Swimsuit designers embrace fabrics made from recycled fishing gear, plastic bottles

The fashion industry has a huge environmental footprint, generating an estimated 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 — more than France, Germany and the U.K. combined. The sector also doesn’t recycle much: less than one per cent of material used to produce clothing is later made into new garments.

It’s hard to find clothing for sale made from recycled materials, but when it comes to swimwear, designers across Canada are creating more and more sustainable options made from reprocessed fishing gear and plastic bottles.

Vancouver-based A Nettle’s Tale launched its swimwear line, which is designed for a wide range of sizes and body types, through a crowdfunding campaign in 2014. It has used recycled polyester from the beginning, but in the early days, the only colour option was black.

“There’s so many more colours and variants now available,” said owner Julia Church, adding that manufacturers are responding to increased demand.

Beth Richards, a Toronto-based designer who has been offering “ethical” swimwear for 10 years and has been gradually increasing its recycled content, agrees. “There’s more of a global awareness of climate change,” she said. “I think people just really have the appetite for wanting to do what they can to … make really conscious decisions.”

Swimwear is traditionally made from synthetic materials, i.e. plastics, such as nylon, polyester or spandex, so that it’s stretchy and doesn’t absorb too much water.

Sandra Vukovic, founder of Toronto-based VUK Swim, said swimwear also needs to be able to withstand chlorine, salt water and sun. Those factors degrade traditional swimwear material, making buying used less of an option. That’s why designers are turning to recycled materials.

A Nettle’s Tale has expanded beyond swimwear to tops, dresses, pants and shorts and chooses natural fibres such as cotton as sustainable materials for most of them. But as Church said, “You can’t really make a linen swimsuit.”

Polyester, which can be made from recycled bottles, is used for swimsuits with printed designs. Another popular material, used in solid-coloured swimsuits, is Econyl, a nylon fabric made by Italy-based Aquafil from discarded waste, including fishing gear that can pose a risk to wildlife if not removed from the ocean.

But the designers say sustainability is more than what clothing is made of — it’s also about buying less often and wearing it for longer.

Naomie Caron, founder and designer of Montreal-based SELFISH swimwear, said she tries to ensure her designs won’t go out of style. “That’s why I use colours that are really timeless,” said Caron (who is pictured above, alongside one of her designs). 

In fact, she tries to ensure that each item lasts a minimum of five years. Caron guarantees the stitches for a year and even offers a repair service so customers can make their swimwear last longer, although she said only a couple of items have needed repair since she launched in 2018. Caron also keeps leftover fabric scraps to create new items, such as headbands.

Vukovic designs all her bathing suit tops so they can also be worn as regular tops with pants or a skirt. That way, customers can invest in fewer pieces of clothing and get more use out of their swimwear, she said.

“If you buy a good-quality bathing suit that fits you really well that can last seasons and seasons, then that’s the most sustainable way to do it.”

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