With Agatha Lee, broken umbrellas are transformed into waterproof bike bags with safety lights, and cloth cut from old skirts is converted into light-sensitive necklaces that glow in the dark. Through upcycling—the process of converting waste materials into newer, better quality products—the former environment policymaker, who has a Master of Science in Environmental Technology, is giving discarded or old items a new lease on life.
“Believe it or not, many still think that upcycled clothes are rags. I want to get them to think differently,” she said. A self-professed fashion hacker, Agatha maintains a blog, Green Issues by Agy, aimed at generating awareness of the benefits of upcycling clothes and fabrics, and providing tutorials on do-it-yourself (DIY) methods. She hopes these can lead to less waste through re-purposing and more thoughtful fashion purchases, where consumers are more conscious of the need to shop more ethically and sustainably.
Unlike most fashion or upcycled products, Agatha’s clothes and accessories are essentially pieces of wearable technology that feature lights and other electronic parts. This fascination with e-fashion started when she was working at the National Environment Agency (NEA). To measure the air pollution levels, she had to wear “huge monitoring devices the size of school satchels”. This interest was reignited when she read about an air-monitoring shirt, and realised she could incorporate the same technology into everyday wear to enhance her designs.
Agatha had to teach herself coding to master the use of LilyPad Arduino, a small micro-controller board that comes with a set of sewable electronic pieces designed for interactive textiles. The electronic modules can be stitched together with conductive thread to create interactive garments and accessories. LilyPad can sense information about the environment using inputs like light and temperature sensors, and can react on it through outputs such as LED lights, vibrator motors and speakers.
“I have to admit, learning to code was daunting initially. The learning curve was steep, but I was able to draw upon my background in the sciences to connect the dots,” said Agatha. With the help of her Microsoft Surface tablet and step-by-step tutorials from LilyPad’s website, she learnt how to weave the technology into her clothing, such as where and how to place the optical fibres, LED lights and sensors to get the results she wanted.
Agatha also organises workshops and has just completed a sewing programme with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore. She is currently exploring 3D printing for clothes ornamentation.
When asked if she has any advice for people who wish to pursue a career in technology, she said, “On top of following your passion, it’s important to have an open mind and to surround yourself with like-minded people to bounce fresh ideas off each other. For all you know, your next big idea may come from an unexpected conversation!”