Interview: Clothes composting project Ego Sum Terra

Today we are absolutely delighted to introduce you to Lydia Baird from the fab textile composting project Ego Sum Terra, which she runs with colleague Willa Tsokanis.

We were so inspired when we discovered this project that we’re going to have a go at composting ourselves in our *new* backyard! We hope it makes you feel the same… And if you do have a go, please share your journey with us!

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Stitched Up: Welcome Lydia and thanks for taking part in this interview!
First of all, tell us about yourselves and how you ended up doing what you do now…

Lydia: I am a career changer. I studied and worked as a costume designer for film and television for about ten years. I have a passion for art and design. I love to be creative. However, I didn’t feel like my work was improving the society around me. I felt a disconnect.
I had been taking evening classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in NYC for fun, and I ended up in a Textile Fibers course. It blew my mind. I read and re-read every inch of the textbook. I loved the chemistry, the creativity, the theory. I also started to understand what a large role fashion and particularly fibers and textile technology play in environmental and labor abuses around the world. It took me about a year to build up the nerve to quit my work and go back to school, but I did it, and I am completely confident in that choice.

Tell us about Ego Sum Terra and what inspired you to set it up?

While at FIT, I wanted to research sustainable textile technology. I knew from my textile studies that cotton was biodegradable. I also knew from my work in fashion that we were throwing away pounds of cotton muslin every day. Once the idea to compost muslin clicked in my head, I knew it would be both innovative and actionable, key goals for any research.

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How has the project developed since it’s beginnings? What has the response been?

Since proposing the idea through the Clinton Global Initiative University last December, we have been moving at a break neck speed. My partner, Willa Tsokanis, and I graduate this coming Spring, and we really wanted to have the project smoothly running before we left.
We began composting on campus in April 2015. We collect muslin fabric scraps from six fashion design classrooms and food waste from our dining hall. We currently have 152 lbs of muslin and 81 lbs of food in our compost bin. We have finished composting 50 lbs of cotton muslin and food and are using it to fertilize a small cotton crop. In the textile lab, we have started our first soil trial comparing the finished quality of food compost to food/muslin compost. We will compare synthetic dyed fabric and naturally dyed fabric compost next.
We are trying to incorporate design into the project as much as possible. It is the heart of our school, and it just makes everything more beautiful 🙂 Textile design students decorated the bins. Five fashion design students will be blogging for us on their sustainable journey. We are also trying to host two workshops this semester, one on zero waste design and the other on bacteria growing fabric.
I just love bouncing around with the project and doing everything and anything related to fashion, textiles, business, and sustainability.

What are your long-term goals for Ego Sum Terra?

My main goal has always been to make this project permanent at FIT. I still don’t know how likely that will be. My partner, Willa Tsokanis, and I spend a lot of time managing the day to day and working at our composter. It’s hard to know who will pick that up when we graduate. However, there is great school support and potential for success.
As far as what I want to do with it after graduation, I am waiting until more of the research is done. We are gathering data on decomposition, compost quality, as well as an overall LCA comparison of this method with other recycling methods.  I want to use the data to determine direction and not my emotional responses.

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At the moment, we’re clearly quite far from having a fashion industry which produces 100% biodegradable clothing. But what do you think are the first steps towards getting there?

My first thought is always education. If we teach fashion designers and consumers about the full life cycle of their products, they are more likely to make positive design and purchasing decisions.
I also advocate for action. The idea of compostable clothes has been around especially in the Cradle to Cradle movement, but when you look for information about input requirements, the supply chain logistics, the safety of the soil for planting, there is no open source data. I encourage individuals to take action. Try growing cotton, spinning methods, laundering techniques, sharing economies, anything that matches your skill level and interest and can help develop ideas into solutions.

What tips can you give to home-sewists and sustainable fashion fans who want to try composting at home?

I compost fabric at home and school, but I don’t have hard data on soil quality yet. I hope it will be a safe fertilizer for growing food, but we are not sure yet.  A few tips I can offer:

  • Only put 100% natural fibers in the composter i.e. plant fibers (cotton, linen, hemp) and animal fibers (wool, silk, alpaca)
  • Mixing in protein fibers like wool and silk is a great idea. They contain nitrogen, which is a great element for any compost bin.
  • We mix fiber with food, but there is no special additive.
  • There are many ways to compost: thermophilic, mesophilic, worm bin. So, far the worm bin has been our fastest decomposer.
  • If you’d like to give it a shot, go for it, and just send a sample to a local farm extension or university for basic quality tests before planting.

When we have hard data on inputs, I’ll share it with Stitched Up so that readers supporters can use that information.

How can people follow the progress of your project?

I am actively on Facebook, instagram, and Twitter. We also have a website to share project updates and sustainable fashion articles: www.egosumterra.com

Thanks so much to Lydia and Willa for sharing this fantastic project with us. Best of luck with it in the future – we’ll be following your progress and can’t wait to give it a go ourselves!