My History (or Herstory) of Textile Recycling

This week our theme is the History of Textile Recycling.  One of the most common questions I am asked is how I got my start in business and coincidentally the two subjects tie very nicely together in my Herstory Are you ready to dive in? Here we go!

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My herstory of Textile Recycling 

You might know that I started recycling wool sweaters as an art school student in 1987.  I was working my way through college with three jobs.  I waitressed at one of my all time favorite establishments The Tam O’Shanter on Beacon Street in Brookline, I held the Fiber Studio Work/Study position, and I made work for my classes and sold it at a craft store cooperative in Harvard Square. 

My favorite way to earn was by selling my work.  It all started with a felt-making workshop at Mass Art – the assignment was to make wet felted art after a workshop with a visiting, felt-artist Layne Goldsmith.  I loved the texture of the fabric we made but really disliked the wet cold aspect of the process.  My artist dad gave me the idea to use shrunk wool sweaters from the thrift shop as a way to maintain the awesome texture while amping up the color and patterning of the finished felt and completely skipping over the shitty bits of the process.  I machine-washed and dried the sweaters in really hot water with a cold rinse using a biodegradable laundry soap and tumbled them dry to create the felted texture that I love so much.

Upon graduating with a BFA and delving gung-ho into my making process it quickly became clear that our local thrift shops in The Berkshires and Boston area were not keeping up with the demand created by my sales – especially in the warm months when thrift stores don’t typically stock a whole lot of wool sweaters. 

This led me to seek out a larger volume source for my sweater needs.  I contacted a place in Cambridge called A Dollar A Pound where they sold used clothing from a giant pile on the floor.  The owner of the business, a tall, barrel chested, clownish man with bright red Bernie Sanders style hair welcomed me into the bowels of his warehouse where there was a treasure trove of all manner of used clothing including thousands of pounds of ‘Wool Knits’.  Bruce Cohen became a mentor and friend and over the years supplied me with great customer service, a few thrift treasure gifts and the names and addresses of a litany of other ‘garment graders’ when he could no longer meet my demand for sweaters. 

Bruce’s place was a total trip.  He had a work station for me to use when I was there where I could pop open a bale and sort through it, tossing what I wanted into rollers to be bagged and loaded in my truck and a discard pile that went into the baler.  When the baler filled Bruce’s guys, Billy and Bobby would compress, wrap and finish the bale with this giant antiquated pressing machine.  They affixed the compressed sweaters with giant thick wires around the circumference and wrapped the bale ends with blankets that were marked with the bale weight.  (I kept a few of those bale-wrap blankets over the years – beautiful Hudson Bay or Chief Joseph with big spray painted numbers.)

Bruce wound up selling his business to a young buck named Chris who worked for him and was super into the whole vintage retail market.  I have a call out to catch up with Bruce after way too many years of silence.  If I remember right, his parents owned the building and had some other sort of business there before his. 

Bruce introduced me to Sam Cohen Textiles in Brockton, MA run by third generation Richard Cohen (no relation and equally as sweet and supportive). I was able to do the same sort of sorting at Richard’s place and after he closed is garment grading business he remained a helpful resource when I needed help finding a particular material.  Beacon Wiper, headed up by the super grumpy and difficult Jason Silber was the first place I was able to buy bales of color sorted materials – that too was a family business. The idea of buying color-sorted sweaters meant to me that sorting was unnecessary but quickly realized that was not the case, after receiving a large shipment of goods that were scraps rather than whole sweaters. There was a place up in Glens Falls NY too where I could sort and buy by the bale.  I worked with the son named JD of the owner, Matt. The business name is escaping me as I walk down this memory lane but they were clean and organized and processed a lot of material there.  Trans Americas and Hamlin Bros were the two big suppliers in NYC where I bought in a pinch.  It was hard to work there for the parking, and pressure to move faster and buy more than I really wanted. Not really set up for my sorting desires - you know, that New Yorky mindset?

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Over time all of these guys ran out of the material I needed so eventually ended up at Midwest Textile in El Paso Texas where I worked with a guy named Sunny Hull. Our transactions were all conducted over the phone and he was awesome!  Sunny sent me amazing quality goods for a fair price and turned me on to baled vintage overalls for one dollar a pound. For a couple years I bought all the jeans, corduroys, wool sweaters and dress shirts I needed delivered by tractor trailer a week after order placement.  When Sunny retired there was a shift and Midwest was no longer able to sell to me as all the wool knits they generated were being shipped to Italy for color sorting. This led me to a wonderful trip to Prato Italy to meet my new (oh and can we just say HANDSOME) sweater supplier Umberto Querci, with my dad who was half Italian and a fluent speaker.  We had the best time visiting my parents’ old haunts from their art school days in Florence, even visited the live/workspace Villa where my parents met and lived with a cast of characters that remained life-long friends. I think we walked 50 miles around Rome, Florence and Prato in the 5 days we were there!

For a few years after that visit I ordered container loads of color sorted wool sweaters from Italy to feed the machine I created that ate sweaters. The cost ($$) to ship the sweaters was equal to the price of the actual goods. I began to question the environmental awareness I was building with a process that had outgrown its mission.  Suddenly I was recycling sweaters that were generated in this country, shipped across the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean, sorted for color, and then shipped back across the world so that I could make ‘environmentally conscious’ products to build awareness of human toll on Mother Nature.  It made no sense.

My used clothing material sourcing conundrum led me to think of alternative sources of textile waste a little closer to home. Right around that time Patagonia approached me to work with them on a project recycling their scrap. We ran into a similar issue as the bulk of their production was happening over seas - in China. Crispina Designs then landed a contract with Timberland to make all their stores’ holiday decorations that we conjured up from the scrap material from our process. For their retail we made cute little wreath ornaments and round ornaments we called ‘Bobbles’ wrapped carefully with yarn in all the Chirstmassy colors requested. For the Timberland windows we made giant renditions of the same designs that were super cool, eye-catching and completely made from our waste materials. This was when I realized that what I want to do is affect larger change than I could making and selling ‘product’. See, a large part of me understands that we all have way more ‘stuff’ than we need - so a pivot was in order. As the recession of 2008 hit I was questioning my ability and desire to push on, selling very expensive handmade recycled clothing and home goods to people who had way too much stuff. In May of 2008 it became clear that our numbers were sliding without much hope to bounce back so my business partner closed down manufacturing allowing me the life change I was desperate for. I wrote my teaching book A Sweater Chop Shop published by Storey.  From that point forward my energy has been focused on teaching in person, scrap projects with large volume textile waste generators, AND this spring I kick off my first online course! My scrap project with Eileen Fisher ignited their zero-waste tiny factory in Irvington NY. I am currently working with a couple of other large volume textile waste generators to help them turn their waste into a revenue stream and doing my best to spread the word and ‘how-to’ about the fun, empowerment, environmental stewardship and satisfaction creative textile recycling is all about.

As a matter of fact, in the next week or two you will find a little video series all about my process with helpful information and fun free tutorials on making your own Potholder Rugs. Join my mailing list here for getting more information on that. (This is a different list from my main list so I don’t inundate unsuspecting followers with a bunch of emails they aren’t expecting.)

Maybe there something specific you would like to learn from me? Scroll down and leave a comment so I can be sure to touch upon it in one of the upcoming videos. Oh, and just so you know, I appreciate you being here. The time is now to lessen our human impact and it is going to be FUN! You’ll see.