Rag Sorters + Textile Recycling: How To Recycle Your Unwanted Fabric

updated May 5, 2019
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

We’ve all got the bottle/can/paper recycling down-pat, but what about fabrics? What do you do with the sheets that got so wonderfully soft that they finally shredded? Or the beloved t-shirt that was demoted to house-cleaning garb and then again to rag status? Or the legs of your jeans when you chop your annual cut-offs? Fortunately, all of that fabric is still very much in demand.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

First, a word about the pieces above: Julia Goodman is San Francisco artist who has long been fascinated by the history of paper. I was lucky enough to see her Radicle Papyrus show at 18 Reasons, which featured luminous paper painstakingly made of beets she’d grown herself. As an Artist-In-Residence at Recology SF (seriously, you should go if you ever get the chance — it’s the coolest program), Julia immersed herself in the history of rag recycling in San Francisco. Back in the day, rags were precious, as they were completely necessary for making paper. Julia writes, “Women employees of Recology SF (then known as Sanitary Fill Company) collected rags until 1964. Barrels of rags were taken to the Bayshore Building, where fabrics were sorted by a group of women who were all over fifty and of Italian descent. During interviews, employees were able to recall seven names of the rag sorters including Rita Bianchi, Emma Muzio, Maria Triangale, Olga Vera, Guissipina Calagri, Alda Campi, and Josephine Grosso.”

Julia honored these women by hand-making paper out of fabric she was able to salvage from the dump, and imprinting it with the names of the rag sorters. She says, “I want to honor this invisible labor by using the names of seven of the women to create woodcarvings based on pre-1964 fonts and designs.” They are part of an exquisite body of work she created, entitled Rag Sorters. I was hard-pressed to pick my favorite, but Rita Bianchi, above, might be it. 

Here are a few places to recycle old fabrics where you live:

Bay Area: USAgain has unwanted-textile collection barrels in schools and stores throughout the city. Their theory is that people are more likely to bring their recycling to places they have to go anyway, rather than making a special trip. Campus California does the same — for both of these services, simply type in your zip code to find the nearest drop box. 

Boston: The Boston Globe has a great article about fabric recycling options in the area, including Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries, Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, and Bay State Textiles.

Chicago: Chicago Textile Recycling processes donated fabrics at various levels. “The used clothing industry provides lower income people around the world with affordable clothing. Clothing that is damaged is recycled into wiping rags. Clothing and textiles not suitable for wiping purposes are processed back into fibers that are then remanufactured into paper, yarn, insulation, carpet padding, sound proofing, etc.”

New York City: GrowNYC is doing its best to keep the 193,000 lbs. of fabric that NYC residents discard each year from ending up in landfills. Unwanted textiles can be donated every week at 19 different greenmarkets throughout the boroughs. 

By Mail: Donate Stuff allows you to donate your fabric by mail. You simply request the number of pre-paid UPS bags you need to be sent to you, fill them, and drop them off at your nearest UPS. In certain areas they even provide home pick-up. 

Please note, as mentioned above, even the most wrecked fabric can be broken down into fibers and reused, so please donate everything, no matter how pitiful. Just be sure it’s clean and dry!

(Images: Photos by  Robert Divers Herrick, courtesy of Julia Goodman. Rag Sorters available for sale through the artist.)