The innovator and designer takes us through her sustainable brand The CArrelé Collection in partnership with sustainability trailblazers Nature Squared.
With the world around us constantly changing every day, we’re consistently trying to find new ways to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Whether it be cutting out waste or opting for a more green diet, we’re all doing our part. For professional textile weaver and designer Elaine Yan Ling Ng, it’s all about taking it to the next level with her brand championing the world’s first handmade eco-friendly eggshell wall tiles, CArrelé. Created using extensive research on sustainably sourced biowaste, Elaine using her expert artisan skills to turn enormous quantities of waste from chicken eggshells into square metre titles that can be used on just about any surface.
Both durable and naturally UV-resistant, the chalk-white material is completely safe to use and easy to clean, as it is bonded with binding agents and resins to keep its structure and shape. With around 250,000 tons of eggshell waste produced a year the designer saw a way to create something that would benefit the environment, straying away from traditionally fired tiles. Collaborating with Nature Squared for the venture, the two combine both their visions for sustainable materials, as Nature Squared have worked with a plethora of natural materials over the past few years, collaborating with Rolls Royce and BMW.
“it’s actually a carefully planned ongoing scheme, and CArrelé, the eggshell tile, is simply the first material we are tackling.” Elaine Yan Ling Ng said when asked about the brand. “We thought the eggshell would be a good starting point because it’s a clear cycle that affects a large number of people. Despite a small quantity of eggshell waste being used in inlay art, there are still 250,000 tonnes that end up in landfill, so I suppose that is what we have responded to.”
With Elaine and the team planning to expand their practices throughout the year, we caught up with the designer talking the future of design, breaking barriers and taking on new experimental projects.
Check out the interview below…
Hi Elaine, how has this uncertain time been for you? What’s been the most challenging thing about it?
I think it’s fair to say that this year has provided me with a new perspective on living and working. It all started as a big negative, but once I came to terms with the world at a standstill I gained a clearer perspective of how to navigate the new restrictions. Most obviously, we’ve all been used to globalisation and working internationally in a physical form, but this has forced us to re-centre our energy within our immediate surroundings, which has actually been exciting for me, bringing back survival skills that all human beings are born with. By spending so much more time in our own neighbourhood we are beginning to appreciate all the amazing things we used to overlook. This has encouraged me to take stock and give thanks, although my biggest challenge has definitely been the limit on travelling. A lot of my work involves R&D, and I like to be hands-on with machinery and right there on the factory floors, so having my movements restricted has meant coming up with new ways of working.
Do you feel like it has positively or negatively impacted your creativity? Perhaps given you more time to think?
It’s definitely had a positive impact on my creativity. Instead of doing everything spontaneously in the studio, I have had to think and plan more. It’s encouraged us to become more methodical too, taking time to review and discuss before pursuing an outcome. We are refining our processes and taking time to consider more sustainable approaches – in many ways, we are connecting better as a team, with more time for brainstorming and discussion. So yes, I think it has definitely given me more time to think. The whole idea of being creative and pushing boundaries involves taking time to see what is currently missing or what the flaw in the system is. That’s what I think designers should be doing. I’m grateful to have time to think and reflect upon things, but with this have come some big personal questions like what am I doing 10 years on from my Master’s degree, and am I where I should be? The pandemic has posed a lot of questions for me, but without many answers! I know I am still passionate about what I do, but in terms of roles and responsibilities I have definitely shifted from being the designer to being the manager of my own company. It’s been a very natural and progressive change, and I want to know how to be a better designer in the next 10 years by using my management skills. Throughout my career I’ve always worked to bring technology and textiles together, with sustainability hovering at the back of my mind. But now it’s great because with the pandemic I’ve seen sustainability grow into a more popular and important topic for brands and consumers alike. I’m so glad because in the last 10 years I haven’t really been able to make that the main focus of our studio as it wasn’t the hot ticket topic that would bring in the bread and butter. Now our studio can put that in the forefront and work on implementing sustainable approaches as part of our core services, which is exciting.
You’re known for pushing the boundaries of innovation in the world of textiles – can you tell us where you think this interest comes from?
My relationship with textiles started when I was three, and first learned how to hold a needle and sew with paper and thread. For me textiles were never really restricted to traditional fabrics and yarns – I would sew with anything, it was just a methodology. Innovation and technology really came in my second year of study, when we were allowed to look to materials beyond yarn for a project and I looked at biomimicry materials, such as shape memory polymers and alloys. That was when technical textiles really started to interest me, and then during my Masters in Textile Future at Central Saint Martins I began to engage in that more with the help of scientists from Imperial College – that’s when I specialised in the combination of shape memory alloys and natural materials. My MA research really made me think about how perspective design can provide a future engagement of material applications and open up a world of functional possibilities. One of the defining moments was winning the NOBELini competition in collaboration with Ioannis Gousias, a scientist from Imperial College. It was very exciting, and continues to inspire me to work with scientists and experts from different industries.
And you’re also known for your fusion of textiles with electronics and biomimicry – what’s been the biggest challenge of marrying tradition with contemporary techniques?
I think amongst all the challenges, initially my biggest one was communication. Traditional textile specialists never want to touch modern electronics, and tech specialists rarely speak the textile language. So I had to learn how to communicate with these two sectors and learn all the electronic and programming jargon – I had to be something of an expert in multiple fields in order to successfully create a fusion between them. Another issue was the engineers’ and techs’ limited understanding of materials and the potential system failures of textiles. For example, when I work with shape memory alloy, it throws out a lot of heat so if you just put a piece in a double cloth structure and then connect the plus and minus your entire piece of cloth goes up in flames. Any weaver knows how long it takes to hand weave a piece of double cloth, so to see all your time and effort burn in a matter of seconds is not fun! Therefore I had to work hard to strike a balance between mediums – how do we make prototypes that can prove our concept without ever introducing a handmade textile? How can we effectively merge the two? It all came down to project management and risk assessment.
CArrelé seemed like a response to the urgency for sustainability and use of waste – will you tell us where the idea first came from?
CArrelé does not just refer to a single product. It’s a much bigger ongoing project that we have come up with in Nature Squared. I should probably give you some more background. As a designer it can be difficult to work alone, so when I met Nature Squared in Milan and we instantly clicked and understood each other it was very special. Together we came up with CArrelé – a meeting of minds to create not just a single product but to design and implement a system which can be replicated with different by-products and waste materials. We worked to design more of an eco-system, which can hopefully contribute to a long-term production system and address current issues of sustainability and waste. So, CArrelé is not an immediate response to the last year; it’s actually a carefully planned ongoing scheme, and CArrelé i , the eggshell tile, is simply the first material we are tackling. We thought the eggshell would be a good starting point because it’s a clear cycle that affects a large number of people. Despite a small quantity of eggshell waste being used in inlay art, there are still 250,000 tonnes that end up in landfill, so I suppose that is what we have responded to. We hope that CArrelé, will help to resolve the current urgency and address a wide range of waste issues.
You’re highlighting the staggering annual 250,000 tonnes of eggshell waste, and how it can be turned into something beautiful, and also give jobs to local artisans. Is it important to think in a 360° way when it comes to innovation?
Yes! It is a must-have ethos and mentality – designing should always be a 360° way of thinking. To me, being a designer means more than just creating something functional and aesthetically pleasing; it is also about impact. Impact on nature, and also impact in terms of society. The designer must not only be responsible for executing the client’s brief, but also for the footprint of the product – where it has been, where it will go and whom it will come into contact with.
And they are the world’s first handmade eco-friendly eggshell wall tiles – would you say you relish doing the impossible?
I think that’s fair to say – I am definitely very proud of what we are offering. We are the first to make these tiles commercially available, with a complete supply chain. Our team has worked incredibly hard to achieve this, and I have to thank Nature Squared for taking a leap and putting their trust in a crazy designer like me! Before this collaboration, Nature Squared worked primarily on bespoke pieces, which were not designed to be replicated, so this project with its repeat processes and methodologies is a first for them. Helping to create this new journey for them is very rewarding, and I am proud to be a part of it.
What advice would you give to people who would like to follow in your career footsteps?
I would advise people to be outrageous, but at the same time they should consider things from multiple viewpoints – put on your opponent’s shoes and think like them! If you want to be a responsible designer, I think it is important to really understand all the technical aspects of a design and to make use of a 360° way of thinking. I like to treat experimental projects as a gateway to new possibilities for research, and I aim to discover a new topic not just a new aesthetic. If I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to stay true to what you are really passionate about. Take the time to experiment as much as possible and find out what it is that inspires you. Only if you are passionate about something can you stick with it for a long time and become an expert.
What do you think the future holds for textiles?
I think that textiles still have a long way to go. In the past 20-30 years textiles have evolved massively as people borrow textile techniques and apply them to different industries. Take knitting for example: in the past you visualised wool, grandmas and ugly sweaters, but now companies like Nike and Adidas work with innovative techniques such as Flyknit, 3D knit, and people are looking at knitting differently. It’s all about developing the potential of a technique and finding new applications for it.
I believe the future will focus on weaving. The mechanism of a loom is really interesting, and if someone plays with that and it evolves it should be possible to weave 3D forms with speed – this is already being researched, and once it reaches the mass market a lot of people will benefit.
More and more people view textiles as another kind of engineering – it is really not limited to apparel. So I am looking forward to seeing more unusual textile-made structures in the future!