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Monday Mailbag (in GIFs) – How Do You Actually Transform Bottles Into Fabric?

In our weekly Q & A series, we’ve already told you why recycling isn’t a waste of time and then we unpacked the United Nations SDGs. In the spirit of the back-to-school season, today we’re taking on a question that gets back to basics. How else do we know that you’ve studied the prerequisites for more advanced discussions?

Question: Hi Thread. Following your @instagram, I’ve seen people, bottles, and finished fabric – but turning trash into textiles still seems a lot like magic to me. How does Thread actually turn recycled plastic into stuff? Thanks!

Answer: This is a totally respectable question – especially at a company like Thread, where how something is made is just as important as the quality of its design. The incredible partners within our supply chains offer thousands of income opportunities for plastic collectors, people working in processing facilities, and then a host of folks within the textile manufacturing industry – but you’re right: no single photograph can explain the wizardry of turning plastic bottles into jersey or canvas.

As for plastic, all of our fabric features recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate, aka rPET). Some products are 100% recycled PET, while others are crafted with 50% cotton. Our process takes a number of twists and turns as it makes its way from Haiti and Honduras to the USA. To prepare our supply chain for Sustainability 101, we broke it down into 7 freshman-proof steps… with GIFs. We hear they love GIFs.

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Step 1: Collect and Clean
Every bottle that goes into our fabric is post-consumer material, meaning it was actually used by people before it was retrieved from a landfill, the street, or somewhere else it managed to roll off to. After being collected, it’s taken to a center to be thoroughly cleaned and processed.

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Step 2: The Grind
This isn’t the beachside dance party you hoped for on spring break. To become “flake” bottles are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces that ultimately become small rPET pellets. These tiny bead-like pieces are easier for machines to work with going forward in a complex process that’s focused on quality control – even when the materials are recycled.

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Step 3: Fresh Fiber
From flake to pellets and then to fiber, ex-bottles are extruded into superfine filament, before being chopped and fluffed into cloud-like fiber. Then we mix Thread’s rPET puffs with tufts of cotton and spin it into yarn just like traditional textiles (imagine a supercharged manufacturing version of Rumpelstiltskin’s spinning wheel… but it’s the size of a warehouse, and in North Carolina).

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Step 4: Spaghetti is Served
We said “cotton candy” and then got kinda hungry. Sorry. This is the stage when polyester fiber is spun (like woah) with cotton into longer and stronger strands that begin to look more like string you’d be familiar with.

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Step 5: Deliver the Package
We roll up all of that spaghetti into an orderly spool, which our manufacturing partners call a “package.” To create an entire bolt of fabric that you’d see on the shelf in a store, machines employ dozens (even hundreds or thousands) of yarn packages simultaneously. They actually make hundreds of bolts at a time, with thousands of yards, so we can deliver them to customers at any scale. Even you, crafty reader.

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Step 6: Knit + Weave
Some of our fabrics are knit (jersey) and others are woven (canvas) – and both of those techniques have their advantages – but the undyed textile you see below is the beginning of the classic garment-making process.

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Step 7: Dye Until Fly
Bored with basic colors? We feel you. In our final step, the finished fabric is dipped and dipped and dipped in dye until it’s just right. Then it’s washed and dried to project-ready perfection. If you aren’t buying a textile with a print, this is where you (the shopper) comes in and starts creating something.

Step 8: Woah…
Yeah, some soda bottle in the Carribbean may become your t-shirt, or boots, or bag. It’s bound to blow some minds. On the other hand, it should encourage everyone to banish the idea of “waste,” and see the potential in everything they might toss in the bin. But you knew we’d say that.

Thanks for writing,

Have a question about sustainability or responsibility for our staff of echem… teaching assistants? Contact us @threadintl and ask!

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