Editor's note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on local textile recycling. Look for part two in December's Neighbors section.
For an environmentally friendly way to keep unwanted clothing out of the landfill, many Juneau residents turn to places where they can resell or donate clothes. Stores like the Alaska Dames Consignment Shop near the airport or The Closet consignment shop downtown accept only clothing that meets certain criteria. When the clothing is sold, the clothing owner shares a percentage of the proceeds with the consignment shop.
People also choose to make charitable donations of their used clothing to the Salvation Army Family Store or St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, where they assume that their discards are going to a good cause. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned donors are unaware that their clothing may end up in the landfill anyway, often for preventable reasons.
Similar to the consignment shops, the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul also require clothing in good, resellable condition.
"The donations that are stained, torn, unwashed, unusable and in poor condition will all end up in the trash," said Henry James, the manager of the Salvation Army Family Store.
Neither St. Vincent de Paul nor Salvation Army have the equipment or staffing to wash clothing donations.
"Each day, we throw away a dumpster, sometimes two dumpsters full of stuff we can't take, including clothes," said Linda Whiteley, who runs the sorting room at St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. "Probably at least 60 percent of what comes in gets thrown out because it's not clean. Think about how much time it takes to clean clothes in your own home and multiply it by the whole community. We just don't have the resources to do that."
The only textiles that St. Vincent's accepts in stained condition are t-shirts and towels. For other items, donors can be mindful of the limitations faced by the thrift stores and wash clothes before donating them.
"Make sure donations are protected from the weather when you bring it in," James advised. "I see a lot of donations arriving in uncovered pick-up trucks while it's raining."
Wet donations can pose a health hazard if they mold in the warehouse, so they are thrown away. The store pays $500 each time their 20-yard dumpster is emptied, which means less money to support community programs.
In addition, donors should be aware of another common misconception.
"We don't fix clothing that needs sewing," said Whiteley. "We have fewer volunteers now than in the past, so no one will sew on missing buttons. Those get thrown out."
When considering discarding clothing, many people forget that small defects could be easily repaired, such as missing buttons, a broken zipper or small rips. The modern lifestyle leads many to believe that it's better to buy new clothing than to repair the old; however, this is not true in many cases. Especially in tough economic times, learning to sew and make small clothing repairs can save money, time and landfill space in the long run.
In larger cities, the concept of refashioning is becoming increasingly popular among people of all ages and backgrounds. Refashioning takes old clothing and remakes it into something new.
Juneau's Canvas Community Art Studio & Gallery will be holding a refashioning workshop for teens in December. According to instructor MK MacNaughton, "Participants will bring old t-shirts and the workshop will introduce basic stitching, appliques, embroidery and other ways to turn old clothing into something new."
Aside from this workshop at the Canvas, finding a place in town to learn sewing skills is limited. While the UAF Cooperative Extension Service in Juneau provides free publications on sewing, no instructor is available locally to teach classes. Raintree Quilting does offer basic classes occasionally, but none are currently scheduled.
"There is certainly a need for more basic sewing classes/courses in Juneau," said Kathleen Weist, the family and consumer sciences teacher at Thunder Mountain High School. "This community has many talented people. With a growing interest in refashioning and clothing recycling, this might be a good opportunity for someone to step up and fill this niche."
Judging from the large quantities of clothing currently going into the landfill, any aspiring sewing instructor would be able to access plenty of materials for sewing students to practice on and repair.
Carol Schriver, the co-owner of the Homespun Mercantile artist's consignment shop, is one such entrepreneurial Juneau resident interested in the business of recycling. Many items at the shop recycle discarded materials, such as rugs made from plastic bags, pincushions made from old sweaters and purses made from bicycle tires. On behalf of its artists, the shop accepts donations of specific materials such as plastic bags, blue jeans, sweaters and Pendelton wool in limited quantities, but Schriver is looking to do more.
One day, Schriver hopes to start an enterprise similar to the Alaska Rag Company in Fairbanks. The enterprise would coordinate with local thrift shops to alleviate their burdens. It would also promote art projects and sell high-quality crafts as an additional source of income. Schriver welcomes any input and ideas from potential partners in this venture.
"I envision it as a place for people to bring their donations where there are washing facilities, and the staff would be trained to do minor repairs and sewing," she said. "The center could be a place for vocational training as well as a meeting place for crafty people."
According to Schriver, "When it comes to textiles, there are unlimited possibilities for giving old clothes and fabrics a new life."
Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.