Fabric waste upcycling: A look at our project
Updated: Jan 13
What is fabric waste
Fabric waste is not a familiar term to many because, unlike plastic, this waste cannot be commonly sighted in public spaces. Fabric waste typically includes the scraps generated in tailor shops from cutting out garments, discarded clothings from households, rejected linen from hotels, leftovers from upholstery and home furnishing stores, etc.
Leh city generates a large amount of fabric waste –– surmising from the high number of tailor shops in the main market alone. However, the public is not aware of this precious waste for it makes its way from tailor shops into municipal trucks, which take the waste to the municipal Solid Waste Management plant in Skampari, from where, it eventually heads to the city's primary dumpsite, Bomb Guard. As residents are not able to see this waste, they do not know that their city produces a good deal of it.
Above: a tailor specialising in ladies' salwar kameez. Below: a tailor specialising in traditional Ladakhi goncha. Leftover fabrics from tailor shops constitute a major portion in municipal waste in Leh.
Why care about fabric waste
Fabric is made in different places, transported over hundreds of kilometres to Leh to be stocked in shops. Customers buy fabrics from these stores and place their orders with the tailors to stitch garments. The onus of dealing with the waste thus generated – fabric scraps --- is neither with the customers nor the tailors, both seeing it as the job of the municipal authorities. Municipal Committee Leh, on their part, not knowing what to do with this waste resort to incineration and open burning at Bomb Guard dumpsite.
Above: a customer looking at a design before placing an order. Below: a tailor ironing the finished garments to ready them for delivery. Both customers and tailors are not concerned about the fabric that remains after cutting out garments, considering it as the duty of the municipal authorities to manage this waste.
Actually, the fabric waste from tailor shops is not waste at all –– it is virgin fabric, albeit in scrap form. By burning that waste, we in fact burn new fabric. What's more, many of the materials that land up in the waste are of very good quality and certainly expensive. Burning this waste is, therefore, equivalent to burning money.
Two of the expensive fabrics found in the waste are nambu or woven sheep wool (top) and brocade (bottom). Both are used in traditional and festive dresses. Such high quality fabrics also go in the municipal trucks and get burnt at the Bomb Guard dumpsite.
To our eyes, fabric waste is valuable in its own right. Fabrics, both synthetic and organic, are produced at a very high environmental cost –– using resources and energy –– and generate waste from production to consumption and disposal. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, nylon, rayon, spandex and acrylic, are all essentially plastic (i.e. petroleum-based), and can be regarded only as cheap as petroleum itself. Organic fabrics, on the other hand, hailed as eco-friendly, consume further resources, such as soil, water and nutrients. A frequently cited example of the bewildering consumption of resources in making organic garments, is the white cotton t-shirt. Suiting every occasion, cutting across age and gender, the classic white cotton t-shirt is said to require some 2,700 litres of water for production. Bleaching, colouring and fortifying yarns, in both organic and synthetic fabrics, uses chemicals, which often contain toxic metals such as lead (Pb). When yarn is woven into fabric, microfibres are released, which though undetectable, are a serious pollutant. Generating fabric waste, therefore, is not merely wasting cloth but wasting many precious and scarce resources.
How we got into fabric waste
On discovering that local fabric waste is summarily burnt –– and a lot of waste means a lot is burnt –– we took interest in managing the waste. At first, when we put our hands into fabric waste, it was mainly to save fabric from getting burnt and to repurpose them (use them for making new things). But after spending time in the work, we realised that fabric waste management has the potential of becoming an organised sector, creating income opportunities and impacting the local community positively.
We started our journey in fabric waste management by getting to the source of the waste –– the tailor shops. We talked to many of the tailors in the main market of the city, and requested them to not throw leftover fabric in the municipal trucks, but keep for us instead, while we went on regular rounds to pick up that waste. After collecting the waste, we gave it to certain women tailors to stitch these fabrics into carry bags. We sold those bags to customers directly and also placed them in a few shops to be sold by the shopkeeper.
A tailor shop storing the leftover fabrics for us to collect.
Within months, a few problems emerged. First, the quality of stitching was such that before selling the carry bags, we had to repair most of them. Second, we found many expensive and good quality fabrics, such as tweed, brocade, and velvet in the waste, which were too good for carry bags. Instead, they could be used for nicer, durable bags. Third, the income generated from the sale of carry bags was so meagre that we were compelled to decide to not continue in the same way.
Fabrics like velvet (top), tweed (middle) and nambu (bottom) are found in the waste in good quantity, which we use for making high standard, durable products.
Perhaps, the real problem was that our roadmap and strategy were not in place. Managing fabric waste, like managing any other kind of waste, requires developing a chain –– collection, segregation, reuse or recycle, and marketing –– and each link in the chain requires a specific intervention backed by the necessary resources. Collection requires workforce and transportation, segregation requires space and knowledge of materials, reusing or recycling requires skilled labour, and marketing requires networking and platforms. In short, for our fabric waste management to be effective, a lot more planning, action, participation, and resources were needed.
How we upcycle fabric waste
We have improved our approach since, now focusing on a fabric waste management chain, which has 6 steps: identifying and mapping tailor shops in the city; regular collection of leftover fabrics from the shops; segregating and sorting the fabrics collected; designing and developing products from the fabrics; providing skill training in tailoring to create those products; promoting and marketing the products, and redirecting the proceeds into the project.
1. Identifying sources of the waste
The first step is to identify the sources of fabric waste, which we do through the mapping process. In order to do the mapping, we surveyed the main market area in Leh, since it has the highest concentration of tailor shops, and marked the location of all the tailor shops there on Google Maps. We visited a few other market areas as well and mapped their tailor shops. Mapping is a continual activity –– whenever we come across a new tailor shop, we quickly pin it on our map.
Map of Naushar Gali, main market, Leh, where about 30 tailor shops are located. Mapping helps in knowing the number of tailor shops and their exact location, based on which collection routes and schedules can be planned.
2. On call and routine collection
In the process of mapping, we also make the tailors aware of our project and explain their own role in it –– to store the leftover fabrics separate from other forms of waste and contact us for collecting the fabrics when a sufficient amount has accumulated. In addition to providing our contact number to the tailors, we also provide them with big sacks to keep the fabrics. When the tailors call us, we try and pick up the fabrics without delay, because failing that, the tailors are quick to throw it away. We also organise a weekly routine collection for a selected cluster of tailors.
Amount of fabric waste collected from the tailor shops in just one building, main market area, Leh.
3. Segregation and super-segregation
After collecting the leftover fabrics from the tailor shops, the fabrics must be segregated from the other forms of waste that are commonly present in the sacks, such as threads, plastic wrappers, bills, etc. The segregated fabrics have to be organised into different categories depending on the sort of quality, colour, and size of the pieces. Segregation is a time-taking and labour-intensive process, taking upto half a day to sort one big sack. Segregation gives us an overall idea of the kind of fabrics we have received, and that is the basis for designing our products.
Trainees sorting fabric waste collected from local tailors, and segregating the other types of waste that come mixed with the fabrics in the sacks.
Trainees of a self-help group engaged in segregating fabric waste.
Categories into which the fabric waste is sorted before designing and stitching products.
4. Designing and developing sustainable products
For us, creating things out of waste isn't only about using up the waste, but exemplifying the professional potential of transforming waste to value and attracting and inspiring others, especially in the local community, to also take up the challenge of designing out of waste. Hence, brainstorming and experimentation precedes every design of ours in order to create purposeful and innovative products. Our basic product is bags, carrying on with our initial motive of replacing single-use carry bags. Over time, however, with advanced stitching and creative use of fabrics, we have graduated from carry bags to better kinds of bags with greater utility and higher market value.
Two of our sample products. Top: Quilted toiletries pouch made of flannel, nambu, velvet with reused zip. Bottom: Patchwork bag made of nambu, created by textile designer, Saldon, (https://www.instagram.com/saldon_2112/) for Zero Waste Ladakh.
5. Skill training in fabric waste tailoring
While developing products and getting them stitched locally, we realised that stitching out of fabric scraps is not the same as stitching from fabrics in yardage –– the former is more difficult. This was perhaps the reason why, in the beginning, when we got carry bags made, most of them turned out poorly. Seeing how our tailors struggled with measuring, cutting and stitching, we decided that they needed training. Today, we provide Skill Training in tailoring to several groups located in different parts of Leh, enabling them to create products from fabric waste. The coursework is divided into 3 levels: basic, intermediate, and advanced. Each level includes different modules, which have exercises designed to teach specific skills. The duration of training is flexible, ranging from 250-300 hours, and is conducted over a period of 3-4 months or more, if required. The coursework is intended to develop advanced skills in trainees, be they amateur tailors or absolute beginners. In addition to developing advanced skills, the goal of our training is to eventually engage the trainees in work where they will apply their skills and create incomes for themselves.
Sessions of Skill Training in tailoring from fabric waste with different self-help groups in Leh.
A trainee practising basic stitching exercises.
6. Closing the loop
The final step in the chain of fabric waste management is promoting and marketing the products made from fabric waste by our trainees. For promotion, we rely on social media and our website. However, word of mouth has been the most effective so far. We also display our products at every opportunity in exhibitions and during our presentations. We market either by selling directly to individual customers or fulfilling bulk orders. We plan to start selling online soon and explore further methods and platforms that can promote our products and take it to a wider audience.
Displaying our Eco Bags and spreading awareness about our project in the "Enchanting Ladakh" exhibition-cum-sale at Dilli Haat, New Delhi, December 2021.
Challenges we face
Working with waste naturally entails a few challenges, which are equally important to highlight as the work itself. To begin with, collection of fabric waste, which sounds simple, isn't so in reality. Most of the tailor shops are located in spots that are hard to access, such as in bylanes or on the first storey of a building. Taking out big sacks from these shops filled with fabrics upto 25 kgs is quite a bit of work. Another problem in collection is that many of the tailors do not remember or care to call to give their waste, finding it easier to throw it away. In those cases, we lose our raw material. In winter, a different problem arises, which is that tailors burn the leftover fabrics in bukharis (traditional heating stove) in place of wood since the latter is expensive.
View of a bylane in which 6 tailor shops are located, Naushar Gali, main market, Leh. Most of the tailor shops are located in such narrow bylanes or first storey of buildings from where it is not easy to collect big sacks of fabric waste.
Segregation is not without its own difficulties. The fabric waste collected has a lot of dirty items, such as tobacco sachets, cigarette butts, "chewed" gums, and even some hazardous items, like blades and needles. While segregating, we have to be cautious of such objects. To minimise the risk, labour and time in segregation, we keep reminding the tailors to stop mixing other kinds of waste with the fabric in the sacks. Hopefully, a point will come when we would receive the fabric waste minus the other wastes.
A lot of dirty and hazardous waste comes mixed with the fabrics in the sacks which have to be removed manually.
The main issue in providing skill training in tailoring from fabric waste is insufficiency of resources. This includes everything, from sewing machines and accessories to space for conducting the training. Thus far, we have used personal resources to procure sewing machines and accessories. Often we have repaired old and non-functioning sewing machines of trainees to bring them back into use. For the training space, we have counted on our trainees, who out of genuine interest in learning fabric waste tailoring and working with us, have arranged some or the other space, oftentimes in their homes. Seeing the numbers of interested individuals growing, we would definitely require funding and a dedicated space in future to have a training centre.
Skill Training being conducted in the homes of the trainees. Several self-help groups chose to take the Skill Training in the home of one of their members, reflective of their high interest in learning the skill and working in this field.
Promoting and marketing the products made from fabric waste, which is the last step in the fabric waste management chain, is also no game since there is practically no enthusiasm and demand for such products. Although everyone requires bags, the average mindset is to buy company-manufactured products made from fresh raw materials than opt for handmade, second-hand, recycled or upcycled. Therefore, in marketing our products, rather than promoting their mere look and feel, we rally around our cause, of conserving resources and saving the environment. We hope that by doing so, individuals will come forth to buy, and that the higher awareness will create a behavioural change at the fundamental level which is essential to save the environment.
Displaying our Eco Bags and spreading awareness about our project at "A Tale to Tell" exhibition organised by Ka Stamb (art curators) and Tourism Department - UT Ladakh at Tsechu Lamo Art Gallery, Leh.