Thursday, December 26, 2013

Purpose for your favorite old T-shirt

I have a drawer of T-shirts that have literally been moved all over the country. They don’t get worn anymore: They either don’t fit, are completely tattered or have been retired to a place of honor.

The thought process behind this drawer of essential uselessness goes something like this: “Each of these is a memory of a time/place/person, and I can’t bear to part with them.”

“I know what I’ll do. I’ll learn to use the sewing machine my grandmother gave me (years ago) and I’ll turn them into a big blanket of remembrances! Or, I’ll send them to my mom, or auntie, or grandma – the craftiest women I know – and they can help.”

I’ve moved at least six times since I started saying that.

So when an email from Nathan Rothstein with Project Repat came my way two weeks ago, I responded quickly.

Rothstein and Ross Lohr make up the New England-based team behind Project Repat, the company that cuts and sews customers’ T-shirts into blankets here in the U.S., using production partners who pay workers a fair and living wage.

Rothstein was in Charlotte earlier this month and took a few minutes to speak with me about Project Repat’s partnership with Opportunity Threads – a cut-and-sew company in Morganton – as well as why people get so attached to their shirts.

This t-shirt blanket made by Project Repat displays the memories of a customer who had been active in Greek Life in college. 

“I think it’s a modern form of scrapbooking,” Rothstein said. “They’ve become a cheap commodity that don’t cost too much to make and are given out like a photograph or postcard. People, when they travel, they get a shirt, (or) to represent any event,” he said.

“Running shirts are an adult form of trophies. Those are really your mementos, and each tells a lot,” Rothstein said, noting the process of turning T-shirts into blankets isn’t all that different from sending rolls of film in prepaid mailers to be developed and waiting for pictures to return several weeks later.

When Project Repat first started up about a year and a half ago, the idea was to recycle shirts into tote bags and circle scarves, Rothstein said. So how did they find their way to North Carolina? Rothstein said he and Lohr had heard about Opportunity Threads, which is a worker-owned company, and wanted to send business their way.

They drove down boxes of shirts in March 2012, had about 200 tote bags made, and sold them at markets in the Northeast, he said. “But most people were asking if we could turn their own t-shirts into quilts.”

Now, the local company made roughly 600 blankets for Project Repat in December, Rothstein said, and they plan to continue to partner with them in 2014. “They’ve done amazing work, because the stakes have been so high. You can’t really mess this up. These T-shirts (store memories).”

While T-shirt blankets are “definitely not a new idea,” Rothstein said, Project Repat allows customers to choose the size of their blanket.

“What we figured out is a more affordable way to do it. … We’re trying to make it more accessible for all the people in the country who have memories associated with their T-shirts,” Rothstein said.

“It’s really an amazing study of what Americans care about. … We’ve (even) seen this as a powerful way to memorialize someone who’s passed away,” he said.

A sports-themed T-shirt blanket made by Project Repat. The company has a partnership with Opportunity Threads – a cut-and-sew company in Morganton. 
In 2013, Project Repat made more than 11,000 custom T-shirt blankets, Rothstein said.
“When someone buys from us, they’re recycling, not adding more waste to the textile stream, and adding fair-wage work,” Rothstein said. “They preserve memories, free up closet space, and bring their memories (into the) public.”

Project Repat’s blog is full of photos and the stories behind the personal creations the company makes. Whether it’s Greek life, high school sports, travel mementos or a completely random assortment, Rothstein said, they hear over and over that the blankets are “a talking point, like you’d show photos from a trip. They’re a great conversation piece.”

“There’s an endless supply of T-shirts. We believe we can grow the market and provide a lot more work in the U.S.”