Talking D&T

TD&T090 Talking sustainable textiles with Helen O'Sullivan

January 25, 2022 Dr Alison Hardy Episode 90
Talking D&T
TD&T090 Talking sustainable textiles with Helen O'Sullivan
Show Notes Transcript

Helen is a national leader in sustainable fashion and brings this into the D&T curriculum and her teaching through her websites and programme.


Episode transcript

Mentioned in this episode

SustFashWales

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Alison Hardy:

So I'm really excited this evening. Well, it's this evening when we're recording it. The clocks have just gone back. So it's really dark outside to be talking with Helen O'Sullivan. This is the first time Helen and I have actually met because I found her on social media founder on Twitter tweeting about her work, and I thought she'll be perfect for the podcast, people would be really interested. We haven't had many. I'm going to use a label here, Helen, forgive me textiles people on the podcast. I'm really passionate about textiles, although that's not the to my background, but because I do feel like it's slightly sidelined. Slightly is an understatement, within design and technology. So I'm really pleased to have somebody as knowledgeable and experienced as you on the podcast to talk about your work because your eyes go wide. They're tough to say knowledgeable and experienced. Yes, yes, you are, Helen. And let's, let's talk about it anyway. So that's enough from me. Hello, you wanna introduce yourself where you are, where you from a little bit about your background and what you're doing now.

Helen O'Sullivan:

So my name is Helen Sullivan. I'm a fashion and textiles teacher in South Wales at Penn real comprehensive school just outside of Swansea. I also teach a little bit of product design as well. I am also a PhD researcher at the University of Portsmouth focusing on sustainable design education. And I also run SAS fashio, Wales, which is an online platform linking people within Wales with sustainable fashion designers and organisations.

Alison Hardy:

Wow. Okay, so you have quite a bit on your plate then.

Helen O'Sullivan:

Just a bit. I like to keep busy.

Alison Hardy:

Yeah, yeah, good. Well, give is good, as long as you have a good work life balance,

Helen O'Sullivan:

but definitely good.

Alison Hardy:

Anyway. How long have you been teaching so if I remember rightly, it's not it's not a huge amount of time.

Helen O'Sullivan:

Now, I've only been teaching for five years. But prior to that, I used to go into comprehensive schools and colleges and youth groups and work with children who are classed as neat. So not in employment, education or training, or more specifically with young people that were deemed to be neat in the future. So these might have been disaffected young people who weren't going to get GCSE. So I would go in and I teach them creative activities. And then that kind of led me to becoming a teacher. So six years ago, I started my teacher training. And here I am still in the same school and still loving it, despite the pandemic.

Alison Hardy:

I think I think most people could say, say, say something similar is that despite the pandemic, we're still here. And I was really interested in that you'd done some sustainable fashion workshops back in 2010. What are those ones that you're doing with these disaffected, potentially neat and neat, young people? What were they about? What did they evolve?

Helen O'Sullivan:

Yeah. So when I moved back from London, you know, there's not very much of a fashion industry or there wasn't at the time in in South Wales. So I sort of got led down this, this path of working with young people. So I would work with lots of different organisations, whether they're local schools, colleges, even universities, youth groups, but I also worked with the Swansea 1490 network, which was part of Swansea Council. And they identified a group of young people who were not going to get GCSE, they're at risk of dropping out of school. So what I did was I created this open College Network accredited project, or course, really, it was 20 weeks, and the children would go and work in a charity shop. So they'd get some retail skills. And they'd learn about sorting, and you know, all sorts of different things that come with working within a busy charity shop. But then I would get them to source things that they couldn't sell on the chat on the shop floor. And then we chop them up, and then turn them into brand new designs. So they would learn all sorts of different things about the design process from designing, making, sampling, and design iteration as well. And then at the end of these projects, they would put on a great big fashion show for everybody in their school and their friends and their family to come and watch. And it was called the respect programme. And it was all about those young people who maybe were leaked it, you know, almost leading down the wrong path, and gaining respect, not just from themselves, or from other people, but you know, within their communities as well. And I just absolutely loved doing projects like that. So I did quite a lot of similar projects with lots of schools and youth groups, and you know, were the primary primary focus was saving items from landfills, so saving clothes, but also teaching the sustainability and the creative side of the fashion industry as well. And yeah, and that just really inspired me and I did that for quite a while, but six years and then I became a secondary school teacher and a lot of that I'd bring into my teaching now as well. All

Alison Hardy:

right. So yeah, so you're a real bonus to your school then with all of that, that background and that, that understanding and practical understanding. And seeing it as a way of young people actually practically engaging with this idea about sustainability and fast fashion. So you've obviously brought that I presume continue to bring that into your, your practice where you are at the moment?

Helen O'Sullivan:

Yes, it is completely embedded throughout everything that I do in school, whether it's my my classroom activities, my new projects, or after school clubs, there's all sorts of different things that I brought from, from my past. And when I worked in London, as well, in particular, I used to work for a cycling charity, and they, you know, they wouldn't be able to sell certain items on the shop floor because they were stained or damaged. So I still to this day, you know, 14 or 15 years later, talk about these, these different designs that I would come up with, by chopping certain sections off different clothes, and I get the children to do that now in the classroom as well. So yeah, we've we've got lots and lots of different activities, and it's sort of spread across the D and T department now, got a fantastic head of department, Matthew Reese, I have to give him a little shout out. He, you know, he lets me just do whatever I want to come up with these crazy project ideas. And, and it works. And, you know, it's, it's just really positive. Great,

Alison Hardy:

that's lovely as well, that you're that it's kind of rolling out in the department, as well. I think one of the things that somebody got me to think about a few years ago was the fact that we, we talk, you know, when I teach, we talk about the six hours, which is really excellent work for practical action to frame that and support that. And then we'd be producing projects that were using materials that weren't sustainable, that we weren't thinking about their lifecycle. We weren't thinking about Cradle to Cradle. And Steven PATRINA, who is an academic in Canada, he's written about this to sort of say, this is ideological conflict that happens within our teaching in design and technology in secondary schools and, and in primary and, and in universities about the fact that we talk about sustainability. But then as teachers with the schemes that we design, the activities we design, we don't necessarily practice it. Now, we can't necessarily do that all the time anyway, because part of the things that we're doing within lessons is does need new materials. But actually thinking about those life cycles of materials is, is really, it's really important to kind of have that underpinning ideology and maintaining it through what we're teaching, rather than it being a bolt on.

Helen O'Sullivan:

Yeah, definitely, definitely. And that's why when I started at the school, within about a year and a half, two years, I decided to redesign one of the projects. Because before I joined, we were making fleece hats, so using polyester fleece, which, you know, we all know, is a massively damaging item of all fibres, plastics, and that sort of thing. So I teach the children about that. But then we think, Well, we're actually let them make these hats. And they're probably just going to get thrown away afterwards, because most of the kids don't keep what they make. So I thought, well, you know, we can't go and get a load of organic cotton fleece, because it's just so expensive. So what what can we do to make this better, so I decided that we would stick with a fleece but only for a for a little amount. And what they do now is they make character toys, and about 25% has to be from upcycled materials. So they have to make sure that they're using things from the scraps box, most of the children actually choose to use all of the materials from the scrap scraps box, because it's almost like they're in competition about how eco this toy can be. So it's really, really exciting to see them do that. And, you know, and because they can make any character they weren't, they actually love these toys, and they take them home. And you know, they're really excited to use them. When one child that I taught a few years ago, his family owned a restaurant. And when he saw me at the restaurant, he ran straight upstairs to go and get the toy that he'd made three years before, and he still have it and you know, he's still absolutely treasured this toy. And I just thought, you know, that's, that's such a nice, I mean, that's what we want to do. We want to have these children to have pride in, in what they make to not only enjoy it when they when they make them but also so that they're going to keep them because otherwise what is the point of teaching them about the throwaway society of the fashion industry, if they're then making something that they're just going to throw away and has the damaging impact? So I think that's that's the most important message that I think I try to convey to the pupils that they need to make something that they're gonna want to keep, and whatever that is that they're going to make to try and make it as, as limiting when it comes to environmental and social damage as possible,

Alison Hardy:

essentially, by what you say about social damage, what do you what do you mean about that?

Helen O'Sullivan:

So we, we, I, yeah, because I come from this sort of very sustainable fashion, although I don't even think sustainable is the right word to use anymore. Because yeah, that's a whole other conversation. But I think children often don't realise how many people are affected along this, the fashion supply chain. So when I teach about, obviously, the environmental issues, I think it's really important to talk about all of the people that are connected along that supply chain. So whether it is garment workers, whether it is somebody who is growing the cotton in a field, whether it's just the local community that lives near a dye plant, any, you know, any part of that supply chain has an impact on people. And I think it's really important that the young people learn about that. And for many years, it would be a case of me standing in front of the classroom and talking about exploitation and about all of this, these issues. And I don't think that it really sunk in because they couldn't feel connected to it. So when I was at a sustainable innovation conference, in April of this year, I came across a lady and Marie Newton, and she came up with this idea of a film credit. And you know, when you buy an item of clothing, this film credit with every single person that has been involved in making that has some sort of credit. So what I did was I came up with a garment worker profile, so where the children have a name, and a role, and then they have to pick a picture from a pile and create this profile all about what that person's life might be like. And it was such an interesting sort of experiment at first, because I didn't think I was going to repeat it after Fashion Revolution day, but the children really started to think about the lives of these people. And, you know, they realise that a farmer in rural India can't go to Asda to go and get their shopping, or to go and buy their clothes. And they realised how different their lives were to all these people around the world. And it actually made them far more connected. And we had such a much better understanding of, of how we are connected. And it was just really interesting, because I've never got into that much of a dialogue with my pupils before, when it was just a case of me telling them what the issues are. And that's the end of it. But actually having them engage in these activities, just little things like that, you know, and I do it all the time. So it's it's part of, of my scheme of work to have these garment worker profiles, Incorporated,

Alison Hardy:

as a really neat idea of helping your pupil see beyond this mass of unknown people in unknown places to actually see see the people that are making their garments, making the fabrics as individuals. I was, I was sort of taken by that. And I was taken back to thinking of some of the Nuffield resources that were really around in the 2000s. And I'll put a link in the show notes to them. And there's an activity in there called winners and losers. So by this Garman who wins and who loses, yeah. And who, who's directly a winner or a loser who's indirectly a winner or a loser. And then can you start to see, are there more losers than winners? And should those up does that then tap into should we even be making this product? Yeah, and that would be along the lines of practical actions. Rethinking? Yeah, rather than reusing and repurposing. So so yeah. So you kind of mentioned all sorts of things in that conversation. So what was it a fashion, fashion day fashion, the

Helen O'Sullivan:

Fashion Revolution, Fashion Revolution. So

Alison Hardy:

what what was that?

Helen O'Sullivan:

The Fashion Revolution is the anniversary of when the Rana Plaza complex and the garment factories they collapsed in 2013. No, 2012 sorry, the first year anniversary was 2013. And that's where Fashion Revolution started. It was organised initially by Carrie summers, and it's a day of trying to bring attention to the to the social aspect of the fashion industry. And you know, making people kind of question where their clothes come from, but most importantly, to question the brands. So one of the initial campaigns was to show your garment label and post it you know, the selfie on social media and ask the brand's if they would pay in the GM at the garment workers properly, or WhatsApp sort of what working conditions are They in or they, you know, live in a safe environment. Because for example, the the garment workers that were in the Rana Plaza factory, they'd complained about cracks in the ceiling the week before the entire factory complex collapsed. And 1133 people, I think, die that day. So it's, it's a good, you know, it's a global event. Now, they're pretty much every single country around the world and takes part. And I do something special for it every single year with my pupils.

Alison Hardy:

Right. So I'm going to be mentioned a few people, I'll be talking and that and that'd be great to put some links to that in the show notes that people people can pick that up. And I'm sure quite a few people would be really interested in that. So coming back to you, but it has been about you and your practice and your client, like a real advocate and an ally for all of this. It's great. It's great to talk to you out loud. This is much more than I anticipated in the talks, and I'm absolutely loving it. I'm absolutely loving it. Your depth of knowledge or understanding is just fantastic. So we talked a little bit about school and the garment worker profiles and the secondhand cultures and search and the clubs that you're running. You mentioned. I think early on that you've got this on here. sussed Fash Wales. That's it. Yeah. Are you still running that? Is that Is that still going on? Yes. So tell us about that one.

Helen O'Sullivan:

So that is is mostly an online platform. So originally, it started with me just doing some fashion shows in South Wales when I came back from from London, and hosting different events and different workshops and more about supporting other organisations such as Fashion Revolution, and passing on information. But then I realised that, you know, it wasn't just me and a couple of my designer friends that we're here making stuff in South Wales is actually quite an extensive network of makers, but also activists and lots of crafts people, lots of education establishments, as well, that have all championing sustainable fashion. So I created an online directory, which has, I think, over 50 Designer makers now in different organisations think is 80 in total. And yeah, so consumers in Wales can just go onto this website. And it's like a one stop shop for information, whether they want to learn more, whether they want to buy some fabrics, whether they want to learn how to sew in a workshop, or whether they just want to go directly to the designers and buy from them. We've also just recently, in September, we hosted the sustainable Fashion Week events for is that is a national event. But we hosted the events in Swansea, here where we had a fashion show, we had an all day exhibition following the supply chain of a pair of jeans. And we also had a showcase online as well, where lots of designers came to talk about their work. So that's what I do. I mean, it's a bit quiet. Now, because I'm back in school, I did most of the prep work during the summer holidays. And so now it's mostly about following what's happening at COP 26. And also, you know, some of my research and just sort of celebrating all the amazing things that people are doing here in Wales to make the fashion industry more responsible.

Alison Hardy:

Fantastic. I've had a quick look at the website. So really nice. You know, you've got lots of stuff there that teachers can engage with and look at. And I'm sure you probably from this going to have more teachers contacting you about about what you're doing, because I just think it's fantastic. Your energy is amazing. Now, you hinted there about your research. So I'm going to move on to talking about what you're doing your doctorate in. And why because all of this links together. I love it. Yeah, I love people who are strategic, and you can have it all. It fits with who they are. This is brilliant. Got over to you, Helen, tell us about your research.

Helen O'Sullivan:

Exactly. Well, that's one of the questions that my PhD interview was, why do you want to do this PhD? Because that's where I'm headed. You know, I've just been doing this research for my for my own benefit for years. It just makes sense to actually do it as a PhD. So yeah, so I've obviously got this massive interest from within sustainable fashion from my own role as a designer when I was in London, but then also my education and run in Smash Wales as well. But there was one thing that I noticed, because I mostly work with teenagers, and they are lucky or unlucky depending on which pupils you talk to that I talk so much about sustainability at Key Stage Three, when there's not actually any requirement to do so. There is at GCSE. And you know, it is a central part of the GCSE here in Wales now to talk about sustainability. But if those children aren't opt in for it, GCSE they, and they're not in my school, they might not have as much information about the social and the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. So that you know, causes a massive issue so I try my best to impart this knowledge to my children. But I've noticed that when they hit, and sort of late year eight, year nine, it doesn't seem to matter what they've learned or what they know, or what they know is right or wrong, they still are going off and shopping and, you know, quite happily wear something for what once or a couple of times, and then they're quite happy to throw it away. So this highlights what is known as the attitude behaviour gap. And this is quite common in grownups, but also in teenagers as well. So

Alison Hardy:

that's exactly what we were talking about earlier about as teachers of deity, we talk about sustainability. And they, we might do projects that have got nothing to do with that and haven't questioned any of that sustainability aspect. Absolutely. So what was it called the attitude behaviour?

Helen O'Sullivan:

Gap? Attitude? Yeah. And yeah, another thing that I've noticed with teachers as well, you know, there is this thing that is called habitasse, or habitus. So a habitus is, you know, our own sort of backgrounds and how it informs our view on the world. And I think that teachers often rely on that. So and I love this quote that I quoted in my literature review recently, where we teach our subjective stock of knowledge. So what our backgrounds, it's great, isn't it, I love that. What was that, again, our subjective objective stock of knowledge. So because we all have these different backgrounds, if you're not an environmentally focused person, and your D and T teacher, you're not likely to embed very much sustainability within your own practice. So therefore, the the children that we're teaching are maybe not going to get as much of a rich understanding about the issues. So that's why I would like to kind of help to build a load of resources that will maybe allow the teachers who maybe are not confident in these issues, to be able to do that, however, because the attitude behaviour gap tends to happen quite a lot at year nine, I'm wondering if it's a little bit too little too late at secondary, and whether we should be focused in a primary. So a lot of my pupils come to me in year seven, and, you know, they say, oh, yeah, I did some sewing in primary school mess. But when I asked them, Do they know what a stitch is, or that our clothes are full of stitches, they don't they just think that a stitches a decorative thing that they've done in primary school, there's no connection to what it actually means. And you know, that is not the primary school teachers fault, because they are largely not DMT subject experts. And I think a lot of the time DMT is overlooked in primary. And, you know, there are lots of data reports that that suggest that, but I think it is changing. And you know, I think that a lot of more primary school teachers would like to teach these subjects, but I think if they're going to teach the subjects, they also need to teach the negatives. So they need to pass on this information about sustainability and what fast fashion is doing to our planet. So what I wanted to do was create an evidence base of whether or not this would actually work, and whether it would create more responsible mini consumers or the future. So my PhD is focused on primary design and technology, education, but sustainable education. So looking at all of the issues, and exploring solutions, but also working with the children. And to actually, because a lot of the time the children teach me, I love the way that children are no nonsense, they are straight to the point, when I tell them that plastic is, you know, polyester is plastic that just look at me, like why are the grownups putting plastic in our clothes? I mean, we know because it's cheaper, but they don't understand that they just Well, no, that's wrong, it's harming the environment, etc, etc. And I think that children is so knowledgeable about recycling plastic. And you know, what goes in the recycling bin at the end of each week, but they don't actually know the same sort of information when it comes to their clothes and their products. And I think that is my primary goal for my PhD is to test whether this creative practice can actually inform them to become more responsible consumers the future, but I'm also going to be working with their families as well. So it's going to be multi generational workshop with little kids and the parents, because they're the ones who are going to be buying the clothes, so they need to be involved in some way. So that is what my PhD is all about. And I'm hoping at the end of it, I'll have a really nice set of resources that primary school teachers can use.

Alison Hardy:

Are you also working with the teachers as well?

Helen O'Sullivan:

No, we're actually outside of the classroom to begin with. So my initial study which I hoped would have started soon, but not quite yet. Due to the pandemic, I'll be working within the community. And so working with different groups of families, and then taking it into the classroom to see how it works with larger groups of people. So that's

Alison Hardy:

all within your within your PhD study. Yes, yeah. Wow.

Helen O'Sullivan:

So that's yes, part time. So I'm going to be working with the children for about four years, or three and a half probably.

Alison Hardy:

Okay, so, so there's a lot going on. So when when did you start? I started

Helen O'Sullivan:

in October last year. So this now entering my, my second year, second of six, and you've,

Alison Hardy:

you've had a sorry, if there's an interruption in the background, my dog has now decided he wants to come and join in and is rolling all over

Helen O'Sullivan:

the floor. My cat will be here any moment, don't worry.

Alison Hardy:

That's all just be grateful. We can't see a video image of what it looks like at the moment. I don't know. I don't know what's going on. Anyway. So. So you started last October. And then last week, you had what you might call project approval? What was it called it pause?

Helen O'Sullivan:

My annual review? Yes. So I get an annual review. We get more as part time teacher, part time PhD students, because we're doing it for longer. And so yeah, and it was all approved, no recommendations, nothing at all. Everything was fantastic. So I'm very, very pleased with that. Because starting a PhD during a pandemic, in the era of remote learning, and 24/7 thoughts of teaching was a bit of a challenge. But I think you just need to be organised and strict with yourself. Really?

Alison Hardy:

Yes, yes. That is the plan whether that always happens. Completely different matter. Yeah. Yeah, having done my part time, while I had a full time job, oh, my God. And I've just interviewed Brendan Anglin. So his, his episode might come up before after yours, I'm not quite sure yet. He's just finished his professional doctorate, which is equivalent to a PhD, whilst he's been a head of department, in a school, so but then you've got the service fast, you know, work that you're going, you're doing as well, as well as the part time teaching and the part time doctorate. So, you know, you're juggling a lot of things there. But organisation is absolutely key. So you're not quite at a stage where you've collected your data. So we're not quite at the stage where can talk about what what you're finding, you're hoping to do some of that in the next 12 months. And I'm hoping that you'll come back and tell us a little bit about what you've found. And some of your preliminary sort of thoughts about it.

Helen O'Sullivan:

Absolutely, yeah, I've managed to do some sort of informal trials. And so working with some of my friends, children, and doing zoom workshops, and, you know, trying to kind of help me understand the level of a primary school child for a start, because I'm very, very much used to teenagers and grownups. And I think even just getting into a classroom would have been helpful. But obviously, during the pandemic, haven't been able to do that, just to see what their attainment levels are, like, what their fine motor skills are, like, all of those things I haven't been able to do yet. So it's quite frustrating. But I have managed to do some trials. And I also work with some of the lower retainers in school as well. I've worked in the specialist teaching facility and, you know, developed lots of scaffold in resources and tools that will help the children to do some of the different activities that we need to do. And I'm also I think it's in January, actually, yeah, we were due to start now. But we can't, for one reason or another. But I'm going to be working with some families in my local community as a bit of a trial run just to see how it works and what kind of activities they like to do. And then that will feed into my, my PhD when I'm ready to get out and do it properly.

Alison Hardy:

Well, he say about doing it properly. I know what you mean, you're collecting the main data, and you're doing the main part of the project, because all of this is feeding into it and informing what you're doing. And it's really exciting. So is there anywhere that people can find out a little bit more about you and what you're doing for your doctorate as well as finding out about the other things that you do?

Helen O'Sullivan:

Yes, so to find out about my my doctorate, I guess the best place would be my Twitter feed, you know, the some doctorate stuff, but there's also some other stuff on there as well. And I like to keep it light hearted and you think you need to have a sense of humour when you do so many different things at the same time. So there are occasional pictures of my chickens, but it is mostly about my research. And yeah, so that's haitch OS H O S P PhD muses. And then I've also got spash Wales which if you look on any social media, just smash Wales is the best place to look for that. I also post lots of the work that my children are doing in school. And we've also got a pen real D and T department and Twitter as well. Which, which is another place to have a look. But I'm not as active on there. I think I've got too many social media challenge channels at the moment.

Alison Hardy:

Yeah, I know exactly what you mean it can you can, you can have too much you can get carried away and this and that. I can't, I can't manage cut me out of it. Yeah, no, I completely get that. And we talked earlier about hopefully getting working with you to support you in doing some writing around what you're doing to get some stuff out there to kind of share it with people beyond the podcast as well. Cuz I think what you're doing, Alan is, is really great. I love the way that is underpinning thinking all the way through that you're consistent. You're true, you're authentic. Along along with it all, you know, you're not just doing it for the for the sake of it is about what you're doing. And that's just great. And I'm really glad I've had you on the podcast. And as I said, I do hope you come back and tell us when you've got some data or you've got some resources that you can share. And maybe people might listen and give you some feedback. But you're happy to be able to contact you. Yeah, absolutely. Great. Great. Well, thanks so much. Hello. It's been a fantastic

Helen O'Sullivan:

Oh, thank you for having me. It's been great to meet you as well.