Q&A: Recycling Clothing Beyond Rags

September 24, 2008

For the longest time I thought I was pretty clever in that I recycled clothing that was beyond repair–and beyond being suitable for donation–into cleaning rags. Then I found out from my mother, who also recycles clothing into rags, that she knew of a local group of knitters who recycled sweaters into yarn for them to use. That is, they take 100 percent wool sweaters and unravel them, thread by thread, and then reuse those threads to knit and crochet new items. (Her local knitting group is called the Happy Hookers, which if you Google the term, along with the word “knit,” you actually find other knitting groups around the country–and not websites that are inappropriate for children.)

I got to thinking about these clever ladies who get new yarn out of old sweaters when the following reader posted this question:

Q: We’ve recycled down to the point of having clothes that are beyond being clothes. We have more rags than we can handle. Is there a place to recycle the fabric? Aren’t they using fibers for different products? I did some research but I don’t have the correct words to find anything.

A: In doing some research to answer your question, I’ve found lots of people who might be able to take those old clothes off your hands and reuse or recycle them.

For example, did you realize that cotton rag rugs that you can find in craft stores are often made from rags–thus the name? These literally are other people’s clothing or rags that have become useless, so craftspeople weave them into rag rugs. (Check out this homemade loom for making rag rugs on Crafty Daisies, which I found when searching Technorati for blogs on knitting, crocheting and reusing clothing.) Maybe you want to do a Technorati search as well to see if there are other resources for giving away your rags instead of throwing them away?

Another thing you might want to try is putting out a Freecycle “offer” message. There could be someone on your Freecycle list who makes rag rugs, turns t-shirts into stationery or needs these rags for some other reason.

Have you checked in with your local animal shelter or SPCA? I know that many animal rescue organizations take donations of used sheets and towels. Chances are they’ll take used rags (clean ones, of course) as well, as this California message board seems to suggest. The Animal Protection Association in Indiana lists rags as one of its always-in-need donations as does the Page County Animal Shelter in Virginia (via its webpage on Petfinder).

The Sample Waste Initiative for Furniture and Textiles (SWIFT) Project, along with Quilts for Kids, has started a fabric recycling program so that discarded fabric from manufacturers can be reused to make quilts, wheelchair bags and other items for kids in need (so says a Furniture Today article). Some stores in Texas are participating, including Ashley stores and Rooms to Go. Do you have any of these stores near you? If so, why not call to find out if they would accept your rags as part of their fabric recycling.

I’m sure you’ve seen those clothing collection dumpsters in store parking lots and probably didn’t want to put anything beyond wear in one of them. That’s probably a good idea unless you happen to find a dumpster for the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America. This organization takes clothing of any condition–even the threadbare, can’t-be-worn-again kind–and participates in what’s called “textile recycling.” In essence it will turn your worn-out clothing into rags, then sell it for a profit to exporters that send it overseas for reuse there.

Finally, your state’s Department of Environmental Protection or Environmental Quality may have on its website a list of local recyclers, including those that take “textiles” (as used fabric is called). For example, here is a resource list from the Maryland Department of Environmental Protection on how residents can recycle textiles.

Hope that helps. Readers, if you have other suggestions for recycling clothing beyond cleaning rags, please post a comment to share your ideas.

13 Responses to Q&A: Recycling Clothing Beyond Rags

  1. Laurine Belville on April 25, 2010 at 2:10 am

    This site is just what I needed. Great post.

  2. Anonymous on November 1, 2008 at 12:21 am

    I buy 100 percent wool coats from goodwill, take apart, felt, it sometimes takes two cycles of felting and make ‘carhartt’ wool vests.
    these work vests average 100 dollars each retail. with the zipper, mine is under 15 dollars. You may have to piece your wool but it can be done easily so it looks good.

  3. dee dee on October 4, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    When a dear friend died, another friend made quilts using the deceased woman’s clothes (a favorite silk robe, shirts, an apron, etc.) as keepsakes for her 3 teenage daughters. It was a very touching way to reuse clothing.

  4. Leah Ingram on September 28, 2008 at 3:24 pm


    Thanks for telling us about this other option–of using a deceased, loved one’s clothes to make a teddy bear. I did some research and found a group called Joe’s Memory Bears that seems to do just that. This is an awesome suggestion and alternative for those who’ve lost someone special to them.


  5. Lisa Iannucci on September 28, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    One of my websites (www.youngwidowsandwidowersblog.blogspot.com) deals with grief and there are certain websites (you have to search them out for one you like) actually takes old clothes from a loved one and makes them into teddy bears. this can also be done if there is a special outfit that your child likes and doesn’t want to part with too. these are great ideas on your site leah and i’ve begun looking at our clothing differently now.

  6. Leah Ingram on September 25, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    From my mom: “The women who come for wool come for wool skirts, blazers, pants, etc. made of 100% wool. They clean them, cut into strips, use a special wooden stand (or @ least that’s what Grandma used…I think she called it a spindle) and braid the strips like you’d braid someone’s hair. They then hand stitch them together and make a braided rug.

  7. Daisy on September 25, 2008 at 2:26 am

    My grandmother used to make rag rugs. She even made them out of bread bags! The bread bag rag rugs (say that ten times quickly!) were perfect for the entryway or mud room, and no one was upset when they wore out. She just made another.

  8. Leah Ingram on September 24, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    My friend Dee Dee sent this to me on email and gave me permission to post it here:

    “I loved your post today. Textile recycling is one of my favorite topics. This summer I visited the workshop and retail space in Manteo, NC of an organization called Endless Possibilities. They take donated fabric remnants and used clothing, cut it into strips and weave it into rugs, handbags, even covers for clogs. Their work is done by volunteers including the battered women who benefit from the sale of the items. It's really awe-inspiring.

    My understanding of places like Full Circle & NOVA thrift shops is that they make money by selling the
    unusable clothing they get to rag merchants who either sell over seas or sell it to companies that make car insulation and things like that.
    They can even use the rattiest old sneakers, worn out slip covers, even carpet.

    Here's a cool website to check out: http://www.textilerecycle.org/

    And I found an article on this topic, too here: http://www.evliving.com/environment.php?action=fullnews&id=9294

  9. keri m. on September 24, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    I’ve had lots of fun with felting wool sweaters, mostly stitching it into slippers for gifts (marthastewart.com has a simple pattern). They can also simply be cut into 4 inch squares for coasters. Here is a site that describes how to wash the sweaters, then it tells how to make a quilt. That would be a pretty hot quilt! http://quiltmaker.com/tips/tip15/index.html

    I’ve heard that shredded cotton can be composted. And some people like to turn memorable clothing (baby clothes, for example) into quilts. Church groups sometimes turn random fabric into quilts then send to developing nations.

  10. Leah Ingram on September 24, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    All this talk of felted wool is leaving me confused. Can you post a link to a website that shows exactly what felted wool is and how you can reuse it in craft projects? Thanks.

    Nonetheless, I’m glad folks are finding this information helpful.

  11. jennifer | themakelounge on September 24, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    We use felted jumpers in our Hot Water Bottle and Chic Beret workshops.

    You don’t actually have to put them in the dryer – just wash on a lowish heat with detergent and you’re good to go.

  12. jenontheedge on September 24, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    100% wool sweaters can also be felted and used for other projects. It’s super easy — just wash the sweaters in hot water and then dry them. After that, you can cut them up and they won’t ravel. I’m currently working on a quilt made from felted sweaters.

  13. celloluv on September 24, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Thank you for all the information on possible places to recycle ‘beyond clothing’ textiles. I look forward to checking out the links. I do crafty types of things and have a box of denim for a future rag rug. I found a huge drawer full of hanky’s at my mother’s that someone suggested using in a quilt. My problem is that I’d need to live until I’m about 300 to get all these ideas processed and then how many quilts and rag rugs can one use? So the idea of those items going to others makes me feel helpful. Just yesterday I gave away an ear of corn that I’d made 39 years ago and it made that person so happy. So not only is recycling good for the earth it can help people and make others happy!

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