Mending Together: Reuse Program at the Textile Museum of Canada

By Cecily Ou

Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2022

 
Textile Reuse Program at the Textile Museum of Canada. All photos by: Alex Paton. Courtesy of the museum.

Rows of colour-coordinated fabric-by-the-bolt, bins of vintage patterns, and scattered rolls of trims-by-the-meter are common sights at the Textile Reuse Program located on the second floor of the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. In one corner, a volunteer selects their favourite decorator squares for display; at a worktable, Education Coordinator Allie Davis engages in a conversation about linen stain removal with visitors who rifle through bins of doilies; and by the window shelves, another guest marvels over a roll of Bemberg lining. This relatively new program, hidden among the Museum’s Learning Hub, gift shop, exhibition space, and library offers eclectic selection, bargain deals, and knowledgeable staff and volunteers.


It may come as a surprise to the average guest but reusing and recycling have long been integrated into the culture of the Textile Museum. The More Than Just a Yardage Sale began in 1995 as an annual spring event taking place in the former parking lot beside the Museum, and over the years the Museum added a Fall iteration. In 2005, a group of dedicated volunteers began processing and pricing donated textile materials for a series of Textile Treasures fundraisers of off-site sales, which attracted eager visitors from all over the Greater Toronto Area.


As attendance steadily increased, Textile Treasures quickly became a source of income for the Museum’s workshops and educational programs. As such, the sales developed into an ephemeral community in which enthusiasts, beginners, and professionals could congregate to exchange knowledge or simply experience the joys of bargains and shared acts of making with recycled materials.


When the pandemic disrupted the operation of museums, these fundraisers were likewise interrupted. The Textile Museum utilized the closures as an opportunity to transform the existing spirit and practice of reuse into an onsite program. Taking to heart the input of volunteers who spearheaded Textile Treasures, as well as the expertise of enthusiastic staff members, plans were drafted, finalized, and implemented. The spatial design aimed to be functional yet dynamic by embracing the aesthetics of curated fabric retailers and specialty textile suppliers to simultaneously welcome and engage guests.


Drawing inspiration from similar initiatives, such as the Upcycling Center in Virginia, the museum reflected on the significance and logistics of such an undertaking through a year-long series of Zoom meetings and floorplan drafts. The result is a space of approximately 430 square feet that is bordered by two ceiling-high shelves and contains two large worktables and countless textile finds. Donated textiles trickled in from the “workroom”—the offsite sorting and storage centres—and the individual components of the program were gradually realized for the mid-September reopening in 2021.


In the months since, the Reuse Program has actively diverted textile waste by reimagining discarded fabrics, damaged textiles, and even samplers from industrial warehouses. As part of the Museum’s new sustainability mandate, accepting, sorting, and re-distributing recycled textile materials challenges the realities of the contemporary textile industry and offers alternate modes of material production.



In creating a home for the donated materials, the Textile Museum became the first and only national cultural institution with a permanent, visible sustainability initiative in Canada. While cultural institutions often vow to implement sustainable practices, such as the reduction of paper usage, few have entertained the idea of an expansive, autonomous, and long-term program.


Moreover, by transforming the ephemeral fabric sales into a lasting commitment, the Textile Reuse Program becomes a stable site of exchange: a place where individuals can regularly gather to re-think and re-make. Fueled by a resurgent interest in craft and an increased awareness of the realities of textile production, the program satisfies both the self-directed interests of the Museum visitor and provides access to a more sustainable supply.[1]


This complex site of exchange then accounts for the concrete remaking of recycled textiles as well as an abstract remaking of values relating to textile sustainability, consumption, and production. As identified in the writings of researchers Amy Twigger and Emma Shercliff, the Reuse Program exemplifies a kind of “participatory sustainable development”[2] that maintains a dynamic, continuous projection into a better reality—one which each visitor’s projects and physical or intellectual collaboration contributes to a collective disruption of mindless consumption, environmental devastation, and unethical labour.


Embedding textile practices such as upcycling, mending, and altering within the context of the program actively harnesses the power of communal action. As opposed to the development of practices and values in isolation or through online forums with their respective digital barriers, individuals are instead inserted into a physical, communal sphere. Knowledge, advice, time, and even hands are often generously lent and shared between strangers at the Reuse Program in an undeniable atmosphere of co-learning, mutual care, and in some ways, an unspoken comradeship to sustain and advocate for an ecological and ethical future for textiles. It is precisely the power in numbers and collective action that makes the program unique, effective, and self-sufficient.


As of September 2022, after only one year in operation, the Reuse Program diverted and repurposed approximately 2,800 pounds of fabric, yarn, lace, trims, and more. These materials have been reimagined into homemade garments, furniture, and collectibles that go on to live longer, more meaningful lives. Meanwhile, the global production of cotton alone continues to be estimated at 3,415,169 tonnes and remains the main source of income for over one billion people.[3]


As consumers continue to demand a diverse readymade supply of textile goods, there will inevitably be waste and instances of worker exploitation. Though the efforts of the Reuse Program cannot compare to the scale of consumer demand and industrial excess, it offers an alternate vision of what the future could be in Canada: small-scale, collaborative, and intentional.


Put simply, the program embodies the spirit of mending, altering, and upcycling to its very core by repurposing available resources to fix or change existing conditions. Through acts of collaborative remaking, the program, and by extension the Museum, initiates a larger conversation about what it means to restore, rethink, and remake material culture. What are possible strategies to mobilize a sustainable future for material production and consumption?

How are individuals and communities already mobilized towards ecological and ethical material practices? At the Textile Museum of Canada and within the Textile Reuse Program, the table is laden with potential, and participants, visitors, and museum staff alike are elbow-deep, seeking new ways to make and mend.


Cecily Ou is programming assistant at The Textile Museum of Canada and the operations manager of Sur Gallery in Toronto. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies and works as an art administrator, writer, curator, and textile practitioner.

 

[1] Emma Shercliff and Amy Twigger Holroyd. “Stitching Together: Participatory Textile Making as an Emerging Methodological Approach to Research.” Journal of arts and communities 10, no. 1-2 (2020): 6.


[2] Shercliff and Twigger, 10.


[3] Vivek Voora, Cristina Larrea, and Steffany Bermudez. “Global Market Report: Cotton.” Ed. Sofia Baliño. (International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), 2020), 2.