Fabric, The Untapped Renewable Resource: #TrashRich with Kathryn Greenwood Swanson

Staff Writer: Kamryn Kobel

Email: kkobel@umassd.edu

On the evening of September 21st, I made my way to the Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality offices and found myself in a cozy room that had been filled with storage bins overflowing with scrap fabric. On the floor lay a huge braided rug: handmade, exploding with colors, and full of life and personality.

I, along with many other students, had come to learn how to make rugs like the one laying before us at an event called #TrashRich, hosted by Kathryn Greenwood Swanson. But Swanson did not only come to teach us how to braid rugs; she also came to teach us that we are all #TrashRich.

(Kathryn Greenwood Swanson [@swansonsfabrics]. Photo of the handmade braided rug. Instagram, 6. July 2022, https://www.instagram.com/p/Cfr1bikvYg5/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=)

Swanson had brought the rug and the fabric from her second-hand fabric store, Swanson’s Fabrics, located in Turner Falls, MA. According to her website, Swanson’s is a “textile merchant for the people, by the people”, where people can go to donate any old, unused fabrics that they’ve collected over the years.

The store, which is owned and operated by Swanson, is almost completely donation-based. Customers can buy any fabric in the store for $4 a yard, or make an exchange with materials that they bring from home. 

This kind of affordability and accessibility is important to Swanson, who says that there is so much fabric in the world that it has become a sort of “natural resource”. That’s where the phrase #TrashRich comes from: the over-abundance of fabric that has been completely overlooked by society and consumers.

Linens, bedsheets, curtains, and fabric from at-home sewer’s unused stock are all untapped resources that, unless they are donated to stores like Swanson’s, will sit in attics forever unused.

Or, even worse, the fabrics (many of which contain polyester and other plastic fibers) will be put into landfills, where they will never break down. And, since there’s so much unused fabric to be found, it can be considered a sort of “raw material”, as common as wood or stone, that has no reason not to be utilized. 

Swanson believes the most important thing is that the fabric is being used by someone to create something. Instead of considering old fabric as trash, “A folded piece of cloth is still as ready to be made into something wonderful today as it was 50 years ago“, as Swanson says on her website.

Instead of constantly purchasing new fabrics and materials to craft with, we should start by using the things that we already have around us.

“We have enough; That’s the radical idea,” says Swanson. “We live in abundance. We have enough. It’s all here. We don’t need to make anything new.”

We are surrounded by an abundance of materials that can be reused, and we need to start reusing them. It’s not about making money or producing consumable goods, it’s about making something out of what we consider trash. So long as the fabric is being used by someone, whether it be a novice craft sewer or an expert seamstress, the world is better off than if it were sent to the landfill. 

Sustainability is not the only thing that Swanson discussed during the rug-making session. Another aspect of reusing old fabrics is the reclamation of sewing as an act of independence and autonomy. Swanson talked about how decades ago, clothes used to be custom-made to fit each individual body.

Now, people’s bodies are forced to fit into the clothes that are mass-manufactured. Clothes used to be made with love and time by people who knew us personally. Nowadays, clothes are produced en masse by companies that exploit workers and use cheap fabrics that are bad for the environment.

But through stores like Swanson’s, fabric and the art of sewing are becoming more attainable again. People can reclaim the act of making clothes for themselves, with the kind of time and attention that produces long-lasting, quality clothing- clothing that will not end up eternally sitting in landfills.

We know the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, but Swanson likes to add a fourth step to that process: Repair. Instead of buying new pieces of clothing when the cheap ones wear down, people can learn to repair their clothes with used fabrics. This not only saves the planet from unused fabric, but also from consumers buying more clothing at an unsustainable rate. 

Swanson’s mission is to teach people that “You too can be a capable person who doesn’t need to go to the store for everything.” Letting go of our reliance on manufacturers to clothing us is very freeing, and brings feelings of capability and purpose.

By learning how to sew and make things out of thrifted fabric, we are establishing ourselves as capable members of society that don’t need to rely on corporations. Swanson says that “It’s revolutionary to think that we have enough.”

And we do have enough – so let the revolution begin. 


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