New Denim Project
Wipee (Painter’s Rags)
My favorite material to work with right now is called wipee. It’s basically left over threads from various types of manufactured textiles rolled up into a ball and sold to painters as rags to mop up their paint drips.
When I first discovered it I was in a large store called Cemaco which is basically a giant Target and Home Depot combined into one. In the center aisle was a huge basket of brightly colored rags rolled up in plastic and sold for about $1.00 each. I’m always looking for new materials and this stuff really caught my eye. Every ball was a different color, and I bought all they had, about 50 balls. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I knew it had a future in my shop.
The next day when I got home I took out a bag of wipee, opened the plastic, and put the colorful ball of rags on a white canvas. I quickly began to spread out the material to see what was inside of the roll; if there were different colors, etc. After working with the material for a few minutes I had a 2’x2′ square of flattened threads arranged in a beautiful expressionistic composition full of spontaneity and bright unique color. It was done. Sometimes, but not often, it is that easy; the piece creates itself. I live for those moments.
making a Wipee piece
Introducing the New Denim Project
A year or so before I made the first Wipee piece, I met a father and daughter team of textile manufacturers named Jaime and Arianne Engleberg. This was before I had made the decision to use mostly natural materials, but I new they had a really great project called The New Denim project and they were creating their upcycled fabrics in Jaime’s textile plant that he had been running for the last 20 years or so in Guatemala City.
One evening during a group show I was in at Sol del Rio gallery, I met Jaime again and talked to him more in depth about what he was doing with Arianne, who had conceived the New Denim Project as a sustainable extension of what her father was already doing in his factory. I was telling him that I was having trouble finding canvas that was eco friendly and asked him if he new where I could get it. He said, “Yes! I’m making it!” I asked him what the name of his company was and he said Iris textiles. It turns out it was the same canvas I had been using all along since I had first found it in Panajachel when we lived at Lake Atitlan. I couldn’t believe it.
So I had the canvas (you can read about it here) and now I was looking for ecofriendly wipee. He said he had that too. So I quickly took his information and set up a time to meet at his factory later that week.
The process used by the New Denim Project to make their textiles is called upcycling. Here Arianne describes it best:
Upcycling basically takes a material destined for the landfill and repurposes it into something new. It is different than recycling which usually involves taking a hybrid mix of products to create a new product, often leaving some of the byproducts of the recycling for the landfill. With The New Denim Project’s materials, they take scraps of denim fabrics that are to be discarded by denim manufacturers, break them down into fibers, and create thread to make new textiles. Unlike what often happens with recycling, nothing is lost in the process.
Iris Textiles is a massive textile factory and much of it is now dedicated to The New Denim Project. I love visiting the Engelberg’s and touring the plant, seeing what new projects they are up to, and buying some wipee and canvas. The last visit I made, to show my appreciation for their contributions to the upcycling movement, I brought a couple of pieces along with me to hang in their new conference room. But first I visited the factory again to get a better feel visually for how they created their textiles.
Bags of broken down tshirts ready to be made into thread.
Thread made from upcycled tshirts.
Creating the eco-friendly canvas I use almost daily
Hanging the Pieces
Connected, upcycled canvas, hanging above one of Iris Textiles original sewing machines
Arianne and myself before hanging a Wipee piece, my first piece of that series using upcycled wipee.