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Dirt to Shirt Students Go Foraging in a Thrift Shop

As part of the first-year course “From Dirt to Shirt,” 17 Olin students visited the Needham Community Council thrift shop on Tuesday, October 10. The course is an intensive study of the global supply chain for clothing with a focus on social, economic, political, environmental, and technological issues. This includes historical and contemporary production of components such as cotton, wool, and Kevlar; textile processing and garment production; and the after-life of the clothes we dispose of.

It is the after-life of clothing that was the specific focus of the thrift shop trip.

Needham Community Council Executive Director Sandy Robinson gave the students a tour of the building, which includes a food pantry, the thrift shop, programming offices for ESL classes and a child assault prevent program among other things. There are 85 volunteers who work with the thrift shop.

Robinson made it clear that the Needham Thrift Shop takes in far more clothing than it could ever sell, which is typical of most thrift shops. “We can’t ever use all the stuff we get in,” said Robinson.

The shop is the primary fundraising arm of the Council, which raises a third of its operating budget every year through sales, fundraisers and other means.  The goods, ranging from electronics, to jewelry, to dishware to clothing, are all tagged with an initial price. The first price gets revised every few weeks until it hits the 50 percent off mark. If an item doesn’t sell or is too soiled to go into the shop, it gets donated to the Big Brother Big Sister organization. After that, the clothing may get repurposed and sold to a “for-profit” thrift shop, or sent overseas.

After the tour, the students looked around the shop with a singular purpose. As part of a class assignment, they need to choose an article of clothing and write a fictional story about the item. The story may focus on the garment’s production, consumption, or both. Eventually the students will deconstruct the clothing, encase a small piece of it in resin and sell it as a piece of art at the Needham Winter Arts Festival. Proceeds from the sale will go to the Needham Community Council.

The students spent almost an hour browsing the racks of shirts, pants, and sleepwear, all while wondering who previously owned the clothing and why had it ended up at a thrift shop.  A shirt decked with costume jewelry caught one student’s eye, another held up a white, silk robe.

Hadleigh Nunes is a veteran thrift shop-shopper: “I go to thrift shops a lot. When you find it, you know it. I will know it when I see it.”

Maya Calabria seemed thrilled with her find of a Boy Scout uniform, and she zeroed in on the badges and pins.  “This story is just going to write itself,” said Calabria.

Zack Davenport, the course NINJA, got into the act holding up two vibrantly colored Vineyard Vines pants. “The color is what first attracted me to these pants, but I can see they are made in China and they have some interesting detail on the waistband so there’s something more here,” said Davenport.

 “We hope the students will think about where their clothes are being made and by whom, and what happens to our clothing when we are finished with it,” said Professor of Anthropology Caitrin Lynch, who designed the course. “In our daily lives, we all are participants in the global apparel supply chain, but it’s rare for us to think much about it. By creating and selling an artifact that leverages stories about the production and consumption of clothing, the students will raise awareness of the diverse impacts of the global apparel system.”

This Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHS) Foundation class will partner with Associate Professor of Practice in Design Tim Sauder’s Return Design class to construct the artifacts to be sold at the art show.

The show will take place on December 9 between 10am and 3pm at Needham Town Hall.