17. Riches to Rags

Confession: I’m not exactly a shining example of restraint when it comes to keeping my clothes closet pared down and loose. My shirts and skirts hang close together. Okay, you might use the word packed. After I’ve done laundry, it’s hard to get my dresser drawers shut. I also have hooks made for clothes on hangers jutting out from the tops of three doors, and a freestanding closet inside my storage shed. That one’s full of things I don’t wear but can’t get rid of, like my mother’s 1950s wedding suit (she deemed it more practical than a long white dress) and a beautiful handmade Guatemalan huipil that looks terrible on me. On the floor of this closet, folded, there are jeans I can’t get into anymore . . . but will surely fit me again someday.

It’s just too easy to acquire clothing.

Friends give it to me. Yard sales have mountains of it—sometimes even arranged so you can see it. Thrift stores, on sale days, offer it almost free. What’s really fun is a clothing swap, where you can deposit a few still-lovely items and walk away with new articles. (Often benefitting the swap’s host in some way, too.) Occasionally I even pick up an item I find on the bike path, intending to use it as rags, that proves (after washing) to be absolutely wearable.

Someone told me she heard that there’s enough used clothing already in circulation to meet the needs of the whole world for a lifetime. I didn’t doubt her. I looked for a reference to that claim but didn’t find one. I could only guess it was true, based on the flood of duds that I was experiencing.

And now, still in the pandemic, I’m home more, with more time when I want to be comfortable, and less time when I feel pressured to “suck it in” and “look good.” So a lot of my nicer things are just sitting there. I certainly can’t imagine spending money on new clothes. I never did like seeing multiple copies of items hanging together on a rack, anyway. That’s boring and sends the message I’m not unique.

I’ll admit to being spoiled, in that I get tired of wearing the same thing day after day, like the poor ragamuffins that populate Dickens novels. I like to switch it up. But even that’s changing, gradually, with more at-home time. Who even sees me, besides Terry? But sometimes it’s for a different reason I throw an outfit on the dirty laundry pile after just one wearing—and here’s one of the intimate details I promised at the beginning of this blog (forgive me if TMI): My body is stinking more, suddenly, where it used to be barely scented—is this another one of those indignities of getting older? Seems unnecessarily cruel. It makes clothing changes and washdays much more frequent, too.

This “tentacle” of old clothes is still separate from the sand on the beach.

But a lifestyle of Big Clothing requires periodic purging sessions. For me, it takes time away from other loves. The Minimalists are right: possessions rob you of precious time. I don’t enjoy making decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. I don’t enjoy figuring out where to put the blouses and pairs of shoes or pants I want to hang onto. I do like the feeling of passing along the good pieces—finding a happy match between some nice article and someone I know. Or the feeling of watching things I’ve set out by the curb disappear. (Besides confirming the truism that giving feels better than receiving, this somehow affirms my taste in dress. Probably not true, but so what?) Or the satisfaction of donating some decent wearables to charity. Recently, however, I was enlightened about where such donations to charity might end up. I watched a BBC documentary, Dead White Man’s Clothes, which features scenes and characters from Accra, Ghana, one of the world’s used clothing processing hubs. Tune in and watch huge bales of mystery discards come off shipping containers, traders risking purchases of the sight-unseen contents, workers squabbling over a quickly popped-open bale, more workers sorting contents, one man showing us a disgusting ring-around-the-collar (painfully exclaiming, “It’s like an insult!”), and a woman driving hand-picked apparel to sell outside the city to her wealthy clients. The industry supports a network of local jobs, at least some of them tolerable, while erasing the area’s native clothing businesses. But what wrenched my gut was footage of the clothing that didn’t make the grade even in this African city of entrepreneurs and go-getters. It piles up in garbage dumps and washes in from the ocean in long ragged strips the locals call “tentacles.” We see a woman trying hard to pull a tentacle out of the sand, but it’s buried too deeply. Sand and rags are hopelessly mixed on this beach in Accra.

This one could be buried as deep as 15 feet.

Though the overseas used clothing industry ends up getting a relatively low percentage of the castoff clothing from the U.S. (next in line as prolific donators are the UK, Germany, and South Korea), the later scenes of this film, showing clothing as pollution, as trash, have a relevance that hits home: over 62 percent of total American clothing waste goes to landfills (EPA estimate). What the film shows in Ghana is happening here.

A landfill-like situation is even developing at my place. When I first started throwing dirty rags into my compost bins, I thought they’d disintegrate and turn into nice, organic soil like the food scraps and yard waste. How clueless I was. Harvesting compost, I found flowery prints and plaids mixed in with the dark humus. I bet if they weren’t cut up, if it was a whole shirt I’d thrown in, I might still be able to wear it. The fragments of some fossil-fuel synthetics won’t break down until after I die. It seems a rather large number of my discards can’t be composted. Could I purge my closets according to whether the fabrics are natural (cotton, wool, linen) or synthetic? No. I’ve cut the tags off because of my sensitive shoulder-skin, and I can’t tell what the fibers are in anything. And garments often have a mix of both.

The fabric scraps I’ve chosen for my next new habit at least feel natural.

Pee rags drying in the sun after doing their cycles in the washer.

A friend has inspired me to make pee rags. If you knew this friend, you wouldn’t suspect that she’d use such a thing. She knows how to dress professionally—has to, speaking at conferences and teaching writing workshops for adults as well as classes for kids. (Many of her activities have been cut because of covid, sadly.) Yet she sends me her extra twist-ties instead of tossing them—a fine, rare example of a person who acts on society, yet still pays attention to her private impacts. How could I not follow her lead and cut a few squares?

This was a few months into the pandemic, and we were both puzzled as to the sensibilities behind the toilet paper panic. Did no one think of the possibility of using some cheerful pieces of fabric, and then just laundering them afterwards? (Cheerful helps for those times when the intestines give notice of less than efficient operation.) Of course, yes, they’re just for the usually benign and inodorous (though not sterile) urine; you may want something more disposable for the browner events. Mullein, a soft-leaved plant, is popular among those in the know. But panic over toilet paper? Please!

It appears that Americans are especially fond of throwaway paper products like tissues, toilet paper, and paper towels. There’s data on this—the United States leads the world in per capita paper towel use—but I also have personal evidence of our attachment. Three stories, no less.

One is from just a few weeks ago. I was visiting a friend. I don’t remember the context, but we weren’t talking about disposable paper products. Out of the blue—or so it seemed to me—he said, “And no one’s taking away my paper towels!” Big grin.

Oh. Okay.

Two: A different friend’s marriage was in trouble, but hanging together, until one of them spilled a bottle of juice. The other quickly grabbed a roll of paper towels, unwinding it to deal with the stickiness. My friend was horrified. That, she said, was the turning point—the beginning of the end. At first I marveled that such a small thing could finally end a relationship. But as I thought about it, I understood that these two responses to the spill exemplified two very different values. One person valued a clean floor and wanted to avoid further spreading of the mess; the fact that the quickest fix involved a disposable commodity was of lesser importance, or not on the radar at all. The other believed the problem could be easily managed with a little more time and more appropriate tool. (Rags? Towel? Sawdust, like the school janitor used?) This difference between the two of them, I thought, could understandably loom large.

A favorite piece from my dad’s collection.

Three: My dad died, and I inherited all his handkerchiefs—some in unopened packages, apparently a reserve he had to have. What would I do with them? I asked an old-fashioned, yet sane and savvy, friend if she’d like the bulk of my cloth inheritance. She hesitated. Are you sure? (Because some of them were quite beautiful.) Yes, I was sure.

The thought of blowing into a hemmed bit of fabric—then reusing it—filled me with loathing. I couldn’t see blowing new snot into old.

I much preferred “Kleenex” or paper towels. In fact, as a newlywed, when I couldn’t find a classy enough paper towel dispenser for our kitchen, I made one out of nice wood, pegs, and a dowel. But one day, years later, no doubt crying over some worthless boyfriend, I created a little mountain on my bed—a wet, white volcano of tears and paper towels and mucus. Now that was vile. And I’d used the last one. I took out the handkerchiefs I’d kept. By the time I’d dampened the last one, I was done crying. Later, cleaning up, I discovered something that surprised me: the dried cloths were still supple, not at all crusty, almost as though unused. This was the beginning of a paper-towel fancier’s conversion to old-fashioned hankies. I laughed at my past insistence that I’d never use them. I didn’t anticipate the strength of change.

Gradually, almost without noticing, I reached the point where I just didn’t need the paper towels. Clean, cut-up clothing (a.k.a. rags) and washable handkerchiefs or bandannas suffice for most jobs. For the rest, I do keep a small collection of salvaged “tissue products” (napkins, TP, and tissues). Once a hospital employee gave me a year’s worth of toilet paper. (“The hospital changes its preferred type of dispenser and brand every couple of years.”) And it’s easy to acquire napkins. A pizza arrives with too many of them, or a small stack is left sitting on the table when the group gets up to leave the restaurant.

When I think of the vast amount of old clothes with nowhere to go, I feel compelled to make mine, when they’re beyond wearing, into rags. I might re-wash the good cloths, if they’re not full of dried paint or mouse droppings or toxic cleaners. I try to compost some and throw some away (mostly the synthetics). Like nuclear waste and plastic, this synthetic trash is already here and will persist over decades or even centuries. I can’t do much about that, but at least I’m not buying something new.

We need to question the source. That would be the fashion industry.

It’s a man from the British fashion industry, Patrick Grant, who claims to have the answer to my question about just how much clothing is already out there. Six generations’ worth, he says. Wow. Without making any more, we have clothing enough to meet the needs of six generations?

I don’t know how he has calculated this, or how he reconciles this situation with his profession, but that’s up to him. I appreciate the perspective. But will I change anything? Probably not. At the beginning and end of the fashion flow at my house are still clothing swaps, yard sales, friend exchanges, and curbside offerings, which more than satisfy my need for variety and a chance for reuse. I like feeling worthy of a soft, substantial cleaning cloth as opposed to thin paper that came from trees I’d rather have exhaling oxygen for me. I like that I don’t have extra trash to take out after breakups (though I think I’m done with those). I suppose I’ll continue owning a bit too much clothing, spending more time than I really ought to, sorting and stashing.

But at the last Kinetic Arts Tucson clothing swap, I matched up one of my daughter’s friends with a sweet multicolored jacket that at least looked handwoven from Central America. It never fit me. When I ran into her recently, she said she’s already worn it a few times. She loves it.

I don’t mind having that sort of thing in my life.

One thought on “17. Riches to Rags

  1. I also inherited some of my dad’s handkerchiefs — I’m a believer! And while my household does purchase paper towels every decade or two — rags work for me. The paper-towel user at our house does tear the perforated section of towel into a piece that will do the job — sometimes a few inches square. And he also manages to place the used paper towel in the compost container…


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