The art of saying ‘NO!’ and working towards a sustainable art practice

The word sustainable seems to be, almost suddenly, in common daily usage. It’s now normal to hear this word on the news, in adverts, during documentaries and dramas, but also in day-to-day conversations. 

‘Thank goodness!’ I hear you cry.  

But as an artist with a sustainable practice, I’m still trying to work out what this actually means. seam collective is also trying to establish what we propose when we state that we are ‘…challenging ourselves about sustainability in our practices and in our lives’.

I’m sure many of you reading this are thinking the same. You are no different from other artists and makers, organisations, companies or countries. We’re all trying to work out what it means to be sustainable in 2023 and what that looks like in practice. 

For my Fine Art Masters project in 2021, I focused on circular production, sustainable practices, closed-loop systems, and the most greenwashed phrase of all time, eco-friendliness. 

Stack of closed-loop paper made on the ‘Perpetual Paper-making Machine’, Masters Project Sept 2021, held by the artist.

But after my Masters, after circularity as research and methodology, making work became difficult. I became stuck. My practice and my daily life had become far more about saying ‘No!’.  No to new materials and new work. I found it difficult to even contemplate putting more work, or ‘stuff’ out into the world. 

And sitting with that thought, I began to plan for A Visible THREAD. 

I sat on my hands and thought. 

For a long time. 

Occasionally, I’d play with materials, waste materials or food waste or old packaging, or combined the two.

I played.

Scrap blankets from the ‘Perpetual Paper-making Machine’, dipped and dyed with avocado dye

Attempting to negotiate my way around being an anti-consumerism artist, a sustainable artist, a textile artist in a world where the textile industry is so completely interlinked with the climate emergency. 

Pages from the Coptic bound book, ‘A Gift for the Worms’ made from waste packaging and fabric, and dyed with food scraps, and then gifted to the compost worms

So, instead of making I began unmaking, undoing, un-consuming. 

I began composting old work. My compost worms ate it. They locked the carbon into compost.

It was all I could do to clear my mind and work out how to be an artist and at the same time, be an advocate for the planet and to work towards positive change.

 Old work being composted in the wormery

For the new seam project, A Visible THREAD, I wanted to create work that very simply demonstrated an ethical or environmental dimension in textiles. (I was going to write in the textile industry but thought, perhaps, this might get misconstrued; you, dear reader, might then think it’s got nothing to do with ME & YOU – it has everything to do with us all!)

I spent weeks, months, in angsty mental dialogue with myself over this simple question. 

Luckily for me, I had plenty of stash, collected and scrounged materials that were waste, and this long thinking time was a useful pause for ideas to play out.

Layers of waste fabrics pinned tightly together to form solid sculptures

Slowly, with clarity, I came up with a ‘simple’ idea to represent the annual textile waste per person in the UK, and the techniques that are used in its disposal.

‘Textile waste’, in my mind, is clothing or textiles that cannot be or has not been moved on to someone else. It is waste simply because it has not been (or we cannot be bothered to sort it to be) RESOLD, REUSED or REPAIRED. 

I worked through old sheets which were past repair, some of my husband’s very worn work trousers, a few vintage motheaten pieces that I bought or was given for the Motheaten Hierarchies project in 2020.

This is the pile I worked through. There were old sheets which were past repair, some of my husband’s very worn work trousers, a few vintage motheaten pieces that I bought or was given for the ‘Motheaten Hierarchies’ project in 2020.

I decided to sculpt cubes made of this waste. Cubes somehow seemed a simple, unemotive, clinical form which could demonstrate and quantify what I was attempting to represent – the packaged and shipped cast-offs that we each, as consumers, are responsible for sending ‘away’. Out of sight, out of mind.

But of course, there is no such thing as ‘away’ – what we dispose of always end up somewhere. 

As I sculpted layers and layers of fabric, as I measured and weighed it, and mindfully and repetitively stitched over days and weeks, I reflected upon the layers upon layers of questions within textiles.

The physical act of manipulating the cloth, of forming the cubes with fabric and thread, the very visceral act of brutish stitching, brought into focus the costs represented within this waste. 

The human labour and the human toll, the environmental damage embodied within the fibres, yarns and fabrics. It was sobering. It was hard work. But it was good work.

This is the final result, some of my six sculptures of textiles waste which were exhibited as part of ‘A Visible THREAD’ at ACEarts in November and December 2022

The work is entitled Legacy and the sculptures are made from:

3 x pair combat trousers

1 x dressing gown

1 x American army shirt

1 x American army formal jacket

2 x long sleeved T-shirt

1 x blanket ribbon edges

1 x boiled wool jacket

1 x baby grow

1 x wool tank top

1 x woollen scarf

1 x broken curtain tape

2 x scrap fabric textile paintings

1 x 1960s mohair coat

3 x short sleeved T-shirt

1 x British Army jacket

5 x double sheets

And lots of vintage threads

Did you know?

The UK is the 4th largest textile polluter in Europe.

On average, each person in this country ‘wastes’ 3.1 kilograms of textiles each year. It is disposed of by recycling, reusing, incinerated, and landfilled.

Labfresh; Labfresh analysis using data on textile waste from 2016, sourced from the Statistical Office of the European Union (Eurostat).

During the exhibition, you, the viewer, are invited to be an active participant. You are invited to lift the sculptures and feel their weight, to feel the weight of our legacy. To contemplate our consumption and our waste, our challenges and the changes each of us need to make become more sustainable. To consider what we need to say ‘Yes’ to, but also what we need to say ‘No’ to. 

I leave you with this, the smallest sculpture but the most important one.

It weighs 200g, just 200g. 

That is the amount out of the 3.1 kilograms of waste that is reused (Labfresh). Sobering, isn’t it?

The smallest sculpture; 200g of textile ‘waste’. The amount out of the 3.1 kilograms of waste that is reused.

In addition to the ‘waste’ we create, we also produce another 5.9 kilograms of used clothing for export…’away’ (Labfresh).

If you can, do come and interact with the sculptures during our A Visible THREAD tour, at:

  • Fine Foundation Gallery, Swanage: 16 May – 7 June 2023
  • Black Swan Arts, Frome: 16 September – 29 October 2023
  • Llantarnam Grange, Cwmbran: 17 February – 4 May 2024
  • Thelma Hulbert, Honiton: 20 July – 31 August 2024

See seam collective’s website and Instagram for full details of the tour, workshops and participatory events and sign up for seam’s newsletter for regular news and updates. 

Lydia Needle


Labfresh, The Fashion Waste Index Available at: