more sustainable.

Later, I asked Michael to explain more about how this project impacted him.

This project has inspired me to think differently about the problems the handknotted rug industry faces and to realize the solutions are likely not found in past models. New ways for doing things in a new era. With the phone in my hand this means that the solutions — as I said before — are likely to be found through diverse global collaboration. We could all be so lucky as to be involved in projects that bring us together instead of pushing us apart.

For me as an advocate for handknotted rugs, I have begun examining all aspects of their production asking the simple question: ‘What can be done better?”

A similar reaction comes from Shally Sarawagi, daughter of Dev Sarawagi and the initial driver behind the involvement of Sarawagi carpet in this project. As Michael reminds us, “Shally inspires me to be better in this regard. I have not yet met someone as passionate about righting what we’ve done wrong and who actively practices what they promote. Her commitment is an inspiration to me as I look at the environmental, social, and structural problems facing handknotted rugs happening in this era”.

Shally Sarawagi working on the making of the carpet in Nepal with a colleague.

Shally Sarawagi working on the making of the carpet in Nepal with a colleague.

Shally couldn’t join us at Domotex but she wrote us a note commenting on the results of this collaboration.

As a company, and personally for me and my team, this project has led to a shift in perspective. Yes, we did care about the environment before. But now we have started questioning the sustainability of other practices of our business — materials used, dyeing, washing, packaging, and so on. By doing this I think we can encourage other Nepali companies to do the same. That is the goal”.

As a designer, Isobel was instead more intrigued by the possibility to not only choose a material for its sustainability feature but also for its aesthetics in the carpet. “Before this project I didn’t know that much about repurposed nylon and my main focus would be choosing a fabric that would impact the aesthetic of the rug, focusing on materials and craftsmanship that would display the best color and texture in line with my design. Being inspired by nature, I was excited to take part in this, although I did have some questions about how the color and texture of the rug would be impacted. Using recycled nylon has completely changed my outlook on materials — this sustainable material has made me keen to continue working with ECONYL® fabrics — why would we need to create new nylon when a sustainable source is available?

Isobel Morris in the installation at Domotex 2020.

Isobel Morris in the installation at Domotex 2020.

So how do we revolutionize the industry and get rid of our eco-anxiety? Well, it’s a mix of aspects that, just like this project, needs to turn the focus on sustainable materials, design for remanufacturing, collaboration along the supply chain and openness to try to solve new problems with new solutions and concrete actions. And also, as Michael points out, we should all start from questions like this one that is now his new mantra, “Finally, the notion of circular-design is now 100% top of mind for me. So much so that it is almost the first question I ask of a new product. What is the intended disposition of this product at its end of use? Sadly, most people do not have an answer for this.”

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