Here at Swim Feral we are big fans of reusing and repurposing materials wherever possible. When we came across Dirtbags Climbing – who upcycle old climbing gear into new products – we instantly loved what they were doing and wanted to hear more about them.
Founders, Jennifer Wood and James Dickinson tell us a bit more about how they got started and the types of products they are able to make from discarded materials.
Dirtbags Climbing began in the corner of our bedroom, on a sewing machine saved from a skip with a pile of climbing rope we needed to throw away. James and I are both creative minded, he with a background in engineering and my head full of crazy ideas, we started throwing plans around about what could be made from others’ trash. More specifically climbers’ trash. For traditional climbing you tend to need PPE, that is, a rope, a harness, and a helmet. All of these things will only be safe for a certain amount of time, but all of these things are plastic.
This means that the more popular a sport like climbing becomes, the more wastage is produced. We decided to look into upcycling materials as a green alternative to buying new fabrics. Reusing is also a much better option compared to recycling as it doesn’t involve chemically altering the fabric.
Our most eye catching reuse is with climbing rope. With the rope clean and ‘sheathed’ (the centre core is pulled out leaving a hollow tube) it can be flattened and stitched together to make a workable fabric. This we use to make chalk bags and belts, mainly, though we have made a number of rugs which look spectacular (if not a little laborious to make!).
Once we started, the questions rolled in from friends, friends of friends and so on… ‘can you make…? ‘can you take rucksacks?’ ‘can you use tents?’ ‘I have some wetsuits, can you use them?’ and the business evolved from there. We moved out of the bedroom, to a workshop in the garden, and now to a space on an industrial estate. We are still helping individuals with custom make requests, but now our scope has expanded to helping other brands and businesses deal with their textile waste in an ethical and sustainable manner.
For example, we have recently worked with Berghaus and created our ‘Rehaused’ collection of bags. These are products that are made from entirely upcycled Berghaus products that have come to the end of their life. Berghaus send us a monthly mystery box and just let us loose in order to upcycle it and to make sure nothing ends in landfill. We separate the products into the components (zips, toggles, buckles, fabric panels) and use them all in new products.
We have also teamed up with Manchester-based 'Inland Sea' who have been collecting wetsuits for us to repurpose. As wetsuits are oil-based, melting down and reconfiguring can get messy, and also toxic. So we simply wash, cut out the useful parts, lay our patterns over the top to cut out shapes, and re-stitch. It is the most eco friendly way of reusing materials. We have used donated tow floats to re make also, as the fabric is waterproof so comes in quite handy. Most recently we used a bright pink tow float and used the fabric to make a zipped bag for a bike's handle bars.
And we have a shed full of sails and inflatables ready to be repurposed, sometimes it is a matter for the right job to come along! Using products in this way involves a lot of creativity but it is really so fun to see something new being recreated from something that has already had a life of adventure.
We both spend so much of time in the outdoors, both climbing and swimming in the lakes of the Lake District; so we understand how much those who use the outdoors love and revere it so, and are keen to not only shop sustainably, but also are mindful of where their kit goes once it is done with. There is a level of ‘guilt’ attached with throwing things away, even if that product really cannot be used in its current state.
The main aim of Dirtbags is to provide a place for individuals and companies to send the textiles that are ‘still fine, but we can’t use it / don’t want it anymore’ and then to design products around the items donated. This way we can reduce the amount of materials sent to landfill. It is a brilliant job as it means we get to work closely with the general public, activity groups, smaller and larger businesses – it really feels like Dirtbags is becoming a hub for all things upcycling in the outdoor recreation industry.
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