to Resurrect Rag
strung them out on a line in the warm spring sun as the flowers
of forsythia and cherry trees bloomed brightly. They formed
a somewhat subdued array of colors and prints, animated by
a north wind. A ragged piece of bed sheet, a tattered set
of towels, a torn pair of bright-green sweatpants, a trio
of holey undershirts, some stained dish towels and a few unmatched
and unpatched socks made up the fluttering bits of cloth hanging
on the line. Some looked like well-worn flags of unknown countries.
What I had just washed and put out to dry in my backyard was
a good part of my rag collection. That’s right: rags.
I’ve been collecting rags for as long as I can remember. There
always seems to be some need for a rag, and there always seems
to be some clothing or bedding or towel that has reached the
threshold of raggedness worthy of such a change in use. I
use rags around my house mainly for cleaning up the place,
washing the car, wiping down my bike and containing messes
that emerge in my basement workshop area. They are also used
for an ongoing variety of unforeseen emergencies. The simple
rag is a much-overlooked contributor to the recycling of household
Rags have figured prominently in the English language for
some time. The word “rag” can be traced back to the Old English
“ragg” which, in turn, is believed to be linguistically descended
from the Old Norse “rogg” which referred to something shaggy
or tufted. The value of rags has changed over time and across
In the early history of papermaking in China, rags were an
important additive to the fiber mix that produced this highly
valued writing material. Once the German printer Gutenberg
got the printing-press revolution going in mid-15th-century
Europe, linen rags were suddenly in great demand to make the
paper to feed the proliferating presses.
The rags used in the paper of the early printing presses were
primarily made of flax, the dominant fiber used in European
textiles at the time. By the middle of the 18th century, the
development of the cotton industry (built on the backs of
African slaves on southern plantations) resulted in a rise
in the cotton-rag content of paper produced here and in Europe.
As the printing industry grew, the demand for rags could not
keep up with the demand for paper, and wood pulp soon displaced
rags in many paper products. Rags are still used in the production
of finer writing papers.
The early history of rag recycling also included the extensive
reuse of materials. During much of the time humans have woven
textiles they have been costly to produce, involving long
hours at some form of muscle-powered loom. Reuse of materials
was encouraged, since it involves far less human energy and
time then weaving new cloth. Textiles would be repaired, recut
and sewn to make new clothes, or converted into raw material
for weaving new items.
Well into the 20th century, ragmen rode through Albany neighborhoods
calling out for rags. The industrialization of textile production
eventually lowered the incentives to recycle and ragmen faced
extinction. The ragmen may be long gone but our textile wastes
continue to flow, fostered by a fashion industry that actively
encourages the discarding of outdated styles.
The United States currently produces over four million tons
of textiles that are tossed into the waste stream annually,
according to the Council for Textile Recycling. About one-quarter
of this material is diverted from landfills through recycling
efforts. Textile waste produced in the home accounts for about
4.5 percent of residential trash, or around 35 pounds per
person annually. About 10 pounds of this per capita waste
is recycled as used clothing, converted into wiping rags or
stripped down to reusable fibers.
Unfortunately, local recycling programs don’t include textiles
among their lists of collectables. Fortunately, there are
the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and other community not-for-profit
organizations that collect used clothing and textiles that
they sell to raise funds for their service programs. They
sell their secondhand clothes both domestically and abroad.
They also sell part of what they collect for recycled fibers,
which are used to manufacture new products. These organizations
have become important in local textile recycling systems,
as well as sources for relatively cheap clothing.
Each spring and fall I usually sort through my clothes and
other household textiles, separating out those to be donated
and those worn beyond the point of being a potential donation.
I make a list of those that can be donated and assign an estimated
value to each item. My final list is then stamped and signed
by the organization receiving the goods. I then use this list
to document for the IRS my donation as a tax-deductible contribution,
one of the few recycling-related tax write-offs available
The items that don’t make it into my donation pile are potential
candidates for my rag collection. I have set aside a couple
of storage boxes in my basement to handle this branch of my
household’s textile waste stream. One box is for clean rags,
the other for soiled ones that are worth a washing and another
cycle of use. I rip the new rag material into useable pieces
or cut it up with a large pair of scissors.
I do a couple of cold-water washloads of dirty rags each year,
letting the sun dry them on my backyard clothesline. When
rags become too transparent or crud-caked I toss them in the
compost or the trash depending upon what they have soaked
up. Worms in my composters are particularly adept at consuming
So, as you’re breaking out your warm-weather clothes, consider
recycling options for those items not worn for some time.
Who knows, there might even be a fine rag or two hidden amid
the discards, ready for alternative action.