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How donated textiles become new clothes

How donated textiles become new clothes

| Text: Gunhild Wallin and Bengt Rolfer

Fashion and textiles are environmental bad guys in terms of raw material production, work environments and pollution from processes to finished products and transport. There are many ideas for circular solutions in all parts of the chain, but it will take time to turn this big ship around.

When the then Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy Alice Bah Kuhnke arrived at the 2019 Nobel party, she wore a silk gala dress. It was made by Stockholms Stadsmission’s company Remake Sthlm, which has been turning donated clothes into new designs since 2002. 

Bah Kuhnke's dress was made out of donated silk shirts, including her own. The worn-out clothes had been cut up and transformed into cascading materials worthy of a Nobel party. 

“We managed to show that reuse does not have a particular design, but that it can be anything at all. Donated and unwanted clothes can become ball dresses and suits,” says Marie Teike, the Remake founder, designer and unit manager.

Marie Teike loves fashion and the kind of expression and magic that clothes can represent. She does not, however, love the fashion industry. 

“Today’s system is all wrong – in terms of how materials are produced, human conditions during production and the way in which products are transported. It is so wrong and I cannot imagine working in that industry,” she says.

A new brand based on second-hand clothes

Marie Teike has been sewing her own clothes since she was a young girl in a small town north of Gävle. She was already using second-hand clothes to create her own garments. It feeds her creativity and works as a kind of canvas which gives her an outlet for her fantasy within the framework of the material and the piece of clothing. 

She spent ten years in London working as a model. He also made her own small collections with material from existing clothes, often on commission by artists. She ran a second-hand shop in Sydney for a few years and that experience led to a temporary job in one of Stockholms Stadsmission’s second-hand shops. 

This is where she got the idea to start a label within the organisation, securely anchored in social and environmental sustainability, in an organisation that was also working for a more human society. This became Remake Sthlm.

Marie Teike 2

20 years later, the label is still part of Stockholms Stadsmission’s organisation. There is a large atelier in the suburb of Farsta Strand, an online shop plus a retail space at the traditional NK department store. Remake Stockholm is a valued brand which has won the Elle fashion magazine sustainability award, NK’s innovation award and the Damernas Värld magazine's prestigious Guldknappen award – to Marie Teike’s joy and surprise. 

“I have never been out of breath for so long.”

“Having our aesthetics awarded like this gave us self-confidence, and it confirmed that we were on the right track. It was huge,” she says.

Teike shows us around the space and tells us about how they are working. There are eight permanent employees. They also have some 20 people on work training in cooperation with the employment service. To help in this undertaking, Stockholms Stadsmission employs a full-time supervisor. 

“Everybody has their journey, and there are many exciting encounters. I do not have to change jobs because so much changes around me here. The actual creative process changes too. We never know what material we will be working on, and that means we innovate every day.”

40 tonnes of clothes and textiles a week

Some of their clothes are exhibited in the entry hall, and our eyes are drawn to an orange outdoor jacket. Donated clothes have been given a new life and a new expression, a chance to be “re-loved”. In one atelier, an employee is working on “filleting” jeans. All seams, linings and zips are cut away. What is left is a piece of pure material in the shape of a trouser leg, which is then sorted according to colour or level of wear before being sewn into yard goods.   

At one table an employee is embroidering colourful patterns onto a worn wool jacket. Another table is piled high with winter hats, balaclavas made from worn-out wool jackets. Next door are rows upon rows of clothes sorted according to material, colour and previous function. Marie Teike runs her hand across an orange jacket with visible affection for the material.

Every week, Stadsmissionen receives between 35 and 40 tonnes of textiles. Some are sent directly to the 23 outlets, others go to Stockholms Stadsmission’s own projects, like warm clothes for those who need them. Remake get the clothes which they can increase the value of. Employees on the sorting desk look for particular colours or materials that Remake Sthlm send as suggestions. Sometimes the employees have their own suggestions for what they think might fit Remake Sthlm. The sorting office is like the organisation’s heart, says Marie Teike. 

One percent of the world’s textiles reused

Every year, Swedes buy 13 kilos of textiles in the shape of clothes and things like upholstery, curtains and cloth. The average lifespan of a piece of clothing is 2.2 years. The world average is nine kilos per person, according to the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. Sweden’s consumption of textiles has increased by 40 percent between 2000 and 2020, according to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. 

Unlike many other materials, textiles aren’t easily recycled and usually end up as general waste. More and more clothes shops do accept used clothes, but this is still on a small scale. 

At the same time, the textile industry is the fourth largest consumer of raw materials and water after food production, housing and transport. Yet only one percent of the global consumption of textiles is recycled, according to the EU Commission’s action plan for a new circular economy. The EU textile sector has started to catch up after years of structural change, but still, 60 percent of clothes sold in the EU are made outside of the Union. 

The Commission now wants to address the problem through a special textile strategy. The aim is to strengthen the industry’s competitiveness and innovation by encouraging the EU market to become more sustainable and adopt a more circular mindset. Much of this is about recycling textiles, but the strategy is also looking at so-called “fast fashion” in order to find new business models.  

There are many proposals. Some focus on creating textiles that are recyclable, some on creating support for the reuse of textiles and for offering repairs, others on creating new business models which support a circular mindset within the industry.  

The future way of shopping

Marie Teike is optimistic but also worried about the sheer scale of what is happening within the trade right now. It has become more acceptable to sell second-hand clothes and there are many new regulations coming from the EU. 

“I worry on behalf of the entire industry – where do all the people who love to work with clothes go? At the same time, I am thinking ‘finally’.”

She is convinced that second-hand will become one of the main ways of shopping in the future. She never buys anything new herself. She sees circular fashion as a necessary future both for the environment and for social sustainability. 

“This is out of respect for people and materials, while it also challenges the creative process. We still want to do what we did 20 years ago. We want to communicate our way of working with textiles and quality. Sometimes I hear that we are ‘dabbling in clothes’ but this is so much more. Today we know more about the effects our large consumption of clothes has on the environment and on people,” says Marie Teike.


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