A New Solution for Sustainable Sequins

A partnership of Future Fashion Factory members has been awarded funding from Innovate UK to develop biodegradable sequins. 

Working with experts at the University of Leeds, fashion designer Paula Knorr and The Sustainable Sequin Company will tackle the challenge posed by plastic sequins that are thrown away all year round and especially at the end of the winter party season. 

In 2019 Oxfam reported that 1.7 million sequined items would end up in landfill after the Christmas period, despite having been worn an average of just five times. The fabric is usually disposed the same way because it is so difficult and time-consuming to remove individual sequins. 

Models wearing silver Paula Knorr gowns, two in sequins and one in silver velvet
Paula Knorr’s AW20 collection used sequins from The Sustainable Sequin Company

“Those plastic sequins shimmer for a few hours on the dance floor before lying intact in landfill for a few centuries. The raw materials from which sequins are derived (including PVC additives) and the waste created by short-term use of long-lasting plastic are environmental concerns,” says Rachel Clowes, founder of The Sustainable Sequin Company

This poses a challenge for fashion designers who want to balance sustainability with consumer demand. Paula Knorr, an MA Fashion graduate from the Royal College of Art (RCA), specialises in luxury eveningwear. She says that it is difficult to find sustainable fabrics and materials that meet her requirement for sparkly, glossy and luxurious fabrics that are still comfortable to wear. 

Her bestsellers – which are often sold in high-end retailers – are embroidered with sequins all over, and she estimates this could equate to over 100,000 sequins per garment.   

“I use sustainable materials wherever possible, but every fabric that sparkles or glitters has a high percentage of polyester or metalised fibre,” she explains.

“There are very limited options for materials on the market and for sequin fabrics we were never able to find a non-plastic alternative. To be the worldwide first to showcase biodegradable sequin would show the industry that sustainable eveningwear is doable and would be a unique selling point for my brand.”

Paula was already collaborating with The Sustainable Sequin Company, a market leader using a proportion of recycled polyester in each sequin.

Through the team at partner institution RCA, Rachel and Paula were introduced to Future Fashion Factory and to Professor Ningtao Mao at the University of Leeds to explore how the product could be taken one step further.

Red, gold, purple and white sequins from The Sustainable Sequin Company
The Sustainable Sequin Company uses some recycled polyester in its current products

“Sequins made from recycled polyester still require a proportion of virgin polymer in the material to maintain the quality a fashion designer needs,” Ningtao says. “The next step is to transition to a natural renewable material that sequins can be made from, which is also biodegradable or compostable.”

The project will develop natural polymer films capable of meeting the cost and performance requirements of a biodegradable sequin. Not only will Paula consult with Rachel on the design and desirability of the prototypes, but she will also test the finished product on her own capsule collection. By showcasing these pieces to buyers and consumers, the project team will have a direct connection to the industry and benefit from valuable feedback for future refinements.  

Blue and green sequins from The Brightly coloured sequins from The Sustainable Sequin Company
The project will work to develop sequins from biopastics, reducing the demand for synthetic polyester

Extending the project across the fashion industry, the team will be looking to connect with additional partners over the next six months, such as sheet extruders to produce the new bioplastic films.

Ningtao says the research could lead in exciting new directions, supporting the shift to a circular economy. 

There are also likely to be spillover benefits to other products: buttons and fastenings that often need to be stripped before a garment is recycled, or alternative coatings for fibres and fabrics that mean more pieces can be re-used or recycled at the end of life. 

New biological alternatives to plastic-based materials are crucial additions to a designer’s toolkit, enabling a wide range of creative possibilities while supporting the ethos of sustainable luxury fashion. For Rachel, who will be in a position to supply the new sequins direct to consumers and to brands, it also brings her vision of a truly sustainable fashion industry closer. 

“Creating durable, compostable bioplastic sequins would make The Sustainable Sequin Company a world leader in sustainable embellishment for fashion products demonstrating a vibrant and sparkling sustainable future,” she adds.