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A Good Fit

When we think of clothes, we usually think of two things: buying and wearing them. Most of us know a bit about where clothes come from—and some of the uncomfortable truth about the conditions for many workers who make them. But many people know less about where the garments they donate ultimately end up. 

As it turns out, most American retail thrift shops’ clothing donations far exceed what they could ever sell, and 50-80% of donated clothes are resold overseas in African countries. In Ghana, a massive influx of secondhand clothes over the past few decades has suppressed economic opportunities for its artisans, who simply can’t compete on price. According to the Boston social enterprise startup Make Fashion Clean (MFC), there were more than 25,000 jobs in the formal textile industry in Ghana in 1980; today, there are fewer than 3,000. What’s more, the process of re-selling donated or discarded clothing shifts fashion waste from America to landfills in Africa, where many of the clothes are dumped.

It’s a problem that first-year Olin students are tackling head-on as part of their Dirt to Shirt course, an intensive study of the global supply chain for clothing taught by professor of Anthropology Caitrin Lynch.

Many of the social, economic, political, environmental and technological factors that arise as part of a garment’s journey are disconcertingly eye-opening. “I have an interest in labor rights, so I don’t shop at fast fashion stores. But I didn’t have an extended knowledge about the process, and I had not thought about solutions before this,” says student Alex Hindelang. “Now when I think about shopping on Black Friday, I think, ‘that’s disgusting!’”

Now in their second half of the semester, the students are working with MFC, which partners with the Matilda Flow Inclusion Foundation, a Ghanaian NGO that employs Ghanaian artisans to make garments from U.S. secondhand clothing. The NGO’s artisans—women with disabilities or who are mothers of children with disabilities—aim to expand their system of “circular fashion,” by selling their creations back to consumers in America.

The class took field trips to the nearby Needham Community Council thrift shop to learn about the issues with U.S. second-hand clothing and to forage for used clothes that could be used in a product development experiment. 

MFC tasked the Olin students with three different projects. One team was assigned the job of designing products that could easily be made by craftswomen, and that would work for the American market. The student team will deliver specific patterns, instructions and videos to NGO founder and artisan Matilda Lartey, so that her team of craftswomen can make the products themselves.

Jonathan Montague is part of the class’ knitting team, which was tasked with developing products could be made out of T-shirt yarn, a kind of yarn made from the soft, worn-in yet durable fabric of used cotton shirts. After experimenting with ways to turn T-shirts into a yarn that can be woven or knitted into a new product, they landed on a few marketable ideas: durable, small-scale rugs using thicker T-shirt yarn, colorful hot pads and yarn hats. They even made a prototype for yarmulkes, anticipating a niche market for T-shirt yarmulkes.

A second team was tasked with learning more about natural dyes. As part of the natural dyes team, Hindelang experimented with dyeing cotton T-shirts using natural ingredients like turmeric, madder, and coffee, the kinds of ingredients that Lartey’s team could easily source. “We tested processes to see what would be most useful for her, and did a cost/benefit analysis,” he says. “Synthetic dyes are especially bad in Ghana because Matilda doesn’t have a process to dispose of chemicals.”

The team is putting together instructions for making and using these dyes, with an emphasis on the Ghanaian tradition of tie-dyeing. They are making recommendations to boost marketability in America, such as using coffee to tone down some of the super bright garments.

The third team focused on making a video for social media to inform people in the United States about the problem of dumping our clothes in African countries.

One of the class’ most significant contributions came about inadvertently. Montague noticed that Lartey’s artisans were spending an incredible amount of time using scissors to cut clothing into thin strips to turn into yarn. Montague’s team developed a cutting jig that uses a wheeled fabric cutter and a wooden board to cut thin, uniform strips, effectively shaving hours off the process. “On a conference call, she said she absolutely loves the cutting machine, which is pretty cool,” says Montague. They’re planning to send a final model with instructions to Lartey after testing a few more versions; Lartey can then use the model as a guide to make more cutting machines.

The class is taking their creations to the Needham Winter Arts Festival on December 8, which takes placefrom 10am–3pm, Powers Hall, Needham Town Hall - Free Admission. They’re also bringing their impassioned perspectives to inform the community about some of the unsound and morally questionable aspects of the global apparel industry, and will give out information and show a video they made to raise awareness. Proceeds from any sales of this class’s work go to the Needham Community Council.

“The students got pretty passionate about the problems in the global garment industry, and working with these groups allowed them to see what it takes to try to do something about it,” says Lynch. “And they’re excited about having created things that can cultivate jobs for women in Ghana and result in designs that might make a difference in people’s lives.”