This week we meet Hillary Marerwa, a final year student at Norwich University of the Arts, who caught our attention with her unique knitted denim. Hillary’s been salvaging denim jeans, transforming around 500 metres of fabric by cutting them into strips and knitting them into entirely new creations. Highlighting the creative capabilities of recycled materials is something she intends to continue on after graduation — helping inspire others to embrace sustainable practices by turning landfill into luxury.

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What was the starting point of inspiration for your graduate collection?

My goal was to celebrate denim whilst also raising awareness on how problematic the denim industry is. I felt a deep shame and conflict within myself when I realised how toxic cotton farming is for the planet and the people who work in that industry it so I decided to dedicate time to creating a denim collection that would have less impact on the planet without comprising my design handwriting or my streetwear aesthetics.

I knew wanted to explore man-made fabrics, so I took a lot of inspiration from the man-made environment and the workers who helped to create it– it almost felt like fate that denim was invented as a workwear fabric, so all of my inspiration points became related.

What fabrics are you using and how have you sourced and worked with these?

 When people hear “recycled denim” they usually imagine patchwork jeans of some nature. I didn’t want that to be the only association behind my collection, so I designed new denim-based fabrics. The most successful is the denim knit that I can make in various weights and textures, depending on the materials and tools I use. My denim knitting consumes a lot of material - one of my garments used up over 500 meters of denim strands which is roughly 10 pairs of old jeans.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I have a fabric that I named DuraDenim, which is modelled after industrial rubber. I created it by machine embroidering onto layers of fabric remnants sandwiched between two sheets of denim and then waterproofing the finished fabric which makes it incredibly durable and almost completely impenetrable. I’m excited to share all of my fabric inventions and prove how versatile denim really is.

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“If I can create a versatile and wearable collection of knitted streetwear using old jeans and broom handles, imagine what we could achieve as an industry with all of the combined knowledge and technology available!”

How has it evolved from your initial ideas and what have you learnt along the way?

I have learned to refine and focus. Initially I had designed a collection that was reversible, detachable and anything else that I associated with sustainable innovation and quickly I lost control of my progress. I then stripped my ideas back and started to match my fabric design to sustainability goals such as “design for low impact care” or “design for durability.” This made it so that every garment I designed, even without the added features, would be sustainable by default. I have realised that I don’t need to overcomplicate my collection in order for it to be a valid sustainable body of work, and I hope that more people will realise this too and feel more confident in approaching eco-fashion.

What is the message behind your collection that you want people to take away?

Social commentary and political fashion are what inspired me to study fashion to begin with, but I quickly realised that slogans on clothing will not provide the immediate change that we need. It is so much bigger than denim or fashion - we don’t need to keep consuming new materials because there is so much potential in the wasted products around us and if I can create a versatile and wearable collection of knitted streetwear using old jeans and broom handles, imagine what we could achieve as an industry with all of the combined knowledge and technology available! Small steps in the right direction are always better than doing nothing at all and that is the main message that I want people to take away.

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What is your plan once you finish your BA?  

I plan on being very generous with my ideas. My short-term goals are to work in the textiles industry and continue to learn about fabric innovation and sustainability but long term, I aspire to start or be part of a sustainable fashion collective that creates new fabrics and clothing using recycled materials.

I would love to also have to opportunity to teach other people about the importance of recycling and innovation. My aspirations are bigger than just my own career - I genuinely just want to help make sustainable fashion be more appealing to designers and more approachable for consumers.