Sew sustainable

Vinnies Re Sew is many things. It’s a way to divert clothing and textile waste from landfill. It’s a place to learn to sew. It’s way to connect people. And it’s all happening on the mezzanine floor of an op shop in Kilbirnie.

Vinnies Re Sew volunteer Marvin Scott is pedal to the metal, furiously sewing to meet a deadline. 

He’s been contracted to make reusable produce bags from net curtain offcuts for Zero Box, a start-up run by a group of students aiming to introduce people to reusable products. 

Until this work came along, he was ready to chuck in the career he had been trained for. He studied at NZ Fashion Tech, and was working as an embroiderer and design assistant when his employer started talking “corporate, agile” environments — he was soon made redundant. 

Struggling to find work in a New Zealand’s ever-shrinking manufacturing industry, Marvin started volunteering his skills at Vinnies Re Sew and found his happy place. 

“It makes perfect sense to have places like [Re Sew] because a lot of the waste around the world is produced by the garment industry. I’ve read articles about the mountains of clothing in Haiti and all the waste that goes into rivers from dying fabrics — it’s horrible. 

“So being in a place where one can practise a more sustainable and ethical way of producing, getting to help other people, sharing my skill set, it’s good.”

Marvin had initially been teaching the students who created Zero Box to make the produce bags themselves, but their business soon became so busy that they were able to pay him to do it for them.

“It made a whole lot of difference, because it was doing the thing that I loved doing, but in a completely different context, which is a lot more community-based and sustainable.” 

Marvin Scott at Vinnies Re Sew
Marvin Scott loves that he can do what he’s trained to do, in a sustainable way.

Marvin’s story, and the project he’s working on, are one of the many that have already come out of Re Sew in the two years it has been running. 

Day-to-day the project is about making items like produce bags, baby bibs, cot sheets and breast pads for the people that St Vincent De Paul’s social workers support. 

But they also get creative when they can too: Suffrage in Stitches, which has just had an exhibition at Wellington Museum, was a way of using scrap materials, getting people stitching, as well as celebrating 125 years of suffrage.

When I asked Re Sew coordinator Caroline O’Reilly if what they’re doing is reducing waste to landfill, she’s frank about it. 

“In the beginning it was depressing, because it’s miniscule. Repurposing and recycling needs to be at a systematic level. The manufacturers need to take it back and take responsibility for it, or the government needs to have schemes in place, for example, where they recycle plastic and it becomes furniture. It can’t be done piece by piece.” 

The problem is too, says Caroline, there’s just too much of the stuff.

“[St Vincent De Paul’s waste bill is] ridiculous amounts of money and it’s due, basically, to fast fashion. It’s due to people buying garments made from materials that just don’t last instead of good quality clothes, and they are buying way too much. It comes into us, and it’s not resellable.”

Caroline O'Reilly, Re Sew coordinator
Re Sew coordinator Caroline O’Reilly with the creations of a Re Sew participant and textile artist Felicia Siow.

Step in to any op shop in New Zealand and you’ll find rack after rack of poor-quality clothing. If you’re lucky, in between the polyester cotton dresses and acrylic wool cardigans, you’ll find well-made treasures and ever-durable New Zealand vintage. 

But much of the clothing donated to op shops will eventually make its way to landfill. 

More than 100 million kilos of textile waste – much of it clothing – is dumped in New Zealand landfills each year. At Wellington’s Southern Landfill, the volume of textile waste has doubled in the last 10 years.   

The fashion industry is estimated to be responsible for about 10 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions – because of its energy-intensive processes and global supply chains, it consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined. 

Vinnies Wellington set up Re Sew as part of their effort to become a more sustainable organisation, and reduce its waste to landfill bill – it spent more than $18,000 last year on disposal of textile waste alone. 

While Re Sew is only using a small fraction of that textile waste, it’s still worth doing – it’s getting people thinking about the way they’re using, reusing and wasting stuff. 

“Part of our role is advocacy — getting people to think about how they dispose of their waste,” says Caroline. 

“Reuse rather than dispose of it, turn a t-shirt into a t-shirt bag, turn the sleeves into some face wipes, keep mending it, think of turning your dress into a sandwich bag or a beeswax wrap.”

In an ideal world, says Caroline, the government would regulate the industry to the point that only responsible manufacturers were allowed to sell here in New Zealand. But until then she’s encouraging people to think about what they’re buying, and give it the longest life possible.  

“For consumers, if you’re going to buy something, buy something that’s cotton, linen, wool – natural fibre, so you can bury it in the ground, it composts and you take responsibility for it. You don’t put it into landfill, you make it into something else. Instead of buying four cheap shirts, buy one shirt that’s really good quality that’s going to last.”

Caroline and Re Sew volunteers teach people sewing skills which mean people can fix or alter their clothing to make it last longer too. Though she won’t accept a lack of skill as an excuse not to mend something. 

“Basic running stitch. If you can do it in and out and hold a needle you can sew.” 

But isn’t there more to mending? 

“Yeah, but there’s the internet! We learn everything else of the internet, it’s not exactly hard. There’s so much of this stuff going cheap in the op shops – just go to the op shop and get a needle and thread. You can join an embroidery club to learn.

“You don’t need to be brilliant at these things. And you don’t need to be a perfectionist. Put a little bit of your personality into your clothing. Someone somewhere spent time making your garment. Don’t let it go so quickly.”

Andrea Bland and Shirley White, Vinnies Re Sew
Re Sew volunteers Andrea Bland (left) and Shirley White

Caroline’s anyone can do it attitude likely works well for the people who come to learn at Re Sew. When the project was started in late 2017, they thought a training course would be the ticket, but it turned out there were few jobs at the other end. 

“There is little sewing left in this country. Minimal industry and manufacturing has mainly moved abroad. There are a few small manufacturers that occasionally contact me for machinists, but it wasn’t really what was needed in the community.”

So instead they’ve designed Re Sew to be a place where people can drop in when they’re able to, fitting upskilling around language classes, children, appointments. 

Skilled volunteers work with whoever turns up – new migrants, people with disabilities, people who have been long-term unemployed, those recovering from mental health issues, or just people who want to learn how to sew.

It’s as much about building community connections than anything else, says Caroline. 

“It’s breaking down social barriers, cultural barriers, breaking down fears of disability, unconscious bias, those things, so that people end up working together and networking.” 

On the day I visit, there’s Jessica Johnson, who’s newly arrived in New Zealand from the United States and wanted a way to meet people. 

“I’ve never done [sewing] for other people, so it’s a good way to pass my time – I find it very calming, to come and work, instead of sitting at home. It’s pretty fun to be able to work with all these different types of fabric… it’s cool to put it to use.”

Jessica says while she’s always been conscious of her waste, she’s even more so in New Zealand and definitely thinks about what clothing she’s buying.  

“I don’t like to buy stuff that’s not quality. Sometimes I walk around downstairs to see what they have and it’s like, why did you buy that in the first place?”

There’s also Andrea Bland, who found herself with time on her hands after she stopped paid work. She’s always been a sewer, so thought it would be a good way to help out and spend her time. But it’s the community of people that keep her coming back every week.  

“It’s the company. It’s like a little team. Different people on different days. And just adding to recycling and repurposing a lot of preloved clothes. People give. And we’ve got time.”

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