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 roll was a different color, and I bought all they had, about 50 rolls. 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
I was still making the Wipee pieces from the material I bought at Cemaco though I knew it was not an ecofriendly material. But like the pita plastica I had become accustomed to using, I found it was too beautiful and unique to give up.
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
After touring the factory and picking up some materials I went to the office to present the new pieces to the Engelbergs. They were more than excited to hang the work in their new conference room. While we decided where to hang the pieces, Arianne gave a really interesting presentation on where each fiber that was used in my new Wipee piece came from. Turns out there were 4 different types of fibers included and she broke it down for me.
The knowledge these guys have of upcycling and how to reuse materials to create new things is astonishing. Whenever I come across people like them, I feel so grateful to know them and appreciate their dedication to preserving our earth’s resources while at the same time creating sthings that are absolutely new and unique.
So without realizing it, it turns out I am an upycle artist. The pieces that I am creating with their materials are upcycled. In addition to using upcycled materials for the images, I am also using sustainably sourced wood from local tree farms to create the frames and supports of the work. Read more about my use of sustainably sourced hardwoods from Izabal Agro Forest in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. These guys are also doing amazing things to preserve resources in Guatemala.
Hanging the Pieces
We had a great time talking about the work, my inspiration for the pieces, how Jaime and Arianne produced their fabrics, where the materials originally came from and all the creative things we are working on now. Then it was time to hang the work.
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.
I’m so excited to be working with so many talented, intelligent and socially minded friends in Guatemala. Arianne and Jaime of The New Denim Project are doing really great things for the textile industry with their upcycling projects, and I’m really grateful to be collaborating with them. As you read through my blog, you will discover that there are many people here working with similar intentions. These are lasting relationships that really help enrich my life and my work in this amazing country.