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Textile waste turned into yarn

20 January 2022

7 min. to read

Fibers unsorted © Ronald Smits
Fibres Unsorted is a collaboration between Imat and Envisions that tackles one of the most pressing problems of our times: what to do with the huge amount of discarded/unused clothing produced every year?

What a waste

According to the World Bank, the fashion industry was responsible for producing 62 million metric tons of clothing in 2019. Sooner rather than later, it will all end up as waste. The Environmental Protection Agency calculated that 17 million tons of textile waste was generated in the US in 2018 alone. Less than 15% was recycled.

Surely something can be done with the remaining 85%, other than just burning it or dumping it in a landfill? Imat – a company that carries out research, development and the testing of materials, components and systems – and Envisions, a design lab with a fascination for experimental material research, think so. The result was a joint initiative called Fibres Unsorted.

“My goal is basically to help reduce these mountains of textile waste by turning them into yarn,” says Michael Wolf of Imat. “It’s a shame to waste such a valuable resource.” Recycled yarn already exists, but is made from sorted clothing. So, for example, polyester is separated from general textile waste and then used to make polyester yarn. But this is only a fraction of the recycling market. Michael and Imat aimed much higher: to produce yarn from unsorted textile waste.

A uniform, multi-fibre recycled yarn

“This was very challenging,” he says. “We did so much testing and worked with many, many different partners like machine manufacturers and resource management experts to find a solution. With unsorted textiles, you get multiple fibres like cotton, wool and polyester. Combining and spinning them using conventional industrial machines produced a yarn that was uneven in thickness and strength. Through smart technology, like sensors which monitor the thickness and then regulate the speed of the machine, we can produce a uniform yarn that’s just as strong as untwisted cotton.”

This, of course, is a huge step in the right direction. As far as Wolf is aware, no one else is currently capable of doing this. But what can you make with this yarn? That’s where Envisions come in.

No bleaching or chemical processes

“We investigated various use cases,” says Sanne Schuurmans, director & co-founder at Envisions. “One of the limitations was the colour: the yarn is grey. We don’t want to use any chemical processes to bleach or colour it. That would be unsustainable because the yarn itself is recyclable. So we explored other avenues.”

Seat coverings for cars

The result was a series of seat coverings for the automotive industry. By combining the yarn with small amounts of other recycled materials (e.g. polyester thread) and experimenting with textures, a number of different options were produced in terms of colour and pattern. “Many car manufacturers are interested in what we’re doing,” says Schuurmans. “They recognise the value in new developments like this.”

The automotive industry was chosen because of its very high standards. “If we can meet their specifications – which we did – then we know our textiles are suitable for many other industries as well,” she says. “We are currently in a partnership to develop our own textile collection based around this yarn, which could be interesting for furniture manufacturers.”

Scaling up to make a difference

Industrialising yarn production shouldn’t be a problem. “We could definitely scale up to making approximately 500/600 tons a year,” says Wolf. “Volume is necessary to really make an impact.” Schuurmans agrees. “A lot of the clothing produced by high street fashion chains doesn’t even reach the shops, and is just thrown away,” she says. “It would be great if we could give as much as possible a new lease of life.”