Bringing research to the mountain of post consumer sweater waste
WASA is in partnership with Recycle Wool / Datini Fibres a recycling company of post consumer sweater (and other garment) waste based in Karachi, Pakistan. Recycle Wool – Datini Fibres imports 3-5000 tons of post consumer sweaters a year. With its co-founder, Hasnain Lilani, Social Entrepreneur Gwendolyn Floyd, and myself, Cynthia Hathaway, co-founder of WASA, we are re-thinking the garment wool waste chain. The foundations are set for the first wool research lab Wool Mountain Pakistan Research Lab or WMP-RL, located in Karachi, Pakistan.
WMP-RL investigates wool waste streams which start from the back of a sheep to mountains of post consumer wool garment waste, and research applications for both raw and processed wool for agriculture (growing pellets, soil fertilization, water retention), and building applications (isolation, insulation, bricks). Whilst doing so, we prioritize economic, cultural and social resilience through wool in Pakistan, and along the global wool procurement chain.
Setting up the first of its kind wool research lab at the base of ‘sweater mountain’, we aim to bring together local and international researchers from art, design, social and science to re-imagine a valued wool chain, and a variety of applications that celebrate the ‘golden fleece’ as a resource and regenerative system of choice.
*Please see PDF at bottom of this page for more information.
Follow me to Karachi, Pakistan: A Visual Journey of Sweaters at the Base of Wool Mountain Pakistan
The following blog insert is a travel log to Wool Mountain Pakistan, where we will set up the wool research lab. Created during Covid, we travel not in person, but through the images of Hasnain Lilani, who welcomes us to see his wonderful, hopeful, full of urgency world of wool. It is highly inspiring to see his care and passion to convert waste into value, and in such circumstances. As a family run business, supporting 40 livelihoods, and with GRS certification (the global standard for recycling wool fibres), it is a moment of inspiration whilst his country suffers from water shortages and low wages from the fashion industry, EU focused textile research, and climate change. Through showing you this context of where some of the world’s textile waste ends up, gives both hope, and generates attention to the urgent need to rethink textile production, design, profit-driven processes and value creation.
*many thanks to Hasnain Lilani who has supported this journey with his images and videos.
1: Delivery from North America, Europe, China, and elsewhere
The world’s sweater waste is brought to Recycle Wool/ Datini Fibres in beautiful mounds on decorated trucks like a parade. Recycle Wool / Datini Fibres is based in a beautiful new warehouse space, like a white temple to wool. The colours of the bales and sweaters stand out even more in this atmosphere. Although it is hard to see so much of our fast consumer habits create this much waste, and it is only a fraction of the wool waste sent to landfills, some still see the value in it as a resource.
The bales are unloaded, and unwrapped and placed into the first mountain range of mixed colours. From here, the second mountain range develops by colour and type of sweater. And what beautiful mountains they are.
3: Colour Sorting
It’s starting to become a wool candy land. Mountains of so many colours grow as sweaters sorted by hand and eye get ready for the next stage of customization.
4: Sorting the Beauties: A Sweater Archive
Recycle Wool / Datini Fibres is not only saving sweaters from incineration or the landfill by recycling them, but also displaying back to us our beautiful wool heritage. Hasnain Lilani is preserving the best sweaters by setting them aside, and holding onto them. Seeing incredible value in knitting techniques, hand work, complex patterns, natural high quality wools, Hasnain is setting up a Sweater Archive. Like precious seeds preserved in frozen banks in mountains, these sweaters are to be preserved for future stories of us.
5: Sorting Fibres
At Recycle Wool / Datini Fibres, not only are sweaters sorted by colour, but also by material make-up. Cashmere is set aside, as well as other fine wools, as they are more valuable. Some sweaters have never been worn, or sold so their condition is top. However, because the fast fashion market wants cheap fibres, cashmere and other fine wools are only a small fraction of what they can extract. Most wool is blended with polyesters and cottons.
The sorting is all done by hand and eye, as the sensitivity of the skin still outdoes a machine. And in this situation, innovative technology is afforded only by countries with money. Thus, until circularity starts a just transition, including all those in the chain, places like Pakistan will continue to do most work by hand labor. At Datini Fibres / Recycle Wool, this gives many people employment and skills training, but must be compensated for if machinery is to replace work done by human in the future. Creating diversification of product lines outside of fashion must start now. And that’s what we are trying to achieve with Wool Mountain Pakistan Research Lab.
6: Button, Buttons, Labels and Labels, Zipper and Zippers
In the sorting process, collars are trimmed, labels taken off, including other items such as buttons, zippers, patches and beads. Seeing the labels is heart breaking, as some are still attached to new sweaters never worn. Some are hand knitted. Some are from high end fashion brands. Some from brands that are associated with sustainability, but have forgotten about the next cycle.
The label box tells it all. It symbolizes extreme waste, fast fashion production and consumerism, and the use of resources we are depleting in the process. The labels are proof of our habits, and present us with the need to change. But how do we change? It will take all those in these labels, who have made them, worn them, and given their resources to come together and readjust to living in balance. We must think along the entire chain, expanding our definitions of value, from Granny, sheep, breeder, fashion brand, textile producer, policy makers, consumer, to recycler.
Made in Pakistan, Returned to Pakistan
7: Making Colours from a Woolen Palette
Shown here, a colour sample book is used to match colours for clients. The mixing from the mountains is a precise action, and on a grand scale. The sweaters are the paints used by the woolen painter. It’s a precious skill, the eye and hand of a human is a valued expertise in this context.
8: Fibre Production
Once the colours have been selected, the sweaters are put through a machine which chops and elongates their fibres into a finished, beautiful product: fluffy, soft, gorgeous fibre ready for spinning!
9: Other Wool Mountains : Jackets, Coats and Pants
Besides Sweaters, Recycle Wool / Datini Fibres also imports other woolen garment waste, such as jackets, coats and pants. Pants are able to be recycled into fibres for yarns. The jackets and coats are a focus of our research at Wool Mountain Pakistan – Research Lab (WMP-RL) as they are very difficult to recycle, due to the complexity of materials used in one garment. It is very difficult to separate linings from the jacket, as glues are used to keep them in place. Padding in shoulders, and blended materials also add to the complexity. At WMP-RL, jackets are a core focus since they are keep out of textile recycling processes and research. Presently, most jackets and coats in the world are sent to the landfill or incineration. At WMP-RL we will change this trajectory creating the urgently needed research on this overlooked, untapped textile resource.
ZOOM Interview with Hasnain Lilani
Steps Towards Woolly Futures: Zoom interview November 2021. With Wool Mountain Pakistan Research Lab co-founders Hasnain Lilani of Recycle Wool / Datini Fibres, based in Karachi, Pakistan and Cynthia Hathaway (interviewee) of WASA, The Netherlands, we talk together about the importance of Woolly Futures, Wool Recycling, and Wool Mountain Pakistan Research Lab:
Introducing Wool Mountain Research Lab: A Lab at the Bottom of the Mountain
Because of the urgency to deal with the world’s textile waste, create just transitions for all towards sustainable futures, and a love for wool, WASA has joined forces with Hasnain Lilani (co-founder of Recycle Wool / Datini Fibres) and Gwendolyn Floyd (social entrepreneur). We have formed Wool Mountain Pakistan Research Lab (WMP-RL) to bring attention and research to one of the largest recycling facilities of woolen sweaters, pants, jackets and coats. By bringing research such as enzyme recycling processing to developing nations, and facilities like Recycle Wool, offers innovation to vital nodes of the textile chain often overlooked by sustainability trajectories of developed nations. Being the first wool research lab in this part of the world, WMP-RL supports local resilience, transhumant shepherding (taking sheep by foot through landscapes to pasture), local sheep breeds, and the protection of natural resources. Creating fair and just practices of transitioning to sustainable textile industries, WMP-RL supports the well being of men and women in developing nations with fair wages, skills training, and child care. Investing in ways to diversify product ranges beyond fashion is also a key focus .
Textile research is also about preserving local heritage and expertise, and Pakistan’s rich past as a textile nation, dating back to 5500BC is an astounding foundation upon which to tread lightly with care and respect.
WMP-RL is establishing these working and philosophical principles under the name School of Shepherding or SOS.
Feel free to get in touch with us via email@example.com for questions, comments and collaboration.
Check out downloadable PDF of Wool Mountain Pakistan Research Lab, designed by Studio Renate Boere:
Wool Mountain Pakistan is generously supported by the Internationalization Fund of: