Clothes! Recycle, Upcycle and Swap!

Blog post by Christel Hernalesteen, Wandering Belles Officer

In September’s Borough Belles meeting we talked about clothes. Five speakers came in to speak about this subject from the perspective of their day-to-day work, research or interest.

Committee members Ruth (Cloth Scissor Thread) and Alison (Newman Pearce Tailoring) started the evening with very interesting tips and advice on how to buy better quality clothing.

Here are some of their tips:

  • Designer clothes don’t always mean better quality fabric. In a lot of cases, you’re paying for the branding and not the ‘stuff’.
  • Natural fibres like cotton, linen, silk & wool wear and tear better than synthetic fibres.
  • Cupro, Tencel, Modal, Lyocell, Viscose and Rayon: are all man-made fabrics and not synthetic.
  • Check the density of the fabric by holding it up to a light. Even if it is very fine, the fabric should not be transparent.
  • Try stretching a small part of the fabric in an inconspicuous spot. It should ideally bounce back to its original shape, if it doesn’t it won’t when you wear is and may quickly start to look stretched out and misshapen.
  • Spend more on each item and buy less. Consider the price per wear. Good quality will last longer.
  • Look inside: the inside should be as neat and tidy as the outside of a garment. Loose threads, wobbly seams and unsecured overlocker threads are signs of something made in a hurry.
  • Feel the fabric – does it feel durable? Very light jersey fabrics – the kind you’ll find in some t-shirts and dresses can very quickly stretch out of shape and become baggy.
  • You can use the inside of your wrist or your neck to test if a fabric will irritate your skin.
  • Do a bit of research on where your favourite clothing brands do their making and see how you feel about what you find. The Ethical Consumer website is really helpful for this.
  • What value does it bring you? You’re not going to get that ‘Shazam!’ moment every time you try something on and look in the mirror but that’s something to aim for.
  • Does it genuinely suit you? Think about curating a personal style rather than obeying the whims of fashion.
  • Second-hand: The ultimate in resource-saving has to come from buying clothes from charity shops or vintage stores. Look for well-constructed items in natural fibres. Check for moth damage and try things on.

Haley came next and spoke about cotton-sustainability. She walked us through the steps of cotton: from farming to clothes. She talked about the giant industry cotton farming in several countries (US, China, India and Pakistan) and the differences between those farmers. Cotton isn’t just used for clothing but find its way in a lot of by-products like cosmetics and food. Finally she urged us to question where our cotton is coming from at our favourite brands. These queries raise awareness that their customers care where the cotton is coming from. Is it organic, is it Fairtrade? These are cotton sustainability standards to look for.

Kiki came to speak about the fashion industry model. Most fashion designers design for a shelf life of 6 months. Discard is encouraged instead of repair. Today’s fashion emphasises buying more. But this isn’t sustainable. Clothes nowadays go from being bought, worn and then disposed. The ideal solution for the future is to prevent too much clothes being created. And keep clothes as much circulating through re-use and recycling.

For this to happen the industry needs to be transformed, new business models need to be designed and behaviours need to be changed. The responsibility is divided between the production and the customer. The customer plays an equally important role in this. The mind-set needs to be changed from new and perfect to evolving and imperfect clothing. Also the hierarchy of goals when buying should involve thinking more about sustainability and longevity, as well as the idea of ownership and our knowledge when buying clothing.

To conclude I talked about Plastic Soup Campaign of the Women’s Institute. Synthetic clothing sheds thousands of plastic microfibers every time you wash them. Being too small they don’t get caught in the washing machine filters and make their way to the oceans through the sewage system. These microfibers end up in marine life, filling up their stomachs and killing them or even on our plate.  Please find more information about this here on the Women’s Institute website. From there, you can download the action pack, which is filled with interesting information and handy tips on how to make a difference by taking action at home.

I also quickly brushed upon what to do with unwanted clothing. Before discarding it is always worthwhile to see if the item can be upcycled or refashioned.

Otherwise selling clothing online is always a popular option.

To maximize value:

  • Make your clothing look the best (clean & iron)
  • Sort out missing buttons, holes, loose hems, etc.
  • Use daylight when photographing
  • Do close-up photographs of brand name and embellishment
  • Hang the clothing on blank background
  • Be upfront on damages and photograph in close-up
  • Include information: size, brand, vintage ? (decade), accurate dimensions & measurements (sizes can be unreliable)

You can always organise a swap party amongst your friends, this is great way to get new clothes and get rid of your own:

  • Venue: your own living room, enough room for people to rummage
  • Promotion: friends, and ask them to invite friends
  • Spirit of goodwill: the social aspect important is important and clothes should be given without expecting something in return
  • Ask your friends to bring good quality, clean and dry clothes, shoes, bags, cosmetics, books…
  • You’ll need a mirror and space where they can change (bathroom is usually fine)
  • Unwanted clothes at the end: donate to a charity or each person takes back their own

Unwanted clothes can always find a new life by being deposited at a charity or recycle bank. Charities even take damaged and used clothing. They resell those for scrap use (where they end up in cushions, mattresses etc.) Recycle banks will sort through the clothing and either resell them at vintage wholesales or East European markets (for unused new clothing). A big chunk gets donated to Asia and Africa. Don’t throw away your clothing in the household bin. These end up in a landfills or incinerators putting more strain on the environment.

To conclude the evening we had an upcycle corner where Belles were invited to come for repairs and advice on their clothing.

We also held a very successful mini swap. I think several Belles went away with some great new finds.

If you want to know more: