A stitch in time saves lots more than nine. In Whangārei, in a corner of the Vine Street Salvation Army Family Store, stitches in time have saved 10 tonnes of clothing and fabrics from going to landfill in one year.
And all profits from Intercept Fabric Rescue, which creates upcycled items from good-quality rescued textiles, go towards the Salvation Army’s programmes to help vulnerable locals.
Much of the clothing and fabric donated to op shops can’t be sold. Sometimes there’s nothing much wrong with it, but staff don’t have time to mend or clean it.
Fabric artist Jenny Hill was helping paint a mural behind the Vine Street shop in mid-2019 when she noticed huge amounts of fabric being tossed away.
“It worried me because I could see there was really great denim going in there; linen, all kinds of what I thought was treasure, because I’m a fabric nut.”
Soon after, at a dinner party, she and a fellow fabric lover started wondering how rescuing that fabric might work. The shop manager was keen to find out. A friend set up Intercept’s Facebook page to enthusiastic interest. Two more friends came on board.
“The original idea was to rescue beautiful fabrics and turn them into lovely products, but it turned into a wider, zero-waste concept, giving to other upcyclers and Plunket; organisations in Northland needing draught stoppers, curtains, bedding.”
They called for volunteers – sewers and fabric artists; others to sort through donations – then moved into a space out the back of the Sallies’ shop.
Only three in every 10 items of clothing donated to the store can be sold, estimates Jenny. The rest are worn out, pilled, stained, have a hole or some other issue. The Intercept sorters winnow out items for upcycling and others that can be mended and donated to families in need.
After that process, she estimates only one or two of the 10 items end up in landfill.
The Intercept treatment can encompass repair, a quick refresh (stains removed), embellishment (adding decoration to cover a hole) or reworking (removing or adding sleeves, turning an old dress into a skirt with statement pockets).
Holey merino tops become warm beanies. Jackets are livened up with colourful motifs. Recently Jenny repurposed a damaged woollen blanket to make two orange ponchos and a shoulder bag, with embellishments from a vintage tablemat and an orange curtain. These 1970s-vibe items made $150 for the Sallies.
Clothing for women, men and children make up the bulk of their stock. There’s a popular vintage rack, and a range of bags, plus reusable makeup wipes, cushions, toys and festive decorations. Prices are low: $18-$28 for most products, up to around $50.
Intercept opened in March 2020, just in time to close for the first Covid lockdown. But they knew the idea worked. On opening day they made $1,200 and demand has remained strong, as people seek alternatives to the high cost of fast fashion.
The lockdown seemed to fuel people’s desire to live with a lighter footprint, says Jenny. “I think anybody who was leaning towards being more eco-friendly had a big step change over that time and started to think about the amount of crap they buy and where it ends up. Intercept has come at just the right time.”
As a child, Jenny watched her mother make ballgowns for herself and clothes for Jenny. Aged seven, she was given a handheld sewing machine and a lifelong passion began.
For someone who’s supposed to be retired, this is essentially a full-time job. But it’s invigorating. “Every single item I make is a little design challenge. It gives me so much pleasure. And when it sells for good money – ka-ching!”
Everyone volunteers their time; ages range from 16 to 80-something. Jenny manages the boutique, while another member of the executive team manages the sorters and makers, and another places products for donation in the community.
They salvage good-quality, natural fabrics such as wool, cotton, linen and silk, and avoid synthetics. Some vintage fabrics – crimpolene, viyella – are also worth saving because they’re well made.
In exchange for the profits, the Sallies provide floor space, handle the money, and buy the swing tags and labels. Jenny wants the idea to spread. A free, detailed manual on Intercept’s website explains how to set up a similar operation and she’s happy to provide advice.
She loves the circular nature of this enterprise, where items once seen as rubbish regain their value.
“We’ve rescued them, we’ve loved them up and represented them as something very valuable, not just in terms of money but what it represents. This is something that was going to get wasted. And now here it is, looking absolutely wonderful on a hanger again.”
Reported by Mary de Ruyter for our AA Directions Spring 2021 issue