Trash to Treasure: How Bank T-Shirts Avoided the Landfill and Became Textile Art

Cole Miller, fiber artist and curator at the Sumter County Gallery of Art
Artists who create enormous installations from unusual materials have long captured people’s interest as they marvel “how did they make that from those?!” Online tutorials and everyday materials, however, make recycled art more accessible than you might think.

Cole Miller, former fiber artist and curator at the Sumter County Gallery of Art in Sumter, S.C., enjoys turning textiles and fabrics into works of art, including making rag rugs.

“The idea evolved from lockdown when everyone began crafting again,” he recalls. After launching new branding with an updated logo, SouthState Bank found itself with approximately 650 shirts that needed a new home and a new purpose. In an effort to avoid 328 pounds of waste to landfill, the bank began searching for a partner that could use the textiles in a creative way to benefit the community.

Miller heard about the surplus of reusable materials and jumped at the chance to create something beautiful.

Using a toothbrush needle and a method called Amish knots, Miller has been creating rugs. He says coiling outward into an oval shape works best, and, because of the material, notes they are easily washable. The technique can also be used to make placements and potholders.

Miller begins the shirt-to-rug transformation by cutting off the shirt’s sleeves and then cutting the body of the shirt in half. He carefully slices the shirt into strips of about an inch, estimating that a small size gives about 20 feet of “yarn.” For a small kitchen or bathroom rug, he uses about three shirts.

Realizing that this weaving technique could be accessible to all skill levels, Miller brought the idea to Jeannette Pryor, gallery and art education assistant. The gallery plans to incorporate the project into its senior citizen outreach program. Pryor and Miller will take shirts and needles to the six community centers in Sumter County, allowing the seniors citizens who attend on a weekly basis to learn the Amish knots style and create rugs or other recycled art as well.

“This type of weaving is great for dexterity and can even serve as a mood booster,” Miller says.

Pryor is excited to see how the seniors take to the project, saying it can easily span generations as more and more young people are taking to textile art. “Our seniors often share their art projects with their grandchildren,” she adds.

Miller hopes the project will inspire others to think about materials they have at home or items they typically throw away and how to reimagine them into art.

The Sumter County Gallery of Art offers art education classes for adults and youth in mediums from pottery to painting. Learn more about the gallery’s classes and exhibits here. The gallery is open with free admission Tuesday – Saturday from 11a.m. to 5 p.m. inside the Sumter County Cultural Center.

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