Settlemier’s, an iconic American heritage brand, and DECODE (Danielle Elsener), one of today’s most up and coming zero waste designers, teamed up to create the zero waste varsity jacket. Here’s the story of how it came about and the design process that followed...
'Reimagine the future of sustainable American manufacturing using zero waste design methods, resulting in a product that is both a true Settlemier’s varsity jacket and truly zero waste.'
Hey - it’s Danielle Elsener here, ZWDO Cofounder and Zero Waste System Designer + Founder of DECODE. Last year I had the opportunity to be a guest on the ‘Seeking Sustainability’ podcast with Julia Blanford where I discussed Zero Waste Design, my experiences, and the future of the industry (you can listen to it on Spotify if interested). This one hour talk led to so much more than I could have imagined.
The podcast was listened to by Stephen Campbell, one of the key members of Settlemier’s Varsity Jackets in Portland OR focusing on updating and innovating. Covid had allowed a pause for them to reflect on their future and where they wanted to go. After hearing my ramblings about dreaming of building a Zero Waste Factory and working with like-minded people toward a better future, he instantly knew he needed to reach out.
“We have decided to work as hard as possible to be on the front lines of the movement towards positive, equitable, and environmentally-conscience change. This means searching for improvements that lead to better fabric yields and uniformity of common parts - a real consideration for each small part and how it affects the final product. As happens with most quests, we realized that we needed a professional. Someone who wants to help make these big changes last. After searching across the globe, far and wide, we found out that what we were looking for had just landed in Portland.”
- Stephen Campbell
I had just happened to return to Portland after graduation with my master’s from the Royal College of Art in London, and decided to set up a small consultancy and studio downtown. Stephen invited me over to meet the third generation owner of Settlemier’s, Aaron, and to talk about how I could help them on their journey.
Walking into Settlemier's is a dream. It’s an old-school world of tradition, where Varsity jackets reign supreme and the people working there live and breathe their role in it. This sense of tradition mixed with the young energy of a new owner is infectious; ideas are welcomed and innovation is encouraged.
The patterns used to make their iconic varsity jackets are lined up on the back wall, making it a beautiful yet utilitarian backdrop to the energetic workforce in front of it.
Some of these patterns date all the way back to the 60s - when Aaron’s grandmother began the first Varsity Jacket Company, Nelson’s Jackets, here in NE Portland.
Beginning the Design Process
After speaking for a full afternoon and understanding how well our values aligned we decided to sign onto a 6 month contract for zero waste design work. Before beginning the zero waste exploration though, my first job was to digitize these vintage patterns, to bring them up to the 21st century and allow for ease of editing, sampling, and customizing. We tackled this by basically laying out the old patterns on a grid system, taking photos, uploading those to my computer, and translating them into Clo3D.
The grading took quite a long time to get just right, as the patterns had worn and weren't consistent across each style. After many iterations we landed on the 2021 Varsity jacket pattern - the exact measurements of the classic varsity with a few updates for consistency.
Once the base patterns were nailed I was more than ready to jump into a zero waste pattern. I loved being able to get into every single aspect of the base patterns and truly understand them inside and out before even starting the zero waste aspect. It was incredibly beneficial knowing the reasons behind every single detail and what could be changed and what couldn’t. There was one more step that needed to happen before I could start designing - I needed to understand how it all came together.
I spent two days following jackets around the factory floor. From the initial ticket being created in the ordering system, through to cutting and sewing, patching and embroidery, all the way to quality control and shipping. It was fascinating seeing how each station had their own ways of doing things for specific reasons. I asked too many questions about the process along the way and probably annoyed everyone, but it was all for the greater good!
Zero Waste Pattern Experiments
Finally, after around 3 months of patterns, digitizing, and asking tons of questions, we were ready to experiment with zero waste. The three of us - Aaron, Stephen, and myself - began with a brainstorming session where we wrote down the goals of the project (e.g. completely zero waste vs minimal waste), the limitations (fabric, utility, sizing etc.) and some initial thoughts.
After this, I was finally ready to get to work on zero waste patterns. This is truly my favorite part of the process - digging in and staring at shapes and volumes for days at a time, understanding what can give and take - where I have room to play. I took home some scraps and began piecing together a first concept around the idea of patchwork. There were so many scraps left over from the cutting process that it made sense to do this as a first iteration. The idea of ‘using what we already have’ is definitely something both Settlemier’s and I align on and we wanted to see that idea through.
The first prototype 1/2 shell that I created was a success in volume and shape, so I decided to create a full jacket. I made the full jacket in a single color so that it would not draw attention to the fact that it was a jacket full of seams.
Side note: This is something that a lot of designers ask about - does zero waste design mean simply adding a ton of seams? Short answer: NO!!! I will address this a bit further on in the post.
I was so stoked with the first finished shell sample (made without the lining) and remember wearing it to Settlemier’s the day after I finished it… it certainly made a statement! It took a moment for the crew to see that I was wearing something other than the classic varsity jacket.
I remember the first few minutes when I was explaining the zero waste features and cut lines to Aaron and Stephen and the silence that filled the room with the thoughts of ‘Wait, this is actually zero waste? How is this possible? It fits just like our classic.’ This is another one of my favorite moments of being a zero waste designer - seeing the wheels turning when proposing zero waste solutions that work.
With a first prototype there are always a few call outs and edits such as sleeves coming in a bit short, neckline construction etc. There are also a few ‘unknown’ pieces, where I’m not sure exactly where they will end up in the final jacket, so a few iterations are necessary.
Above you can see that I like color coding my first few patterns to show where the pieces end up on a final jacket layout. This was the first iteration that I made, with tons of blocking and room to switch out pieces for fabric (like adding in leather sleeves) or color blocking.
From this first prototype we decided to create the next version with a less seam-based approach, where only absolutely necessary seams are added. The goal with this second prototype is to be as close to the original varsity jacket as possible.
This step took a bit of puzzle solving but resulted in a great prototype. Truly as close to the original as we could get, with specific details such as a squared collar and armhole. These are details we consciously wanted to keep in to nod to the fact that it’s a zero waste garment. It also meant that rib would not be cut off and wasted like in a traditional circular collar construction.
We were incredibly happy with this prototype and decided to pursue this path for the rest of the project.
From here the next steps were to grade for all sizes (we decided to do 2XS-2XL) and make sure the seamstresses understood how to construct this garment. This took a bit of work and required the head of the factory floor to help translate to each seamstress.
The construction has a few differences from a traditional varsity jacket - mainly the collar and armhole, which are squared. This requires quite precise marking and stitching which had a bit of a learning curve, but we got it figured out with the help of the seamstresses’ expert knowledge of construction.
Prototype 3 ???
I love creating little ways of sharing the process behind zero waste design. One of these is creating visual images or words and printing them on fabric to create a story. We could not do this with our wool so I decided to do it with the lining.
Each lining piece had its name printed on it so that when it was cut and sewn together you could see where every piece of the puzzle landed. This paired with the key and a small story about the jacket made for a really interesting piece.
A second version of this idea was done with a gradient, where you can see where the puzzle pieces end up based on color.
Though we could not easily print on our wool, I wanted to do some experimenting around treatments we could offer to show the versatility of the materials we are using. I created a dip dye indigo version where, again, you can see where all of the puzzle pieces from the dip align in the finished jacket.
Fabric selection ended up being quite a large topic of conversation. We printed the linings above on 100% organic cotton percale, trying to get the feel as close as possible to the classic satin lining while using a natural fiber. The feel didn’t end up being quite the same so we ended up landing on using a 100% recycled poly lining. It’s about making the small steps you can toward a better product! Though cotton may have been a more natural option, the utility of a satin liner allows for a quick and easy on/off of the jacket and is integral to the quality of the product.
In addition to lining, we searched for the best materials we could possibly find for finishing the garment. Our wool is 100% virgin Melton sourced right here in Oregon. All rib is made in-house so no minimums create additional waste. Our snaps are 100% brass which can be recycled eternally.
For thread we sourced Coats EcoRegen, a lyocell-based thread that is made of wood pulp yet is strong enough to handle the multiple layers of wool that are required. Coats ended up being a sponsor for our release event as well because of the belief in this product. A great win for everyone!