Recycling Fibers

In a hunt for slender but windproof, waterproof winter gloves the other day, I glanced at the Patagucci website just to see their offerings, knowing full well they were probably too rich for my blood. Though I was correct in my assumption, I also ran across something unexpected: the pair of gloves I was viewing was made from 100% Recycled Polyester. Now, I know Patagonia lays some heavy claims to being environmentally friendly and ecologically oriented, I couldn't believe that a luxury retailer like Patagonia would actually find it possible to do this. This made me realize that I don't really know much about actually recycling fibers and fabric. Recycling until now has always to me, meant using found fabrics in sewing. But the gloves I was viewing are not cut out of any vintage polyester garment, they are post-consumer polyester fibers reformed into new recycled, even moisture-wicking material.

I suppose it never occurred to me that this could happen because fabric doesn't exactly melt down, the way I think of recycling bottles and cans and that sort of thing. But then I looked around a little, and there are lots of organizations (that don't even tout themselves as particularly green) who make a business of recycling fibers in one way or another.

Martex Fiber Corporation, for instance, is a company that imports and exports industrial textile wastes, and then sells products for use in spinning yarn and papermaking and several other things that I don't completely understand. They also have sales offices right here in our fair Philadelphia. This strikes me as interesting because I always sort of assumed that transnational corporations like this would work their darndest to make recycling and environmental conservation economically inviable. But they aren't. In fact, it is the substance of their business. And I've never heard of them, which makes me feel out of the "loop".

Related to all of these considerations, this article by the organization Waste Watch in the UK had lots of interesting facts about the fiber recycling industry. I feel like I want to copy and paste the entire thing into this post. But just take my word for it and follow the link, if you have any interest in this subject. We feel proud for our recycling of car seatbelts, which would otherwise end up in landfills. And since Fluff waste is the bulk of post-consumer automotive waste in those landfills, I'm glad we can reduce that even if in a very small way. And these other, larger companies, are undoubtedly helping us in ways we didn't even quite appreciate.

Maybe you already knew all of this. Or maybe, like me, you assumed fabric recycling only extended to the reuse of vintage or discarded fabrics in artistic business endeavors like ours. It is a comfort to know that our collective environmental imagination extends far beyond what I already know and understand. Maybe we aren't as doomed as I thought.

And if you have any additional advice on great winter gloves out there somewhere, I'd love to hear it. Recycled, if possible.


  1. I too am a sewer and reuse fabric commercially for scarfs and vests. I used to live in Philly and have always liked your work! I drop Fabric Horse in conversations all the time in the bike community here in Vancouver, BC.

    Our type of recycling is much lower energy use than reconstitution of used fibers. The shipping alone of the industrial waste is a bummer. But it is better, if still not great. As a dumpster diver I see soo much waste. The big thrift store here compacts their "trash", making it un-salvageable. Too bad.

    This is why I still prefer locally made recycled products.

    I've been wanting to make my own gloves (and shoes). An ugly winter vest from the thrift store might have good fabric.

  2. Mark,

    I agree with you that simply reusing the fabric without altering its makeup is certainly more efficient and environmental than reconstituting fibers. It's too bad that the industry seems to be afraid of post-consumer recycling. On a related note, we were remarking recently how depressing it is that Whole Foods, of all places, compacts its food waste much in the same fashion you describe. Not so different from burning crops, really. I think you are on to something with local recycling--more accountable, more intuitive, just better.

  3. Here's another BC sewer who reuses fabric or finds unused/unwanted fabric. Currently, I make messenger bags and totes and sell them for charity. Re-using enables me to donate 100% of the purchase price. So fun. I hate waste, too - I always have. I was wondering what the thrift stores do with the unacceptable donations because I'm sure there's perfectly good chunks of fabric still going into land fills. And does polyester or nylon EVER decompose?

  4. Have you read Susan Strasser's books, e.g. _Waste and Want_? she writes histories of women's work, non-market work, that kind of thing, and W&W had a lot about recycling. (Recycling down to the fiber and back used to be more common. When the rag-and-bone man came, that's why he wanted the rags.)