The other day I read in a syndicated advice column that a person should not give used clothing to Goodwill or some similar resale charity, unless its general quality were something she herself would wear. Actually, that’s not particularly good advice. Enterprises that deal in large volumes of used clothing pick out the best items for resale in their retail shops and sell the rest in bulk to recyclers – mostly in Asia, these days – which separate the items by fiber content for re-manufacture into products such as paper and carpet underlay. As long as the clothing item is clean and has a mostly natural fiber content, there’s a market for it.
Judging by what is thrown out in the University town where I live, a great many Americans treat clothing and bedding almost as disposable commodities, tossing them in the trash when they show the least sign of wear, or have simply ceased to be new. I begin to suspect that throwing a perfectly usable item in the dumpster, rather than selling it or giving it away, is part of the syndrome of shopping addiction. Evaluating the old item as worthless may somehow reinforce a person’s perception that it is necessary to buy a new one to replace it.
I am quite the opposite when it comes to clothing, bedding, and household linens. For the most part, I acquire such things second hand – sometimes from resale shops, but often from people who know that I can and will use them. I use things in their original form until they are conspicuously worn and cannot easily be repaired. At that point the buttons go in the button box and the remains of the garment go in the rag bag, or rather bags, because in my household economy the final destination of a rag depends on its weight and fiber content.
I make tote bags out of old jeans, and in theory I make rugs out of old wool. I say in theory, because I have not actually made a rug, and that accumulation may end up being given away. Old sheets have a myriad of uses. I remember my mother cutting very worn cotton sheets down the middle and sewing the edges together to get a bit more wear out of them, before cutting them up for cleaning rags. This was not a matter of economic necessity for her, but old habits of frugality die hard. In my house, the cotton sheets are converted directly to cleaning rags. The ones with high polyester content, which never seem to actually wear out but become dingy and threadbare, are used as lining for totes and interfacing for various clothing items.
Worn-out t-shirts and towels make wonderful cleaning rags. I do not understand the person who will scrupulously buy the “green” brand of paper towels and think himself environmentally conscious as he tosses wads of dirty paper into the trash alongside a worn or damaged t-shirt. It would be far more environmentally conscious to wipe up the spill with the t-shirt. Most personal and household applications employing disposable paper goods can just as well use rags, and in many cases the cloth option is superior. Of course, one must then wash the rags. That’s no big deal if you’re wiping up spilled milk, but most people would balk at substituting a rag bag for the toilet paper roll.
I find there is something homely and comforting about a rag bag. Digging into it brings back memories of childhood in a less throwaway culture, when pop bottles were actually refilled, and patches put on clothing to extend its wear rather than as a fashion statement, and the butcher paid us five cents a pound for the cans of bacon fat. It’s nice when nostalgia has a practical application too, providing tools to cope with a changing world in which the sorts of thrift that were second nature to our grandparents, and still a part of life in our parents’ generation, are experiencing a revival as environmental responsibility and may soon become a necessity.
Photo by Martha Sherwood – All Rights Reserved
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