Real solutions for a more sustainable world

If you needed any more encouragement to see where science and fashion come together then look no further. Chemist Professor Tony Ryan (Pro Vice Chancellor, faculty of Science, University of Sheffield) and artist and designer Professor Helen Storey (Professor of Fashion Science, Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion) have been working on a number of projects to prove just that.

Their Wonderland project, which investigates new solutions for the disposal of plastic packaging, is made up of a number of disappearing dresses that are made from dissolving textiles. As the dresses are lowered into water, the material dissolves which these Professors are using as a metaphor to show that our planet is materially disappearing in a number of ways. This exhibition of dresses has been shown at a number of locations to enable those that are lucky enough to view them to question the environmental sustainability of our current fashion industry and what happens to used clothing.

What do you do with your clothes when you have outgrown them or they are not wanted any more – would you recycle them or simply throw them away? How would you feel if they simply dissolved in front of your eyes?

For more information on the Wonderland project check out the website here.

This project then led onto another exciting and very topical idea – Catalytic Clothing or CatClo for short. As part of this project, Helen and Tony are looking into how clothing and textiles can be used to clean the air and reduce the impact of pollution.

But how does this work? Well…(get ready for the science!)…this works because certain materials can be coated with catalyst particles. (A catalyst is a substance that takes part in the reaction, but is not used up, so can be used over and over again). When the clothes have been coated in these special particles and are worn outside in the light, they react with oxygen from the air to make bleach which then reacts with the nitric oxide in the air. Now nitric oxide is one of our greenhouse gases that can be a particular problem in cities where it is present in large amounts and can even cause asthma and respiratory problems for some people.

So, if you’re still with us, the nitric oxide can then be converted into nitrate via these catalysts that we talked about earlier, and because nitrate is water soluble it simply dissolves in the air.

Pollution problem solved you might think? But it’s not quite that easy. Would you catalyse your clothing to help the environment and how much would it cost to do this? Does it work on all materials?

Check out the CatClo website here to find out more.

It seems that there are going to be some very exciting times ahead and a lot of changes that we all need to think about to save our planet.


Joint statement by Professor Helen Storey and Professor Tony Ryan from the Wonderland project (January 2008): “We know that if we continue to live the way we are now, the earth will become uninhabitable. Yet, we still struggle with the enormity of the thought and so, as often as with war, it becomes something reported to us in our everyday lives, staining our hearts whilst frustrating our minds.

Experience shows, our enormous potential to think the unimaginable is increased most profoundly in collaboration. We deliberately collided our differently trained minds to specifically address some of the planet’s greatest problems – lack of drinking water and non-recyclable plastics. This collision produced a new water purification device and the ‘disappearing plastic bottle’ amongst other ideas.

We chose dress to manifest our new approach, because we wanted to create something beautifully familiar with which to stimulate an intimate and emotional connection. To watch a dress, that has taken months to create, disappear in a few days seemed to connect directly to that place of unfathomable loss – to make a highly personal and emotional link to a dilemma that is global, and yet often unimaginable.”


Quotes from visitors to Wonderland:

“An important exhibition in highlighting the disposability of fashion. Beautiful work!”

“First impressions are of beautiful dresses suspended from the ceiling. I love fashion and these outfits are something special and exciting. When you read a bit more about the project, the concept is so appropriate for our modern world of wastage and disposability. Hopefully this exhibition will get people thinking!”


To find out more about Helen’s other groundbreaking art/science collaborations please have a look at the Helen Storey Foundation website here.

If you think that you could be interested in working in this area and becoming the next Helen or Tony, you could be:

  • A fashion designer – designing clothing and fashion ranges, perhaps specialising in particular clothing ranges.
  • A photographic stylist – working closely with photographers to create the right look and mood for the photo shoot.
  • A garment technologist – supporting the designing and buying teams through all stages of product development.
  • A dressmaker – making made-to-measure one-off garments and clothing for their clients.
  • An analytical textile technologist – using your knowledge of materials and your understanding of production techniques to solve problems in the manufacturing process.
  • A textiles production manager – with responsibility for overseeing all stages of the textiles manufacturing process.
  • A lecturer in further education – teaching students over the age of 16 years about the science of fashion.
  • A design engineer – researching and developing ideas for new products.
  • A research scientist – planning and carrying out experiments to increase scientific knowledge within the area under investigation.
  • A technical textiles designer – involved in the design and development of fibres and fabrics produced for their technical performance and functional properties.
  • A quality control technician – checking that all products and processes meet national and international quality standards.

Credits for images in this article as below:

1. Catalytic Clothing – Helen Storey and Tony Ryan with Herself Newcastle 2011. Credit Gavin Duthie.

2. Opera Coat – Photographer: Nick Knight, Model: Alice Dellal @ Select.

3. Tony Ryan and Helen Storey in Field of Jeans, Edinburgh. Credit Caroline Coates.