MATERIALS: Fashion Forward, Fashion Functional

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Fashion Design

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Language Arts
  • Science

Lesson Time

1 hour


Americans create a lot of waste. Each of us generates an average of 4.4 pounds of waste per day, per person. Where does all of this waste come from? It has a lot to do with how the products we use daily are designed, packaged and disposed of. Think of the last time you went to the supermarket or bought something from a store. Your purchase was most likely encased in plastic, cardboard or Styrofoam, which you quickly tossed into the bin. In fact, most of the goods and products we buy (from plastic forks and aluminum cans, to electronic wastes of all kinds) have an average life span of about 10 minutes. In the above image, film star Kirsten Dunst models a gown designed by John Galliano for a Vogue magazine photo shoot.  The dress is constructed entirely of trash bags! This process has even more dire consequences, considering that many of the disposable products we surround ourselves with contain toxic substances that contribute to issues of human health, solid waste and water quality, just to name a few. But this cycle of waste and destruction doesn’t have to be the end of the story. As designers and creative thinkers, we can come up with ways to repurpose, reuse and recycle things all around us. In this lesson, students will be challenged to work with waste that cannot be easily recycled.  It will be repurposed into functional designs that can be used as clothing, a different product or something new entirely. They will use design thinking to brainstorm ideas, sketch out new designs and build functional prototypes to test out in their classroom with peers and community members. Get ready to make something that’s fashion forward, while also being fashion functional!

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Visual Arts
Level III (Grade 5-8)


• Students will learn about common waste streams found in most municipalities in the United States.
• Students will learn about the ecological and social impacts of these waste streams.
• Students will learn a valuable language arts lesson in communicating a new use for common waste materials.
• Students will use common waste materials (like plastic bags, soda can tabs, plastic bottles and juice containers) that are found in the home and school to make into functional designs.


To find out where you can recycle things in your community visit:
Look at Isaac Mizrahi’s Salmon Leather project in the Design for a Living World online archive.
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum Why Design Now? 2010 National Design Triennial
See Fin Spring/Summer 2010 Collection in the 2010 Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum Triennial Catalog. Fin uses organic bamboo and wool, recycled polyester, and wild (or “non-violent”) silk, handpicked and hand spun by Indian artisans that allows the moth to fly free instead of killing the silkworm, as is the practice in conventional silk production.


Materials for Design:
Soda Can Tabs
Old Umbrellas
Wax/Aluminum Packaging (i.e. juice bottle containers)
Old pieces of fabric, old clothes
Old electronics like keyboards, computer mouse, chords, CDs, floppy disks, etc.
Yogurt containers (and other plastics that cannot be recycled)
Materials for Construction
Rubber bands
Note: You can send out a note the day before and have students bring in their own materials.


 Recycling - Recycling involves recovering used materials to process into new products. The process is intended to prevent the waste of potentially useful materials.
• Plastics – Certain kinds of plastics may not be recyclable because they are made of special polymer structures that won’t melt down with other plastics.
• Metals – Aluminum, tin and steel are the most common materials. However, gold and other heavy metals are recycled from computers and other electronic waste.
• Paper and Cardboard – Some paper products are not recyclable because there is a wax layer coated on the paper.
• Organic Matter – Organic wastes (like food scraps and garden waste) can be composted (broken down naturally) and used to fertilized crops or gardens. Dairy and meat products cannot be composted in most systems.
• Glass – Most glass is easily recycled.
• E-Waste – Electronic wastes including things like televisions, computers, and other electronics.
• Waste Stream - A set of waste or recyclable materials generated by a particular activity.


Step One: Introduction and Discussion (Review) 10 Minutes
This lesson is intended to compliment many kinds of language arts lessons that involve communication skills and strategies. More specifically, students will consider contemporary issues involved in the process of recycling, waste and ecology. This new knowledge will be used to support design-thinking strategies about how to repurpose and reuse common waste materials that cannot be easily recycled.
Waste that is not recycled goes into large landfills, such as the one pictured above. Begin your lesson by discussing historical and contemporary issues related to recycling, waste and the environment. Start your discussion about common things students buy and throw away on a daily basis. As an opening question, ask students to tell you what they brought for lunch (or intend to buy in the cafeteria). Begin to write down some of the items on the board. Encourage them to talk not just about the food they brought but also about the materials used to package and wrap their lunches.
Ask students about the kinds of materials that they have in their lunch bags/boxes.
Some common materials you may find range from plastic bags, soda cans, paper bags, plastic forks and spoons, etc. After getting some responses, ask where most of the trash generated from their lunch ends up?
Talk about the difference between trash and recyclables. Students should have some previous knowledge about what is recyclable and what is not, but make sure to take a moment to gauge their understanding during this lesson.
Now introduce the concept of a waste stream: a set of waste or recyclable materials generated by a particular activity. Write down the word “lunch” on the blackboard. Circle the word and begin to create waste streams stemming from the lunch (i.e. paper, plastic, organics, metal, etc.).
Everything we throw away contributes to the waste stream. We have developed ways to reduce the amount of trash we contribute through a process called “recycling.” Define recycling for students: recycling involves recovering used materials to process into new products or materials. The process is intended to prevent the waste of potentially useful materials.
Ask students what kinds of wastes they recycle at home or in school? Which waste is recycled the most in the U.S.? (Answer is paper.) Talk about what is locally recyclable in your region and in your school. Explain that in this activity we will think about new and creative ways to re-use materials that cannot be easily recycled like electronic wastes, clothing, certain plastics and other materials.
Step Two: Investigating Impacts and New Uses (Investigate) 10 minutes
Now let’s get down to business. Talk with students about some of the wastes we commonly recycle including plastics, metals and paper. Define these wastes to students:
• Plastics – Certain kinds of plastics may not be recyclable because they are made of special polymer structures that won’t melt down with other plastics.
• Metals – Aluminum, tin and steel are the most common materials. However, gold and other heavy metals are recycled from computers and other electronic waste.
• Paper and Cardboard – Some paper products are not recyclable because there is a wax layer coated on the paper.
• Organic Matter – Organic wastes (like food scraps and garden waste) can be composted (broken down naturally) and used to fertilized crops or gardens. Dairy and meat products cannot be composted in most systems.
• Glass – Most glass is easily recycled.
Now lets consider wastes that we don’t often recycle or cannot recycle because of their material composition. Most wastes are not recycled because it’s difficult to isolate the raw material components. Ask students to think about everyday things that are not easily recycled:
• Clothing and Textiles
• Styrofoam - Styrofoam is often used as a generic term for expanded polystyrene foam manufactured from petroleum.
• Plastic Bags
• E-Waste – Electronic wastes including things like televisions, computers and other electronics.
After discussing these examples, ask students about the importance of recycling. What’s the big deal anyway? How does recycling relate to me and why?
Recycling helps save energy and water by preventing the need to manufacture new materials or products. Recycling also helps save space in landfills, eliminating many water quality and land-use issues. (Note: every recycling program has its flaws and is specific to the region where it is implemented--the goal of this lesson is to help students understand the need to conserve resources and think creatively about re-using materials.)
Math Connection
As a math extension, you can calculate the amount of energy or water saved by recycling one bottle, can or other product. You can also calculate the volume of space saved in a landfill by recycling a particular product. There are many tools available online like the Environmental Defense Fund's Paper Calculator to help you or students make these calculations.
Now setup your design challenge. Explain that students will be divided into “Green Design Teams.” Each team will focus on one material that cannot be recycled easily like styrofoam or plastic bags. Teams will be challenged to sketch and design a prototype that communicates a new use for their raw material. Students will then present their ideas and discuss how these designs help mitigate environmental impacts.
Warm-Up Activity Extension: Recycled Knitting and Crochet
If time permits use this warm-up activity to get students thinking creatively about re-using materials that cannot be recycled easily. An easy and simple activity is to knit or crochet with plastic bags or old clothing. To create “yarn” simply cut up a continuous strip of material from a plastic bag or old t-shirt by cutting a circular path around the base or top of the bag or shirt. Once you have 5-10 feet worth of “yarn” to work with, you can teach students how to knit or crochet. A simple 10-20 minute activity you can do with students is making a 4" by 4" potholder or dish rag out of old t-shirts. See 
Another great idea is to make a loom with students to weave together your plastic yarn or to simply hand weave the plastic into a pouch, basket or bag. You can make a loom using an old picture frame, some cardboard and clamps. (see
Step Three: Let the Design Challenge Begin! (Frame/Reframe – Generate) 20 minutes
After design teams have been assembled. Give each team a category or material to work with: electronic waste, old clothing, plastic bags, juice pouches and yogurt containers, soda can tabs and caps among others. (Note: using certain e-wastes may be dangerous, please use your discretion and when in doubt use multiples of a safe category.) Each team should get a box filled with their material waste.
As an extension, ask each team to independently research their waste material area – what are some of the specific environmental impacts associated with the material and why can’t it be recycled?
Focus teams by suggesting that they design an accessory or body armament that can easily clip onto an existing piece of clothing or some part of their body. Reference military designs, science uniforms or NASA space suits for ideas. (See PDF)
Each team should be given 15-20 minutes to brainstorm and write down some ideas about what they can do with their material. Each team should generate 2-3 sketches from their brainstorm with a description of each. Require that each design be something functional, meaning it must be something a consumer can wear or use in her or his every day life.
Provide some examples by using sites like
  •  Soda-tab purse
  •  Juice carton wallet
  •  Cardboard hats, jackets or anything!
  •  Plastic bag ropes
  •  Ethernet Hats
Consider using some examples found in the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Triennial Catalog to further drive home the innovative techniques and strategies designers are using in relationship to sustainability. For instance the design firm Fin has invented AgriPlast, a plastic alternative that can be used for making eating utensils, suitcases and protective caps. It is made from 50–75% field grass that surrounds the manufacturing facilities of Biowert, AgriPlast’s maker, and 25–50% polyethylene, polystyrene, or polypropylene.
These spoons are made from the biodegradable plastic alternative, Agriplast.
Fin Spring/Summer 2010 Collection: Fin uses organic bamboo and wool, recycled polyester, and wild silk in its clothing designs.
Alpaca Velvet, Ditto, Gather 006, and Horsehair Striae 003 Textiles - Horsehair Striae 003, Alpaca Velvet, Gather 006, and Ditto are textiles designed and produced by Maharam, which exemplify the company’s ongoing desire to live by the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) while creating beautiful and high-performing textiles. Ditto, for instance, uses primarily post-consumer recycled polyester, mainly from plastic bottles, to create a performance textile used primarily by the health sector.
Step Four: Design Lab (Edit and Develop) 30 minutes
Now that each team has some ideas ready, ask a team leader to select one design to work with. Challenge each team to come up with a 3D model or design from these materials. Use materials like tape, string, glue and flexible wire to assist students in creating their body ornaments.
Step Five: Storytelling (Share, Evaluate and Finalize)
After designing a prototype for their new designs, each team will now develop a story or explanation for their creations. Ask each member of the team to tell a story about how the design is used, what materials it saves from the trash and how this may positively impact the environment.
Share stories from each team and discuss as a class some favorite designs and ideas.
Step Six: Reflect (Articulate)
To close your lesson, reflect on some of the major concepts covered. Remind students about the importance of recycling, conservation of materials and the pivotal role of the designer to eliminate wastes and come up with new and functional designs that can be used in the real world.


  Reflection Questions
  • "How hard or difficult do you think it would be to have your design mass produced?"
  • "How would your design prototype have to change to be ready for store shelves?"
  • "Can you think of any possible challenges in trying to sell your recycled materials product to a large audience?"
  • "Did you have multiple ideas about what to design during the brainstorming phase?  If so, why did you choose to make the item that you did?  If not, can you think of another way to use the materials that you did?"

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School: To simplify the design challenge, focus the "green design teams" on creating wearable accessories (shoes, bags, jewelry, hats, etc.) using their materials. Provide lots of assistance in constructing their models, perhaps by finding adult volunteers who can provide hands-on help that day. Differentiation for High School: After the students complete their designs, host a fashion show or exhibition in your class. Invite another class to be the audience. Each team can first present their research on their particular material and the environmental costs of the waste stream, followed by a demonstration of their design. The visiting class can vote on the best design.
  1. This is a well thought out and creative lesson. Upcycling and Recycling are not “in” and people are creating all sorts of great products this way. I appreciate the fact that you are teaching this to kids so that they know about waste and what they can do to reduce it.

  2. I like that you’re incorporating the communication component. It’s great to create functional designs using common waste materials, but why? The communication requirement takes care of that question and instills something that they can develop a passion for and actively participate in.

  3. The concept of reusing items to create functional objects is a great way to pro-actively think about our environment. I enjoy the idea of the Green Design teams. I can see this lesson plan as a fun game where students are forced to create ‘new’ functional objects out of specific items they land on after a role of the dice.

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