New life for old clothes

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Despite the fact that Bellingham has a plethora of clothing consignment stores and thrift meccas, a shocking amount of wearable wares still make their way to the landfill on the regular.

“According to national statistics, 82 pounds per person of textile waste are discarded every year,” ReUse Works’ Duane Jager says. “About 15 percent of this goes to thrift stores, leaving about 70 pounds per person going to the landfill. Thrift stores sell only 20 percent of what they receive. Applying national statistics to Bellingham, more than three million pounds of textiles are landfilled each year in our city alone.”

This is where Ragfinery comes in. Much like ReUse Works’ Appliance Depot—where used household appliances are fixed and refurbished while simultaneously providing training and jobs to those working on them—the venue also intends to focus on “jobs from waste” by upcycling unwanted garments and textiles in collaboration with local artisans.

“In our downtown Bellingham facility, a collective of worker trainees and community mentors will determine creative reuse value and process donated textiles into a wide range of products that showcase the skills and talents of our community,” Jager says. “In the case of Ragfinery, the workers will be sorting, cutting, sewing and creating products to sell, plus providing these services for artists who want the textiles, either raw or value-added.”

Jager stresses that Ragfinery is not a thrift store, but rather a venue selling upcycled products made from post-consumer textiles and a place where trainees can help run a business while gaining work skills. Employees will also cut and sell rags, host workshops and sell the surplus to textile brokers to help generate more revenue.

Donation bins are located outside Ragfinery’s headquarters near Norway Hall on Forest Street and at the Appliance Depot, and clean and dry clothing, home linens, unfinished fabrics, sewing machines, fabric scissors, dress forms, elastic and more can also currently be dropped off from 10am-5pm every Tuesday through Thursday at the store.

Libby Chenault is one of the artists on Ragfinery’s steering committee and a ReUse Works board member. She’s also a self-proclaimed “fiber junkie” who has long relied on thrift store finds and donations from friends, family and customers to augment her creations—which include everything from handmade hats and clothes to hair clips, mittens, stuffed animals and more.

“This project engages so many of my passions,” Chenault says. “I see it becoming a hub of creativity and learning—a way for Bellingham to set a new standard for creative recycling.”

Chenault says recent focus group meetings that included other artists and community members provided a boost for her and others who have been working on the project for more than a year.

“There are a lot of fabric artists who already use recycled or reclaimed material in their work,” Chenault says. “I hope Ragfinery will make it easier to source their material and also be a place to find inspiration. It can be lonely sitting at a sewing machine all day; it will be great to have a place where people speak my language of recycling and fabric.”

Chenault says working with reclaimed materials for so many years has helped her to see that there’s built-in history, connection and personality in every finished piece, and that those who choose to use recycled goods for their work must acquire special skill sets.

“For the maker to claim value in a material—maybe fall in love with the color or texture even if it has stains and then cut around what no longer useful and form something fresh—that’s magic,” she says. “And when I think about all the lives that have touched the fabric and how it is being given another chance, I can’t help but draw some poetic parallels to our own lives and the power to mend ourselves and transform our days with some creativity and a bit of lace.”

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