Imagine a world in which you would look on an old jumper not as a garment to be recycled but as an actual source of yarn. Yarn to be harvested by unraveling said sweater.
This is the paradigm that Emily Felix, a young mother living in US state of Tennessee, would like us to all consider. Felix started Reunion Yarn Co while at university studying sustainable fashion - and it has grown from a recycled yarn business into an online business devoted to educating people about how to unravel old garments and turn them into new ones. She doesn’t shy away from the idea that yes, this will take some effort - but when you consider the environmental cost of tonnes of unwanted clothes, anything that we can do to help interrupt the flow is probably worth investigating.
If you’re of a certain age, Emily’s approach may bring to mind a scene from The Sound of Music that has been immortalised as an example of pluck and imagination over lack. Maria takes to the curtains in the von Trapp family mansion and turns them into matching garments for the von Trapp children. Harvesting, repurposing, upcycling - these were not words in Maria's dictionary but she got to the same result.
It was a canny use of old fabrics and fibres to make new garments.
Understanding Emily’s process, and the rationale behind it, might completely alter the way you look at thrift stores and recycled clothing. You could see the forlorn pieces on the racks as the start of a creative process, rather than the more straightforward “let’s reuse this as-is” or "let's reuse this with a few alterations". It’s a very freeing thought. It also means you’d probably look at a lot more kinds of garments in the shop if you were just after their raw materials.
We caught up with Emily not long ago and asked her to explain more about how she arrived at what clearly seems like a life’s work, and how she has developed the Unraveling Club. If you’re keen, visit the Unraveling Club here.
Newtown House: How did you get interested in unraveling old sweaters? Where did you learn the basics?
Emily Felix: In 2013 I entered school at the Savannah College of Art and Design for my master’s degree in fibres and struggled with the fact that there is very little supply chain transparency in the textile world in general. I wanted truly sustainable yarn for my projects, but couldn't find any beyond local, naturally dyed wools which I could not afford on my student budget. At the same time I began taking a course on sustainability theory, where I learned about the “cradle to cradle” approach. I realised that knitwear is an amazing textile structure in that it can be knit and unraveled indefinitely, and it’s a very accessible method for anyone to use to acquire their own sustainable yarn. I also began learning about the insane amounts of textile waste we create in the world (due to a worldwide addiction to fast fashion). Just in the United States alone, we discard 25 billion pounds of textiles every year. It only made sense to me from that point that I should begin unraveling discarded textiles for yarn for my projects. I actually found my first sweater unraveling tutorial online through Pinterest, but it lacked detail and I destroyed many sweaters before I figured it out.
NH: What drives you to do this work - why do you think it's important for people to learn how to repurpose their old clothes?
EF: There is a theory within sustainability called “enabling solutions.” It means that you can encourage people to take the control back over where they source their textiles through education and communities of practice. A very small subset of consumers can afford expensive, sustainable yarn. However, most people don't have the means to buy all of the yarn they desire at these prices, myself included. That's when they end up at big box craft stores buying cheap yarn made in China in the most unsustainable way possible. You can't really blame them, though. I say that because I've been there, having to make the choice between buying cheap yarn or not having any yarn at all. That's why I have begun moving Reunion Yarn Co into an educational platform because I want to inspire people to essentially source their own yarn from textile waste that they probably have in their house or can acquire very easily and cheaply. Recycling yarn is time-consuming, and there is certainly a learning curve, but so much of knitting, crocheting, and weaving is a social activity. If we can get groups of people together, meeting up and unraveling sweaters in a group setting, you can then inspire others and before you know it there's a revolution!
NH: It must require a big shift in how people think to help them see the value in the yarn in old sweaters - what do you do to help them see the hidden value in their old knitwear?
EF: One of my favourite historical figures is Buckminster Fuller. He is most known for his strange geodesic inventions, but he was actually a pioneer in thinking about and applying sustainability to everyday life. He said: “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.”
Here's how I approach thinking about shifting peoples' perceptions of recycled materials - I show them what recycled yarn looks like! I let them touch it, smell it, and see things made out of it. One hundred percent of the time they think it’s new yarn, and sometimes they don’t believe me when I tell them it’s recycled. Another favourite quote of mine, by sustainability theorist Ezio Manzini, is this: “Aesthetics give direction to the choices of a great number of individuals ... by making the sustainable alternative more attractive to people, we can encourage them to willingly embrace it.” You just have to make stuff beautiful, inspiring, and relevant and people will follow! You can’t inspire people to use recycled materials just because they’re recycled. A lot of people don’t even care. In fact, I’ve had people buy recycled yarn from me who probably didn't even know it was recycled until they took it home and read the label. They just loved the colour, texture, or the price. But when they do make something beautiful out of it, the element of the recycled material becomes even more special and hopefully inspires more curiosity about the concept.
NH: What's the most challenging project you've undertaken?
EF: A year into my Master's degree there was a textile competition put on by the cotton industry, called Cotton Inc. The prize was $8,000, which I desperately needed to continue paying for school. I was reading about Buckminster Fuller at the time and decided to make a geodesic dome completely made from discarded cotton waste. I shredded tons and tons of cotton sheets, shirts, and other cotton clothing until my hands were blistered and then spent several weeks beating the fiber pieces into paper pulp using a Hollander beater. I then pressed the pulp into giant sheets of thick paper and rolled the paper into long tubes that I used as dowels to make my six-foot-tall geodesic dome. If that wasn't enough, I shredded more discarded cotton sheets into thin strips, connected them together, and use the knitting machine to make enough knit material to cover the dome. I have never worked so hard in my life, but it paid off! I won the competition and was able to pay for a few more classes.
NH: How are you spreading the word?
EF: I have done a few in-person workshops here in Tennessee and just launched my educational website, Unraveling Club, in May. I am slowly working on spreading the word about the website, but I don't think I've reached a large enough audience to have worldwide presence! That is the ultimate goal, though!
NH: What's next for you?
EF: This past March we invested in a Kickstarter project by a group in London called Kniterate. We’d been following this group since they began working on an open-source electronic knitting machine a few years ago called OpenKnit. The Kniterate is essentially an automatic industrial knitting machine that is small enough to be used in cottage industry manufacturing settings. There is currently no other knitting machine like this out on the market and I think they are filling a much-needed gap between hand manipulation on knitting machines and massive industrial manufacturing. We are currently working on how to expand our own sweater unraveling operation to provide recycled yarn to use on our Kniterate. One thing we realised when we were selling recycled yarn last year was that while many people loved the concept, only a few people are actually interested in learning how to use yarn to make their own clothing. Most people wanted to buy pre-made items that were sustainably made. The Kniterate will allow us to begin exploring making actual clothing and accessories from recycled yarn for people to buy. We are also looking into beginning a clothing take-back program where people can send their unwanted knitwear into us for credit towards a purchase.
NH: Even if people aren't keen on unraveling their sweaters, it seems the message about the untold value of the yarn in old garments must still sink in with people. Do you think that’s perhaps equally important - raising people’s awareness about the resources sitting at their fingertips?
EF: It’s certainly all about awareness. I don't feel it’s appropriate to get frustrated by the billions of people who don’t know what’s wrong with going to the mall and buying cheap, fast fashion. Clothing is one of the most basic ways to express yourself and shopping is fun. If you aren’t educated on the goings-on of the textile industry then you can’t know you are doing anything wrong. That’s why I feel very strongly that promoting recycled materials alone cannot be the main marketing point. The things that we producers need to make should be fashion-forward, inspiring, attractive, and, most of all, accessible. If you can enter into a consumer’s conscience by using those points first, then when they find out the materials are recycled they will be inspired to think beyond the aesthetics and therefore begin to think about their consumption habits.
I think the biggest struggle with awareness right now is accessibility. You cannot inspire people to change their consumption patterns if they can’t afford it. I am one of those people who is very well educated on the ethical and environmental issues but cannot afford to buy from most sustainable brands, so why should I expect someone who isn’t educated to buy it? That’s where the use of recycled materials comes in - it’s cheap, accessible, and people can make it themselves for practically free. If more producers would use recycled materials then theoretically prices could be lowered and sustainable textiles can be made more accessible.
If you'd like to learn more about Emily's work, or give unraveling a go yourself, visit her Unraveling Club here.
And it's October 1 here and that means the start of Slow Fashion October / Slowtober. Watch for more from us here as we get into the spirit of things in the blog. Looking for inspiration? Head towards the Fringe Association website and the wonderful blog posts Karen Templer puts up regularly - get started with the post describing Slow Fashion October.