I’m regularly asked why I use recycled jeans in my bags. It would be easier to use new fabric that is handy to cut, for instance. Why do I say that there are Irish Jeans In Every Bag, or use the corresponding hashtag #IrishJeansInEveryBag?
But when I started out making bags, I looked into how I could make a difference with my products, one handbag or purse at a time.
Consider these statistics I have gleaned from E D G E Fashion Intelligence e-magazine:
Second only to oil production, the clothing and textile industry is the largest polluter in the world.
It takes more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans.
The textile industry is one of the top 3 water wasting industries in China, discharging over 2.5 billion tons of wastewater every year.
In the United States, a report from the Environmental Protection Agency stated that 15.1 million tons of textile waste was generated in 2013, of which 12.8 million tons were discarded.
About 15% of fabric intended for clothing ends up on the cutting room floor. This waste rate has been tolerated industry-wide for decades.
Consumers throw away shoes and clothing [versus recycle], an average of 70 pounds per person, annually.
Up to 95% of the textiles that are land filled each year could be recycled.
Landfill space is expensive and hard to find.
Using recycled cotton saves 20,000 litres of water per kilogramme of cotton, a water-intensive crop.
Taking that last statistic as a starting point, I realised if I could recycle denim, which is made from cotton, I could make a small difference. On speaking to the managers of local charity shops, they confirmed that jeans were one of the most common items of clothing to be donated to their shops, but one of the most difficult to sell on. This may be for any number of reasons, but one of the most commonly stated is that jeans are a bit like shoes, they wear to fit the first purchaser of them, and when you get a second hand pair, they might not feel like they fit properly. So very often sacks of secondhand jeans are sold to companies that will dispose of the waste clothes, generating a very small amount of money for the charity, and ultimately leading to many of those jeans ending up in landfill.
So I step in and pay a decent rate to the charity shops, and get these sacks of jeans. If they have worn sections or rips, I can cut round them. If they appear to be special, perhaps vintage Levi’s or Wrangler, I call in my neighbour Ben who runs Blue Collar Denim, an online seller of vintage jeans. Who knew West Clare had so many denim fanciers in one place?
The jeans need sorting and washing, and this is no small process.
And ideally the jeans are washed on a fine day so they can be dried on the washing line, instead of on an airer in front of the fire. So I wait until I have a good pile of jeans, and then the washing commences!
Take a look at this clip of the washing line in action!
When you look at the washing line full of jeans, drying in the sun, it is remarkably satisfying. Each bag I make represents a pair of jeans that hasn’t gone into landfill.
Even the zips are not wasted. These are cut from the jeans, stripped out of the surrounding denim and made into purses. These little purses are always one offs because I use the offcuts of the outer fabrics and the randomly sized zips from the jeans to make each one, so they vary tremendously in terms of size and fabric.
I’m trying to work towards a Zero Waste manufacturing process. I’m a way off this as yet, but with every zip I re-use, and each offcut turned into a coin purse, I reduce waste from my business.
Preparing the Jeans for their next Incarnation
Once the jeans are crisp and dry, they are stacked in readiness to be cut into the various different pattern pieces needed for my range of bags.
Some of the largest jeans are pulled out at this stage because they are particularly suitable for my larger style bags like the Tara Large Zip Top and the Clare Large Messenger Bags. I cut each bag from one pair of jeans as a rule, so large jeans are in high demand when I’m making a batch of these styles.
This photograph shows a whole load of Fiona Small Messenger Bag linings cut from the jeans. The flaps get paired with the bodies, and I then select each body specifically to go with its outer fabric in terms of colour and thickness of denim. All those busy Irish legs have worn and softened the denim to make the fabric fabulous to work with. Denim is good to work with because it is hard wearing yet soft, so it forms a robust, rip-resistant lining for each bag, but it is soft to the touch and looks gorgeous. The fact that I can never repeat a denim lining with any bag is a big draw for many of my customers, they love the fact that their bag is unique.
I can take this a step further for customers too. I have done special orders for people who have a pair of jeans that are particularly special to them. Perhaps they were a pair of Levi’s they had that they bought on a holiday in the United States one summer, but have worn out and can’t wear any more. Or maybe they’ve lost weight and want to celebrate by using up their larger sized jeans in a positive way, and to treat themselves to a reward in the process! Or, in a wonderful memorial to a loved one, I have taken the jeans from someone who has died, and make a very special bag for their partner, so they always carry a little bit off that person with them.These sorts of commissions carry a great weight of responsibility, but ultimately, it is a wonderful way to remember someone by. In one bag I made there was a little bleached spot on the lining that will always remind the owner of the bag of the time when their partner over enthusiastically bleached the sink, and splashed the bleach all over their clothes too, hopefully bringing a wry smile to their face when they see it.
A Touch of Embroidery, and Denim Magic
Just look at that corner in the bottom of the lining of a little Amy Small Zip Top Cross Body Bag I made on Tuesday! That’s been made from the legs of a pair of jeans, and the two pieces of fabric have joined so beautifully to give those shades of indigo. If I do say so myself, it is a thing of beauty.
And sometimes, when the denim is cut, there is a pocket on the leg. As a rule, these need to be unpicked, otherwise they are too bulky. Once unpicked, you get to see where the denim has faded unevenly as the jeans have been worn and washed. Sometimes I take these cut squares of denim and add a little run of embroidery onto the pocket shaped section, to highlight this section. It’s always a one off, and depends totally on my mood what stitch I might use. That’s the joy of my bags. You might buy one, open it up when you get home or when you open the parcel if you bought online, and when you look inside there might be a little run of embroidery. You don’t get that attention to detail from the mass manufactured bags!
Celebrating Denim and Sunshine
Here’s a picture which I think illustrates what I do perfectly. The first type of bag I ever made was the Kate Beach Tote Bag, named after my two best friends, Kate & Kate, who have encouraged me all the way on my bag making adventure. The shoulder straps are made from denim and embroidered to give them stability and structure, and the full denim lining is highlighted with a contrast pocket. They can be reversed so when you come home from the beach you turn them so the water repellent fabric is on the inside so the wet clothes don’t soak the bag. Once home, turn it the right side out again and give it a good shake, and it’s ready to go again! But how beautiful is that recycled denim?
So that’s why I use recycled jeans in my bags. Each Sallyann Bag that you buy is a pair of jeans that hasn’t gone into landfill. There genuinely are Irish Jeans in Every Bag. I love where I live very much. It is a beautiful, green environment. I want it to stay that way. So Sallyann Bags are making a small, but significant, statement of intent about the viability of using recycled fabrics and making something unique and special from them.