Using recycled materials to make clothes sounds like a new idea, something today’s eco-conscious brands came up with after brainstorming about how to operate sustainably. But you only have to ask a parent or grandparent about it, and if they lived in a city, they probably remember the rag men. Like scrap metal collectors that can still be seen walking the streets of New York, rag men (chiffoniers in France, rag-and-bone men in England, cenciaioli in Italy) collected old clothes and fabrics to sell to manufacturers, who broke them down and made them into new fabrics. It was a practice that flourished around WWII, especially in Europe, where rationing necessitated alternative means of obtaining materials.
Prato, Italy, a small town on the outskirts of Florence, has a long tradition of turning the haul of rag men into fine wool fabrics worthy of high-end clothing production. The cenciaioli of today may not drag carts through the streets, but they do obtain a mix of factory seconds and used wool garments that would otherwise be thrown away. They operate internationally these days, but seek out American brands for the simple reason that they have a reputation for truth in labeling--if it says 100% cashmere, it’s likely to be 100% cashmere.
We suspect that a secondary reason is that American brands simply produce more fast fashion, and thus more waste, than those of many other countries. Luckily, this age-old corner of the textile industry exists to turn such excess into something useful and environmentally friendly.
It’s a labor-intensive practice. The garments are collected from around the world, stripped of trims like zippers and buttons, sorted individually by color, washed to both soften and cleanse the material, then passed through shredding and carding machines that break them down into fibers (the “rag-straccio” or rag-tearing process) that are then spun into entirely new yarns.
The process is not, however, resource-intensive. It not only makes use of tons of otherwise wasted material, but circumvents the land-and-water-intensive components of sheep grazing and yarn-dyeing necessary to produce new wools.
We love cashmere at Noah, and are excited to have found a recycled version from the expert mills of Prato that, by combining approximately 80% pre- and post-consumer recycled cashmere with new yarns, yields a sustainable material with an incredible degree of refinement. We’ve woven it into two colors of a durable, cable-knit sweater with subtle, multi-color, donegal yarns reflective of the its diverse, recycled DNA. It’s as soft, warm and lightweight as some of the best cashmere out there, just a little less wasteful.