Can Fabrics Be Recycled?

My 100% cotton shirt that is stained, faded and threadbare is still, you know, cotton. Could some mechanical, biological, or chemical process break down the garment to its essece, re-construct it, and make it back into useful cotton to be used in another, new garment?


Not fabric, exactly, but 100% cotton fabrics can be made into cotton rag paper. The older and more worn the fabric, the better. This is the rags that the “rag and bone man” wanted.

I took a handmade paper class a couple of years ago, and one of my classmates made a corset-style top out of paper that she made out of thrift-store sheets (hey, a garment! Not a practical one though).

First, she washed the sheets, then cut/ripped them into small pieces. She cooked them for 10 hours in a big pot with a chemical that escapes me at the moment to soften them.

After the fibers were softened, she put it in the Hollander Beater ( ), which is a machine that beats the fibers to separate them so they can be suspended in water. Look, here is the Hollander Beater that we used:

After beating for several hours I suspect (those cotton fibers were still tough even after all that cooking), she made a whole bunch of sheets of paper and sewed them into a corset.

Unfortunately, I am not exactly friends with this girl (understatement), so I don’t have any pictures of this. Instead you can look at my project, Puppet Arms!

Sadly, many quilts today are made with all new fabric.
We still see some made with old worn out clothes. What a great way to recycle.

During my recent period of unemployment, I did one day a week voluntary work in a local charity shop. I was surprised at the comparatively high price we were paid for bulk bagged rags - about four UK pounds per sack. There were days when the shop was too full of stock to accept further donations of kitchenware etc, but we never, ever turned away clothes and textiles - because at worst, any overflow could just be bagged and stored for collection by the rag man.

As I understand it, the collected bulk textiles would be sorted for a variety of further uses:

  • Clothes in good condition shipped for resale in developing countries
  • Fabric items clean, but not resaleable shipped for cutting apart and remanufacturing into patchwork bags, etc
  • Fabric items worn or otherwise in poor condition sorted into fabric type and shredded for respinning into new fabrics, stuffing, or pulped to make paper.

Rag paper (containing cotton fibers) is superior to paper made from wood pulp. The fibers are longer, thicker and stronger.

The problem with recycling paper is that each time the fibers get recycled they get broken down more and become weaker. That’s why recycled paper is mixed with virgin wood fibers. Otherwise, continually recycled paper is too weak to be useful. Sometimes you will get cheap wrapping paper that contains a high amount of recycled paper. You will notice that it tears so easily that it has to be handled carefully.

So yes, recycle that fabric. All those clothes given to the Salvation Army may not get worn again but the fabric will probably get used again in some way, shape or form.

My mom works extensively with recycled fabric. Her work is of the scraps-into-quilts type, though, not at the separating-into-fibers type. Mostly, she makes totes and handbags.

Let’s see, Peerless cloth use to recycle cloth/old clothing into washrags. I don’t know if they are still around.

I also know that some second hand stores around here would sell their over stock of vintage moth-ball stink clothing to a company that shredded it and mixed it to make tar paper.

Back in the 80’s you could still find truly vintage suits, wedding dresses, ect at these places. People who were putting on a theater type thing would sift through a lot of stuff trying to find old vintage clothes.

I still have the Quilt my Grandmother made me! I don’t use it anymore though. It is over 35 years old. The moths ate holes in it I swear!!!

When I was a youngster, my mother saved worn-out clothes, and gave them to the wife on a neighboring farm, who made them into braided ‘rag’ rugs.

This article says:

So I think, “Ok, great, I can drop off my used, torn socks and underwear to goodwill and no problem - they can’t resell them, but they’ll be able to actually recycle the fibers.” But then it says this:

Am I missing something? If they’re too worn or stained, won’t Goodwill have them recycled instead of resold?

In short, do my used socks go to the landfill (as they have been) or to Goodwill?