the rag trade, fabscrap

the rag trade,  fabscrap

“The Rag Trade,” there’s a nostalgic feeling that comes with that term, stereotypes in abundance. Men wheeling racks of garments, wrapped in plastic, down the street, in the garment district in this, my city. 

Leggy models strutting down the same streets for fittings. Dealers of everything from zippers to lace, perhaps with a yarmulke on, bypassing the crowded sidewalks by walking in the street, rushing to their next appointment.

A scene from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel perhaps?

The term “rag trade” simply means the clothing or fashion business. Sometimes you still do see these kinds of things in the garment district, and that’s just one reason I go there. 

Last week though,

I was able to participate in another kind of “rag trade,” a business entirely centered around sustainability and fashion. 


a mountain of scraps

The enterprise is Fab Scrap, an organization run by four women with some serious “chops” when it comes to the various negative aspects of the fashion business that result in an enormous, and preventable, amount of waste. (I have to say here, before it’s too late, that Fab Scrap deals with scraps not actual rags. I don’t want to give that impression. You’ll understand why later.)

A former New York City Department of Sanitation employee, an evening wear designer, a Rhode Island School of Design educated textile and material design expert, and an operations coordinator with a “passion for process,” their expertise shows in the well run organization. 

Fab Scrap, you may have guessed, deals with scraps of fabric, mountains of scraps of fabric, it’s a different kind of rag trade.

A mountain this size every month. 

Briefly, what Fab Scrap does is pick up fabric scraps from companies big and small, who would otherwise be simply disposing of them. And “disposing of them,” means, of course, putting them on the road to the landfill. The epitome of waste. 

So what did I do there, in a huge industrial space, in a remote part of Brooklyn, at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, that I got to by taking two trains and one bus?

I sorted, I sorted at that table you see in the picture. With scissors, staple remover, and a big bag of textile waste beside me, I sorted. 

Around the edge of the table you see tape on which are written the contents of the fiber scraps to be thrown in those bags. Remember when I talked about everyone making New Year’s resolutions this year about “mindfulness“?

the sisterhood

Well, this sorting process was the perfect kind of meditative, mindful practice I would advise one to search out. A room of people, mostly women, quietly going about a simple task, but a task that is intrinsically “right.”

A kind of “sisterhood” of scraps. 

So what kinds of scraps are we talking about here? What kinds of fibers? Here’s the sad part, although their were bags marked 100% wool, 100% cotton etc, the bag that was full at the end of my hours at the table, was the bag marked “polyester.” Plastic, essentially plastic.

For every handkerchief sized piece of 100% pure wool or silk I tossed, I tossed about 20 scraps of polyester and related fibers.

While most polyester is not biodegradable, it is recyclable. And that’s why businesses like Fab Scrap are so important. Fab Scrap links those who produce the textile waste to those who are recycling it, engaging in a circular and more sustainable economy.

“Upcycle,” re-cycle, circularity, circular economy, terms you might want to become acquainted with because you’re going to be hearing them a lot.  

So what’s the pay for this sorting job? Five pounds, not five pounds sterling, they’re long gone. Five pounds of fabric scraps. Once you have completed your three-hour volunteer stint at Fab Scrap, you are welcome to pick and choose and take home five pounds of fabric!

true believers

So no wonder that besides being true believers in the need for fashion, and everything else for that matter, becoming more sustainable, we the volunteers, were also sewers, designers, and makers of all sorts. Five pounds of perfectly good fabric, much of it coming from high-end designers, is a treat for anyone with a sewing machine and penchant for making things. 

I was able to take home some silk in an unusual coral color, some wonderful pieces of buttery soft wool, and a panel of knit fabric I’m turning into a top. And yes, I will show my creations.

While individual volunteers like myself are welcome at Fab Scrap, they also love groups of students or others who might want to do some good, have some fun, learn something, and take home some scraps. See the details here.

I’m going back soon.


“Clothes can suggest, persuade, connote, insinuate, or indeed lie, and apply subtle pressure while their wearer is speaking frankly and straightforwardly of other matters.”

Anne Hollander




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