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Fixin’ to Resurrect Rag

I 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 textiles.

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 cultures.

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 to taxpayers.

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 cotton fabric.

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.

—Tom Nattell 

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