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Making Fabric

In February of 2011 I spent a weekend with Frank and Ian (whom I had just met) in and around Boston, visiting some factories that turned recycled plastic into polyester fiber and then fabric.  Ian had this idea, to start a company that did this in Haiti, as a way to build sustainable employment and offer a solution to the lack of recycling infrastructure in the country, and we wanted to see the process in person.

I had not yet been to Haiti. I had only known that it was even possible to turn plastic into fabric for about 2 months. I was pretty amazed and overwhelmed by the process.

Flash forward to last week – two and a half years later, in August of 2013. At this point Ian (and Lee, Jenna, and Frank) are family to me. I get to go to Haiti every other month. I know more about plastics and the recycling industry than I ever thought I would. All of that is exciting, but what’s really exciting is that last week Jenna and I got to watch as plastic flake (collected and processed in Haiti by people we now know) was melted, extruded into filament, and knitted into fabric.

Here’s how the magic that is recycling happened:

1) Our plastic flake was put into a UFO (seriously, that’s the industry term), which is the triangular silver box thing on top, where it ran through a funnel into a heater and was melted.

2) Once melted, our flake emerged looking like green goop (not the technical term.) It’s green because the flake came from green beverage bottles.

3) The melted flake is then run through a filter and extruder, which essentially looks like a shower head, except that the diameter of each hole is about the width of a piece of hair.  Once extruded, the plastic starts to resemble something a lot less like slime, and a lot more like thread.

4) All of those strands are gathered together and spun into filament.

5) We made several spools of Thread-thread. And we were proud. (When I say ‘we’ made several spools of Thread, I should clarify that we watched those several spools get made. There were industry experts actually running the show who were kind enough to let us take as many pictures and ask as many questions as we wanted.)

6) 4 spools were then spun together (to get the correct denier) and then were knit.

7) And we had our first sample of fabric made from plastic bottles collected in Haiti.

We made a knit sample, so that we could have something immediate to bring home and show off to the rest of the team. Our remaining spools of filament need to have some further processing before they are woven into a fabric that looks and feels more like an average textile. As soon as we have photos of that sample, you can trust that we will share them.

Passing this trial run was a big milestone for us as a company. Though melting and extruding plastic sounds simple enough, it requires really clean, uncontaminated material. The fact that we were successful is testament to 2 years of quality improvements in Haiti, and hard work from our team and our partners.

Now that we know fabric is possible, we move into the phase of actually producing it on a larger scale, so it can be sold to manufacturers who want to utilize a transparent, sustainable, and responsible fabric in their products. This means that in the next year, you could be purchasing goods that are made out of bottles collected, and processed, and providing jobs in Haiti. Stay tuned.

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