In late 2019, Seljak Brand’s co-founder Sammy visited one of the textiles recycling hot-spots in the world. A small town in Italy is host to some of Europe’s most established textiles recycling facilities, many of which are almost a century old.
The region works as a network. Over 3000 companies have their own specialty and rely upon one another to provide the global fashion industry with recycled raw material, recycled yarn and recycled fabric among other textiles services.
Naturally, we were stoked when we came across this resourceful epicentre and booked a trip. One of the incredibly inspiring businesses we visited was a vertically integrated recycled textiles mill – a fourth generation family business – now managed by a brother and sister. This year they're celebrating their 100th birthday!
This recycling mill brings tonnes of bales of donated or discarded clothing, shoes, toys etc. into their sorting warehouse where they employ local workers to separate items into: things that can be resold (60%+), things that can be recycled into new yarn (35%) and things that go to landfill (2 to 3%). Some are local donations and some are from abroad.
The garments for resale get sent to local op shops and re-enter the consumer cycle.
The garments for recycling get processed onsite. Experts sort the garments for recycling – primarily knitwear and old jumpers – into fibre types; separating wool from cashmere from cotton and so on. Then, they are disassembled so all zips, buttons and non-fabric items are removed, resulting in rags.
The rags are next sorted into monochrome colours and by material type, fibre quality, fineness and fabric quality. They are sorted again and again until the piles are pure in materiality and are based on precise colours.
This means that in the recycling process, the fibres do not need to be dyed when the new yarn is created. Rather, the colours of the existing garments are used to determine the yarn colour. This eliminates the use of resources associated with industrial dyeing; chemicals, water and energy.
Then the rags are put through a one-of-a-kind carbonising machine. The carboniser breaks down all the cellulose fibres like cotton and viscose so what is left is pure wool.
The rags are then shredded in a mechanical water shredding machine. This process also cleans the fibres.
The result is fine recycled wool fibres ready for remanufacturing into new yarn.
From here, the spinning and weaving process begins. A small percentage of recycled PET (polyester) is mixed with the wool fibres during the spinning phase, similar to the production of Seljak Brand’s recycled wool blankets. When wool is recycled mechanically, the fibres are cut so short that they can’t bind onto themselves during spinning the way virgin wool does. This is why introducing a long fibre like polyester here is necessary. It creates a yarn with greater longevity and strength.
Given the yarn isn't dyed, the colour mixing is a key step. Colour experts meticulously match the colours of every yarn lot so they can offer ‘stock colours’. Each time, the recipe will be slightly different but the end result will look the same. This is a craft that has been honed through decades of experience.
The yarn can then be woven into fabric or sold as is for other factories to weave.
The recycling mill is in-part powered by solar, recovers and reuses waste water and is certified by the Global Recycling Standard. It is estimated that recycled wool from the region produces 0.5kg of CO2 for 1kg of fabric, compared to the 9kg of CO2 emitted for new wool fabric.
For Seljak Brand, finding other businesses and suppliers who share the vision for a world without waste is really exciting! Organisations like this recycling mill power our collective movement; to create low carbon products that can be remanufactured at the end of their life. Italy, we’ll be back!
Photos by Samantha Seljak