Traveling in Guatemala and Mexico, I was surprised to find that in places with amazing textile traditions of weaving and intricate embroidery still being widely practiced, t-shirts bearing logos of sports teams from the States or English phrases were both popular and fashionable. At first I was curious where these items had come from- they looked directly plucked from the closet of any college student from the United States. Soon I began to find temporary shops that were simply piles of clothing on curbs, in truck beds, and thrift shops. In these, it was rare to see items that seemed to reflect local traditions, but remarkably simple to find items that looked as though they might have belonged to my friends back home.
Given my brief introduction to this side of the textile trade, when I first saw a description of Ragfinery, I immediately wanted to be a part. While I have always enjoyed creative fashion, I was aware how overwhelmed our country is with cheap clothing, and that this overflow either goes directly to landfills or is shipped away, often to the same countries where the items are made. Any organization working to find ways to minimize this by creatively repurposing these things, seeking local, community based solutions to problems with global impacts, was one I hoped to work for. In the year I have been involved with Ragfinery, it has changed or evolved in almost every way, and my own role here has also varied drastically.
Although I am now Ragfinery’s newest employee, I have already spent a year working full time here as a VISTA volunteer. As members of VISTA (Volunteers in service to America), volunteers spend a year building capacity for organizations which aim to have meaningful impacts on impoverished communities. Ragfinery strives to do this by providing work experience, turning waste items into valuable resources.
When I first became involved, Ragfinery was almost entirely volunteer run. While it was amazing to be a part of this team, it was sometimes difficult to maintain organization in the shop from day to day. Because day managers often didn’t spend time in the shop together, a section of fabric might be moved repeatedly from one side of the shop to another since there wasn’t a time when the relative benefits could be discussed in person. It was obvious that a general manager was needed, as the growth of the organization began to outpace the people available to cover the sprawling scope of all that Ragfinery does. Everything from donation processing, to merchandising, to customer service, to organizing volunteer and trainee tasks and running workshops needed to be appropriately organized at all times.
Shan Sparling, then a community volunteer, agreed to volunteer as a full time manager for months before she was hired as a general manager. Having her as the center of Ragfinery beginning last winter stabilized things and has continuously made it possible to take on larger projects.
Ragfinery now has 2 full time and 3 part time employees. This has expanded what Ragfinery has been able to do in a wide variety of ways, providing a solid structure and organization to everything we do.
We continue to have a solid base of volunteers, offering their services in organizing the donations we receive, sewing items for the front of the store, and even teaching classes with us.
Looking back over the past months, it is amazing to see all the changes and events that are easy to forget for those of us spending much of our time at Ragfinery. In the last 6 months, we were able to organize two community upcycling challenges, one in conjunction with Wise Buys. We were able to start great collaborations with local breweries, participate in the Yes We Can Festival, The Co-op Party, and the Makeshift Block Party.
The amount of items consigned by local fabric artists and those made in the shop has grown immensely, offering a wide variety of upcycled and dyed clothing items. Slowly but surely, community members with widely varied skills and interests have found Ragfinery and their own niche here.
My own role at Ragfinery has evolved in many respects as well. When I began working here, I spent much of my time out of the shop, speaking to organizations and schools about potential collaborations and seeking donations. I also got to spend many hours drawing logos for the organization, one of which appears on Ragfinery t-shirts and bags. Since then, donations have been pouring in, and I have spent more time inside of the shop, taking in consignments, meeting with potential teachers, creating signs, and helping with the ever growing list of day to day projects.
From my original curiosity about those piles of used clothing in Central America, to seeing bales of clothing in my own town, finding out more about the world of textiles has been fascinating. It has been wonderful to grow along with Ragfinery, and I look forward to continuing to do so.