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Iowa State Researchers Receive 2024 Bridging the Divide Grant to Address Textile Waste

Caitlin Ware, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research

Posted Jun 19, 2024

Associate professor of fashion design and merchandising Rachel Eike (left) and assistant professor of art and visual culture Raluca Iancu, who have received the 2024 Bridging the Divide award from the Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research. Photo by Christopher Gannon | Iowa State University

A pair of Iowa State University researchers have been selected to receive funding from the annual Bridging the Divide seed grant program to explore sustainable practices within the textile industry.

The Bridging the Divide program aims to holistically address societal problems by fostering collaboration between design, arts, humanities, and social science researchers and researchers in STEM disciplines. The program is administered annually by the Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) in partnership with the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities (CEAH). Assistant professor of art and visual culture Raluca Iancu and associate professor of fashion design and merchandising Rachel Eike have received the 2024 award. They will receive $50,000 in institutional funding over two years to combine sustainability practices with traditional fine art papermaking techniques to transform discarded garment waste into renewed textiles for use by art and fashion industries.

When clothing is no longer wanted or needed by consumers or fashion brands, it often ends up in donation bins at local secondhand retailers, such as Goodwill or Salvation Army. If these products go unsold, they are often turned over to third-party consignment services, or if damaged, they are thrown away. However, few consumers know where discarded clothing goes once it leaves their hands. Most often, garment waste ends up in massive landfill sites in Ghana, Kenya, and Chile, where hundreds of thousands of pounds of discarded clothing from around the globe form graveyards for fashion trends of the past.

Through their Bridging the Divide project, titled “Innovative Sustainable Solutions: Non-woven Textile Through Papermaking,” Iancu and Eike hope to disrupt this cycle by finding innovative ways to give clothing scraps new life. With their combined expertise in hand-paper-making and sustainable fashion and material development, the duo plan to research natural fiber sustainability by developing and studying non-woven textiles. The research process will involve collecting castoff natural fiber cut waste from Iowa State’s fashion design and product development production studios and local donation venues; sorting the clothing by fabric type; shredding the clothing; and turning the residual material into pulp. The resulting pulp will then be pressed into paper-like sheets, which will be analyzed for various applications within fashion, fine arts, and consumer-focused spaces.

As part of the project, Iancu and Eike will study variables – including the ratios of new fibers to recycled fibers, the type and amount of internal and external sizing, colorants, and other additives – to determine the impacts of these factors on the strength and durability of the proposed non-woven, paper-like sheets. In pilot work, the pair have identified the potential for developing a plant-based leather-alternative textile, potentially suitable for fashion accessories. Depending on the variables of recycled sheet composition, innovative outputs also exist for fine art applications.

“The fashion industry is highly polluting — it’s one of the top environmentally damaging industries in the world,” Eike said. “One of those areas is connected to textile waste, which can be found throughout the supply chain, from the pattern-cutting process to consumer habits. We want to know if there is a way to renew garment materials, diversify the fashion industry, and make the industry more circular. We want to be thought leaders in this process.”

A critical part of the project will involve purchasing specialized equipment to facilitate the sheet-making process: a Hollander Beater and a hydraulic press. The Hollander Beater will be used to turn textiles into usable pulp, and the hydraulic press will facilitate pressing pulp into non-woven sheets. Both pieces of equipment will be stored in the Student Innovation Center, making it possible to pursue future collaborations with the Iowa State Woodshop, Electronics, Textiles, and 3D Printing Shop, and the Letterpress Lab.

“The crux of this project is its relatability,” Iancu said. “We all wear clothes; things always wear out. The big question is what we do with what is left behind. If we can make a system for people where it is easy to identify fibers and learn where to drop garments off, that can have a lasting impact. That is the exciting part of this project.”

Iancu and Eike’s Bridging the Divide project is expected to facilitate future collaboration, including applying for a Cotton Inc. Curriculum grant and a Miller Faculty Grant. Long-term outcomes of the project also include the potential to partner with the Iowa State Department of Horticulture to create a fully sustainable fiber and dye garden.

“Raluca and Rachel’s research on environmentally sustainable practices within the textile industry fully embodies the spirit of the Bridging the Divide Grant program,” said CEAH Director Matt Sivils. “Their work productively confronts a major challenge that affects both the industry of garment-making and the well-being of our shared environment. This project’s emphasis on natural fiber sustainability has the potential to make a meaningful impact, and we are excited to fund this research.”

The Bridging the Divide seed grant program, offered in partnership with the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities (CEAH), is open to all Iowa State University full-time tenured or tenure‐eligible faculty. More information about the application, review, and award process can be found here.