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Care for reuse materials

This textile care guide is designed to help you make the most of your reuse materials, whether you use them for products to sell or objects to keep. 

Laundry hanging on a line against a backdrop of sparse trees on a lawn

Photo by Dmitry Arslanov on Unsplash

Content

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See an unfamiliar word? Head to our Textile Waste – Glossary of Terms to learn some new vocabulary.

Fibre composition and fabric type

Materials can be misleading. The nature of textile production today is to create a material that performs well, but can be created for the lowest cost. An example of this is found in the use of viscose as a silk substitute. It is lightweight, flowing, cooling and breathable like silk, but can be produced without the use of animals, at minimal relative cost industrially and is easier to wash for the end consumer.

That said, the fibre composition and fabric type will generally be integral to the application of your product or project, and so you do not want to go through the effort of making something that is not fit for purpose. It also determines the information you give to your customers regarding care - and could even relay how much the materials you purchase are and the price of the finished product.

Folded fabrics with cotton buds on top

Photo by Moonstarious Project on Unsplash

Best practice in washing and care

Now that you have your saved textiles waste in hand, the next step is to prepare it so that it’s ready for making and selling. In this section, we’ll cover some considerations and provide suggestions on how to do just that.

Shrinkage

It is generally recommended to launder fabrics before sewing, even if they come directly from a producer. At different stages during fabric production the fabric is washed to rid the yarns and surface of agents, however, fabrics can also be treated with a shrinking agent in the last step. Fabrics should come with an estimate of shrinkage, or state “pre-shrunk”. These directions are then taken into account during the cut-make-trim stage with additional seam allowance, or else the end customer may be directed to “shrink-to-fit”, such as is common with jeans.

End-of-roll or surplus pieces
If your fabrics are end-of-roll or surplus pieces, it would be recommended to wash them - simply to be safe; it is unlikely you have all composition and manufacturing information.

Cutting room floor waste or offcuts
If you are using cutting room floor waste or offcuts, they are likely to be frayed, creased and small; in this instance, washing may actually tidy them up, but could also cause entanglement and further fraying so take this on a case-by-case basis.

Finished textile products:
For finished textile products, it would be likely that the producer had done shrinkage tests on the fabric or wash tests of the final product, however, as mentioned above, there are instances where customer shrinkage is required. So again, take this on a case-by-case basis.

Of course, some textile waste you get hold of may not even be a fabric.

Yarns are usually iron steamed once finished product has been made, and so skeins of yarns you would use as normal, but the finished product should be washed or steamed to “set” them. Finished knitted products then you would assume have been steam set, but if you are going to be cutting them up, it doesn’t hurt to be diligent.

Non-woven textiles, for instance wool blankets or certain rugs, follow a similar rule of thumb as fabrics as they are still produced with fibres, and need to be ready for sale. So again, go with case-by-case. It is likely you need to clean the product anyway for the following reasons.

Pale blue yarn by Cordwainers Dye, naturally dyed and on a decorative plate.

Pale blue yarn by Cordwainers Dye

Marks, stains and writing

Your stain removal efforts will be determined by the fibre and the fabric. Fortunately there are plenty of online tips, but unfortunately, it can often be a trial and error situation. Bear in mind if you plan on selling the finished product that any time spent fixing damage eats into your margins, and remember that it’s good practice to try your stain removal in a small less conspicuous area first, just in case it bleeds or smudges.

General care

Washing materials in dribs and drabs can feel less environmentally-friendly than buying a new fabric. Regardless, all fabrics should be washed before use, especially if you’re making stuff to sell, because it will likely have picked up contaminants on its journey from producer to shop to home. Washing, ironing or steaming also gets the fabric ready for sewing generally speaking, making it easier to handle.

As you may not know the full fabric blend, adding collected textile waste to a washing machine with your own clothes could feel risky. It in fact could be risky, as the dye may run or lint may come off. However, if you do know the composition, or if they’re undyed materials, then holding on to the pieces to wash with your general washing will save energy. Perhaps you even have a machine that weighs the textiles and uses water and energy accordingly. 

Common-sense things to consider that may be overlooked:

  • Is it more mucky or smelly than your general wash, so that it may need to be washed on a higher temperature?
  • Is there a chance the dye could run and should be washed alone?
  • Is it likely that the composition is similar to your general wash i.e. cotton for a 30˚ wash?
  • Does the material have a coating, such as water repellency, and need to go in separately?
  • Is the material malleable enough that it will even fit in the machine i.e. is it a rug?
  • Is the material so hard to figure out that it’s better to seek knowledge from a dry cleaning specialist?

Another costly aspect of washing textiles is the detergent. It also creates packaging pollution that frankly could negate the good work you have put in with saving textiles from landfill.

Alternatives to purchasing supermarket detergent:

  • Refill your detergent from a refill shop using the same bottle or jar
  • Create your own laundry liquid from conkers [see Plastic Free Hackney’s recipe]
  • Use cedar balls with essential oils, especially beneficial for delicate materials
  • Use an EcoEgg (hard plastic egg filled with detergent caplets)
  • Soapberry nuts are a natural plant nut that contains the cleaning agent saponin
  • Laundry detergent sheets are lighter so reducing energy in transportation
  • Basic ingredients like baking soda, lemon juice and/or vinegar are also sometimes used

Dry cleaning

If you require specialist help, some dry cleaners can provide wisdom on compositions, will take materials apart for washing, and suggest what type of cleaning would be best if selling products on to customers. Of course, this type of cleaning is an additional cost; however, some materials - especially ready-made products - may benefit from the outset with this treatment e.g. leather handbags. Plus, it’s important to pass one whether you require a wet cleaner or a dry cleaner, as explained below.

Dry cleaned white shirts hanging at dry cleaners in plastic

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Dry cleaning: a dry process that uses a water-free liquid solvent tetrachloroethylene, known in the industry as "perc". Traditional dry cleaning processes soak clothes in toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, which can erode colour and stiffen material, not to mention are extremely harmful to the environment and health of employees. 

Wet cleaning: a wet process using water that “pre-spots” products and then clean garments with water and biodegradable detergents in specialist machines. They generally have individually-calculated cycles so reducing energy and water consumption.

Liquid CO2 cleaning: liquid CO2 is used to provide carbonation to soft drinks, a testament to its non-toxic quality, and tends to be captured as a byproduct of existing industrial processes. The liquid CO2 becomes a natural solvent when exposed to high pressure in a drum, and is particularly good at tackling stains (especially oil-based ones).

Some eco-friendly specialist cleaning services:

Drying

These days, it is uncommon to find a tumble dryer in the UK, especially in cities. Using a machine to dry something that will naturally dry in air is comparatively energy intensive. Besides the energy usage, tumble dryers agitate textiles or unsurprisingly, tumble components on the item, thus reducing their integrity and adding to their wear. You’ve probably also experienced the static electricity of acrylic items after a machine drying.

No matter your textile waste, using a tumble dryer will likely only use up energy. It could be quicker and save on your personal energy, but in the long run, you don’t want to risk shrinkage or damage. It’s a good idea to communicate this to your customers in order to aid in raising awareness of low impact consumption, and to ensure that the products you create last as long as possible.

This guide is produced in partnership with Stephanie Steele, London-based textile sustainability specialist.

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