Designer KT Doyle takes her love of jeans and her role as denim rescuer seriously. Her passion for ‘diverting denim waste from landfill’ and her background in textiles and wallpaper design converged to become her latest creative and business endeavour, JEANBAG. As sole designer and maker, along with a raft of other like-minded people, KT saves denim and turns it into beautifully crafted cushions, bean bags and bunting.
“I want to honour the labour, skill, time and resources that goes into making every pair of denim jeans,” she says. “…Your jeans may have come to the end of their wearable life but they still have miles left in them yet.”
Come and meet KT …
You’ve been an artist and wallpaper and textiles designer for twenty years. Tell us more about your background and how you’ve ended up where you are today.
I’ve always expressed myself creatively and can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making something. I studied Fine Art after finishing school and have continued to exhibit my work over the past twenty years. My work always starts with a story and the medium in which that story is told often changes. This way of working has allowed me to create across a range of mediums, including limited-edition prints and embroideries, installations and public artworks.
After several years exploring pattern-making in my artwork, I decided to create my own wallpaper and textiles collection. For a long time, I’d been fascinated about the connection we make with the spaces we live in and how the use of ornament and decoration in our homes helps us establish a sense of belonging. So, under my project Making Place, I created my first wallpaper and textiles collection called Falling Leaves. This lead to commissions and design collaborations in wallpaper and textile design and I found my practice growing and stretching further into the interior design space.
While making artwork and designing patterns was the perfect way to express myself, I felt like something was missing. I felt compelled to do more and be more. Around this time, I learned about a local recycling competition. The brief was to bring awareness to my community about recycling by using a little creativity to breathe new life into everyday items and help divert tonnes of waste from landfill. I created JEANBAG—a beanbag made from recycled denim jeans. It changed everything for me. What was missing was having a purpose greater than fulfilling my own needs. A purpose defined by the needs of my community.
I now have a razor-sharp, single focus—to divert denim waste from landfill. JEANBAG is allowing me to create something beautiful and useful from something that has been loved and discarded, but is by no means at the end of its wonderful life.
You’re passionate about diverting jean waste from landfill but why denim and jeans in particular?
There’s something about denim that’s so familiar and nostalgic. Almost everyone has a pair of jeans.
One of the biggest issues of our time is environmental pollution from overconsumption. Rather than getting overwhelmed (which is easy in a world of seven billion), I thought: how can I help? How can I use my skills to do something good? How can I take a simple idea and create massive change? I need to start seeing waste products as valuable resources. One amazing piece of engineering that often ends up in landfill is the denim jean. If you knew it takes almost a kilo of cotton, 10,000 litres of water, and countless hours of labour and skill to make a single pair of denim jeans, wouldn’t you want to make sure they never end up in landfill?
I want to honour the labour, skill, time and resources that goes into making each and every pair of denim jeans. The water that helps grow the cotton seed, the pickers, dyers and weavers who bring the fabric to life and the designers, machinists and shippers who work hard to get our favourite pair of jeans to us in the first place.
Your jeans may have come to the end of their wearable life, but they still have miles left in them yet. Maybe not as jeans, but something else. That’s why JEANBAG is here—to recycle your jeans and to create the ‘something else’. And hopefully, encourage mindfulness around consumption and the importance of making careful and ethical purchasing decisions in the process.
Tell us how you make it happen i.e. where you source the jeans from and the design process.
There are a couple of ways in which I source recycled denim for our JEANBAG products. I purchase denim jeans from local charity organisations, such as The Endeavour Foundation and the RSPCA. Jeans they can’t sell in their stores. And last year, I set up our Recycle Me initiative, were you can send your jeans directly to us to transform into our beautiful products. To say thanks, we give you ten per cent off your next order. We want that pair of jeans you know you’ll never wear again, that are not up to scratch to hand-down, give to a friend or donate to charity, and are simply taking up space in your wardrobe. If you like, we can directly incorporate your jeans into your very own JEANBAG beanbag via our My JEANBAG program, which we think is kinda cool.
I design and make all JEANBAG products myself in my Brisbane studio, and I’m lucky to work with a bunch of like-minded people including photographers, stylists and local businesses, friends and family. It’s funny, for this reason I think of JEANBAG as ‘we’ and not ‘me’. It’s about so much more than one person.
The denim jeans I receive often inspire the design of new products through their materiality. Some jeans have great patinas from wear and age. Some are almost pristine when I get them. The colours vary greatly and the amount of good fabric left in the jeans themselves has inspired different products. I’m continually coming up with new ideas based on minimising waste. After all, the goal is to prevent denim ending up in landfill, so I need to be creative about how I can use as much of each pair as possible.
Our first series of products was based around the idea of cut-offs and honouring the spirit of denim as hard-wearing, relaxed and nostalgic. With a mix of hues in a boho aesthetic, they feel warm and lived-in. We’ve just released the first product in our new Tailored range, The Minimalist cushion. The Tailored range focuses on a monochromatic colour palette with contrasting top-stitching that highlights the beautiful patinas found in the jeans we use. It’s contemporary with clean lines, crafted details and available in three base colourways: light blue, mid blue and dark blue. Of course, every one of our products is handmade and completely unique.
Who or what inspires you?
Our environment inspires me to make better choices and do what I can to tread more lightly on our planet. Other people and businesses that have chosen to live and work with integrity and purpose continue to make me think more deeply about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and how I can do it better.
There are too many influences to mention, with new people and businesses inspiring me every day. But if I have to mention a couple off the top of my head, there are the founders of Patagonia, who have stood behind their vision for a cleaner, greener approach to textile manufacturing and using business to inspire environmental change. They founded ‘one per cent for the planet’, a hub bringing together business and non-profit organisations championing environmental change through a one per cent donation of profits. JEANBAG is an official member.
There’s Interface Flor, who are nearing their mission zero goal of creating a closed loop manufacturing process for their carpet tiles by 2020. Founder, Ray Anderson, hit a crossroad when challenged by customers in the 90s, asking what his company was doing for the environment. While at the time he had no answers, that one question inspired an exemplary change in the way they work today.
And William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart—thought-founders on the idea of closed loop manufacturing where everything is used and reused and there is no waste—changed the way I wanted to work when I read their book, Cradle to Cradle back in 2008. As a designer, I’m responsible for the products I put out into the world. I have this massive opportunity to stand in my own integrity and be a leader in my own way, which means doing what I know is right.
What are some of your important tools of trade?
My mum’s 1952 99K Singer sewing machine is my number one piece of equipment. All JEANBAG products are stitched by her sturdy needle. My rotary cutter is my number two tool. It cuts through our recycled denim like butter, creating beautiful straight edges and saving my wrist from RSI! And number three would have to be my rulers and tape measure, which are invaluable in bringing together our well-crafted products.
Tell us about the importance of upcycling and sustainability for you in both your work and personal life?
I’ve never known life without recycling. I was brought up in an environment where everything was used, mended, fixed or handed-down, where the inherent emotional and practical value in everything was recognised and appreciated. Besides, new things were expensive, so if you could fix things, you did. And you know what, you taught yourself new skills in the process.
While I love beautiful things and need to feel in harmony with my environment, I’m also completely practical and consume very little. I like it this way. I like to nurture and build on what I have—friendships, relationships and objects. For me, it’s the memories and stories that become part of the objects I love, that I treasure most.
It’s not very cool, but I really like …
Walking my cat. We’ll he’s not that into it. If only he loved it like a dog!
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?
Plenty! Especially, “who’d have thought my arts practice would lead me to making products from recycled denim jeans?” What I’ve learned so far is that life is full of discovery and opportunity. When you stay grounded in your beliefs and authentic in your choices, your path somewhat navigates itself.
Thanks so much KT for such an interesting interview!