The elephant in the room

Elephants made from recycled fabric at Stitch Kitchen, Vogel St. Photo: Linda Robertson
Elephants made from recycled fabric at Stitch Kitchen, Vogel St. Photo: Linda Robertson

China had 8000 terracotta warriors to protect the first Chinese emperor n the afterlife. Dunedin is going to have 4000 toy elephants to signify the 4000 tonnes of textile waste sent to the Green Island landfill every year, writes Gina Dempster.

It's a soft toy army against waste, dreamt up by Stitch Kitchen, Dunedin's own creative zero-waste sewers.

Four thousand elephants will be made from discarded textiles by ordinary people, at pop-up sewing bees run by Stitch Kitchen.

  •  The pattern and instructions appear in ODT's print version of The Mix on Saturday May 25, or contact Stitch Kitchen​

Gina Dempster
Gina Dempster

Project instigator Fiona Clements, aka Senorita AweSUMO, says she's been getting an enthusiastic response, even before the project has officially launched at Queen's Birthday weekend.

There's something about elephants that is hard to resist. They're cute, intelligent, and resilient with long memories and loving families. Who wouldn't want to sew one?

But the toy elephants also represent that textile waste is the elephant in the room when it comes to fashion.

We're making more clothes than ever before, an estimated 150 billion items a year globally, many of which are thrown away after only worn a few times.

And there's also an enormous amount of off-cut waste in the process.

Fiona's awareness of textile waste started 10 years ago while she was in her second year at fashion school at Otago Polytechnic.

She noticed how many metres of fabric were being thrown out by classmates, and put a bin in the classroom to collect it. Her graduate collection was made entirely of manufacturing off-cuts.

That was the start of her personal creative practice, which designs out waste through zero-waste pattern-making and the continuing use of off-cuts.

Stitch Kitchen has also set up a "swap shop" for fabric off-cuts from Dunedin designers.

Fiona Clements. Photo: Sharon Bennett Photography
Fiona Clements. Photo: Sharon Bennett Photography

Members of the public can come in to buy or swap fabrics, and take classes in mending or sewing.

Fiona says Stitch Kitchen is filling the gap when it comes to passing "fix-it" skills.

"People used to spend evenings doing the mending together around the fire, but that doesn't happen any more."

She sees value in repair, not only for sentimental and practical reasons, but because of the lighter impact on the environment.

"I mended my favourite cardigan today. It's made from wool that my grandmother spun and dyed, and my mother knitted it for me.

"I wear it every winter because it's so warm, I don't need to wear any thermals.

"By making clothing last longer, you can save 20-30% of the carbon emissions involved with making wearing and using that piece."

Stitch Kitchen also finds other solutions for fabric that would have gone to waste, from making its own Bags for Good to upcycling commercial uniforms.

One project is designing upcycled reusable bags for litter collections.

Another is upcycling the Regent Theatre's old curtains into red velvet cushions. Stitch Kitchen members have sourced preloved stuffing so the only new components are the zips.

Fiona sees a huge surge of interest in what Stitch Kitchen is doing, and says it's time for a shift away from disposable clothing.

"We're here to teach skills and share skills and create an intentional community around what's acceptable, so that it's OK to buck those [Fast Fashion] trends. It's OK to have a mend in your pants. I've got everyday clothes and then I've got good ones, so I'm not wearing them out on an everyday basis."

She also says it's worth looking for a quality item and saving up to buy it, knowing that it is going to last.

But back to the elephants. The process of making them will be just as important as the final products.

Sitting around the table doing something together makes it easy to talk, says Fiona.

"It's a creative way of having a conversation around the table while making something. The practicality of creating is when those conversations happen and help that information settle inside."

People can take away their individually-numbered elephants as keepsakes, and even send in photos of them on future adventures, which Stitch Kitchen will share on social media.

Elephants can be donated to community group Tedz4kidz, which provides soft toys for children in need. Businesses that want to support the project can sponsor elephants for Tedz4kidz.

"They could sponsor 50 or 100 or 10 or even just one, it all helps."

The main funding for the project is from Dunedin City Council's Te Ao Turoa Environment Envoy Commission for 2019, with support from Dunedin Dream Brokerage.

The first 4KT Elephants workshops will be held in a pop-up space, starting at Queen's Birthday and running for the two following weekends.

Experienced sewers will be there to help, so everyone can get involved in the making, even if they've never sewn before.

Fiona says this is just the start of the project and she's not sure how long it's going to take to make 4000 elephants.

"It depends on how many people get behind it. Other communities and centres are welcome to share in the project if they'd like to run their own pop-ups, we can provide the pattern and labels."

Stitch Kitchen is super-grateful for the funding the project received so it could get it off the ground, and for any support or sponsorship from local businesses.

"My hope is that the community will get in behind the project and support it - both physically and financially, and that school groups and others will come along and get involved," Fiona says.

"It's all about getting the community together around the table and having conversations."


Make an elephant 

Dunedin 4KT Elephants workshops

Grand opening: Friday, May 31, 12.30pm

• Queen’s Birthday weekend, Saturday, June 1-Monday, June 3, 11am-4pm

• Friday, June 7-Sunday, June 9, 11am-4pm

• Friday, June 14-Sunday, June 16, 11am-4pm
  343 George St, Dunedin (next to Modaks)

• Stitch Kitchen Facebook page:


Top tips to reduce textile waste

• Wash with care (70% of clothes we throw away are faded, stained or shrunk)

• Mend and upcycle

• Shop your own wardrobe (the average garment is worn just four times)

• Swap or op-shop

• Buy less, buy natural

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter