Fabric recycling at Rummage & Bolt

 Beautiful banners made from waste fabrics at Rummage & Bolt.

Beautiful banners made from waste fabrics at Rummage & Bolt.

By BEL JACOBS


Textile artist Hannah Ford is surrounded by rolls of fabric. “The thought of sewing, especially with a machine, can be a bit overwhelming for our volunteers,” she says. “So I have to think about different ways to work with fabric, without technology or needles, or even pins.”

Hannah is talking about her new fabric recycling workshop Rummage & Bolt, in which volunteers, often with histories of domestic abuse, divorce or mental health, come in and create small pieces of art using waste fabrics

Rummage & Bolt launched earlier this year with the dynamic Forest Recycling Project (FRP), Walthamstow’s oldest social enterprise. Committed to sustainability in all its guises, from reducing waste to promoting social inclusion, FRP has so far hit its marks with the Paint Place, which processes and resells excess paint. Any profits made are delivered back into the community. Rummage & Bolt aims to do the same thing for fabrics.

 Hannah Ford at Rummage & Bolt.

Hannah Ford at Rummage & Bolt.

Good job, too. According to Greenpeace, at least 60 billion m2 of the estimated 400 billion m2 of fabric made every year ends in landfill, rotting away and polluting groundwater. The figure is staggeringly stupid. 

And, while organisations like the Ellen McArthur Foundation labour to create a new global circular economy, it is small groups like Rummage & Bolt who work intensely at local levels, inspiring and educating.

But getting people who are wary of the world, who have lost their personal and creative confidence, to interact with fabrics can be a gradual process. Luckily, Hannah - co-founder of lively East London art collective, Invisible Numbers and holder of an MA in History of Design at the RCA and - is the perfect helmswoman. 

“It might be a process of simply learning about the donated fabrics, and sorting them into types of fibre - man-made or natural - and then by colour and tone …” she continues. “After this, volunteers can choose to work more closely with a fabric. Using just a pair of scissors, for example, they can begin to make a simple Amish toothbrush rag rug. No sewing machine; just looping with fingers ….”

The chance to work in such a tactile way comes with proven side effects. Feelings of isolation, frustration and alienation can be addressed by learning new skills and building up new networks. And study after study has demonstrated the mental and emotional benefits of arts and crafts on mental health. Art Therapy, for example, is one of the top five techniques to treat war veterans with PTSD.

“You make a positive impact on so many levels,” says Hannah, enthusiastically. “And, in addition to therapeutic benefits, volunteers begin to understand ideas of how to repurpose fabric and support learning goals."

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A recent workshop by Hannah at the ODD SPACE Gallery in Belsize Park had participants making mini-banners; simple appliqué sewing methods were used to sew reclaimed fabric shapes. The activity echoes Rummage & Bolt’s current project, an enormous banner to which volunteers each contribute squares that speak for them and their circumstances. 

Future plans involve the creation of ‘Eco Session Workshops” targeted at the corporate sector as well as membership scheme for local schools and housing associations - so that kids have access to fabric to play with and housing associations to help furnish homes. 

Meanwhile, small everyday victories continue to bring joy to Hannah: “It was a wonderful day when one of my volunteers decided she was ready to sew her panel on a sewing machine."

“She kept saying, ‘I am so happy. I am so, so happy’. That in itself was worth everything.”


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When we toss away fabric, we toss away the raw materials it’s made from, the water that goes into washing, the toxins that go into treating it and the energy that go into manufacture. It’s no accident that fashion is the world's second most polluting industry. Reducing CO2 emissions is built into the essence of FRP and, by extension, Rummage & Bolt. “You don’t equate fabric with CO2 emissions,” admits Hannah. “But the data, when it’s in black and white, is shocking.”  Waste fabrics come from a variety of sources, including theatre and fashion production companies. The first donation came from Cheekyhandmades, which runs sewing workshops. “They donated 13 bolts and one bag of scraps, almost 84kg of fabric,” says Hannah. “This amount diverted from landfill saved 357.42 lbs of CO2 emissions.”