A new line of bags at the fashion label Eileen Fisher features an abstract pattern that looks as though it has been painted on with brushstrokes. You’d never know that each design is painstakingly made from scraps of fabric culled from customers’ old jeans and sweaters.
The bags are the latest product to come out of Tiny Factory, Eileen Fisher’s workshop in upstate New York devoted to transforming clothing waste into beautiful new things. Since 2009, the company has collected 1.5 million pieces of clothing from customers, who bring them into stores. Eighty percent of these garments are repaired with the help of a company called Trove, then resold in Eileen Fisher’s online and physical stores. But the designers and artisans at Tiny Factory have been on a mission to find a use for the remaining clothes, which are damaged beyond repair.
Tiny Factory designer Sigi Ahl had a breakthrough when she developed a new felting technique that layers these scraps into a colorful new fabric that can be used to create new objects at scale. These bags, which sell for $98 to $138 on the Eileen Fisher website, are the first products to incorporate the new material. The collection reveals that it is possible to create a new revenue stream from scraps of material that would ordinarily end up in a landfill—and it might spur other sustainably minded brands to follow a similar playbook for creatively using their waste.
Ahl, Fisher’s longtime friend and collaborator, has been instrumental in helping the brand think through its approach to waste. A decade ago, she helped Eileen Fisher launch its clothing take-back and recycling program. But Ahl brings a unique perspective to this work because she doesn’t have a background in fashion or sustainability. She’s a painter who received her MFA from the Frankfurt Academy of Fine Arts. “I come to this work as a bit of an outsider,” Ahl says. “I bring to it a painterly perspective.”
Her point of view has influenced a lot of the work in the Tiny Factory. She has found artistic uses for the piles of clothing scraps that have accumulated. She helped commission artists to transform these materials into works of art that were exhibited at the prestigious design fair in Milan, Salone Internazionale del Mobile, in 2019. While these installations were striking and told a story about how much waste the fashion industry creates, Ahl felt that it wasn’t a sustainable long-term solution for the brand. It was far better, she thought, to create new products that customers could continue to use for years to come.
As she experimented with various fabrication techniques, Ahl found a way to bind these scraps together using a felting machine that applies thousand of tiny needles to the fabric, interlocking the layers. She organized the scraps by color, then curated color combinations to create an aesthetic that looks like brushstrokes moving across the fabric, much like strokes of paint on a canvas. The material she created was aesthetically pleasing, and importantly, she believed it could be created at scale.
Ahl worked with the seamstresses at Tiny Factory to make more of the fabric. Ahl herself chooses the color combinations, but she works closely with two other women on her team to create the material using the felting machine. Every piece is made by hand and is one of a kind since each contains a unique combination of scraps. They’ve created around 1,000 handbags using this material, along with some throw pillows. “Now that we’ve shown we can do this, we can continue using this technique to create more products,” she says.
Across the fashion industry, brands are thinking about how to extend the life of their products. Brands such as REI and Arcteryx are partnering with Trove to repair and resell products. Gucci and Stella McCartney are partnering with secondhand clothing site TheRealReal to encourage customers to buy and sell used products. Fast-fashion retailer H&M is investing in fabric recycling technology, hoping to eventually collect the millions of garments its customers throw out annually and turn them into new clothing.
But few brands are thinking about how to salvage every aspect of a garment, including the scraps. Part of the struggle is that it’s impossible to do this at an industrial scale because projects like Eileen Fisher’s “fabric painting” must be done by hand with the hodgepodge of scraps that come in. Patagonia has experimented with using scraps in its Worn Wear program, in which expert sewers hand-craft garments using piles of fabrics. In both cases, the work is time-consuming and labor-intensive.
Still, Ahl hopes that other brands are inspired by the work she and her team are doing at Tiny Factory. In fact, Eileen Fisher is currently talking to other brands about partnering to scale the project. “If we want to have an impact on the planet, we can’t do this kind of work alone,” Ahl says. “We need to find other like-minded brands that collect materials and do this work alongside us.”