Anita Stech used to scour bag sales and rummage sales for T-shirts. Now, the shirts come to her.
"Sometimes, we come home and I find them abandoned on our front step," she said.
Inside her Chester Park home, T-shirts are neatly organized by size and color, lining the walls in two of her adult daughters' old bedrooms. Nestled in the corner is her workstation: two sewing machines and a collection of thread. From there, she'll transform them into bags, bibs, tablet cases, clothes and just about anything she or a customer can think of.
"Some people see a big heap of T-shirts - and I go, 'Oh, jeez. I could make all kinds of things,'" she said.
Stech, 66, is the owner and seamstress of Cut Loose Creations, which she runs from her home. Since 2007, her business - which recruits help from several other area seamstresses - has been taking old clothes, T-shirts, polo and knit shirts - and making them into something new.
"I must have made 1,000 products so far," she said.
Jean Walters of Duluth has purchased a number of these products over the years. She's bought Stech's aprons and bags for herself while the baby bibs, she said, are "perfect" for gifts.
"She's taken a beautiful idea and made it really work well, so I really appreciate that," Walters said of Stech.
All of this, Stech said, is her way of taking the massive amount of T-shirts in the world and turning them into something usable before they reach the dump.
"The thing that people really need to do is just not consume as much," Stech said, glancing at the columns of T-shirts awaiting transformation. "Because this is not going to touch the gazillion things that we throw away."
Rarely do pieces of shirt go to waste in Stech's workshop. She even uses the hems of shirts to make scarves.
Stech's passion for sustainability began in her undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where she was a member of Students for Environmental Defense. She was there when UMD recycled the first newspaper and aluminum can.
"It's kind of fun to carry this through" over all these years, she said.
When she first started repurposing clothing, however, it did not have an environmental focus. She comes from a family of seamstresses. Her mom owned and operated Benda's Millinery in downtown Duluth.
"I used to hang around her shop. She was probably one of the first women business owners in town," Stech said of her mother.
But things changed when she was approached to speak at Eco Experience, an annual event at the state fair hosted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
"I started doing all the research on the production of clothing and the disposal of clothing and it's like, 'Yeah, now I know exactly why I'm doing this,'" she said.
Since finding a purpose to her repurposing, she's returned year after year to speak at the Eco Experience, armed with statistics showing the harm of producing and disposing so much clothing has on the environment.
Cut Loose's creations vary from customer to customer, but one item remains of utmost importance to Stech: coverups. These are designed for people who may have limited mobility, causing them to spill while eating or drinking. She was inspired when caring for her father. Putting a towel around her aging father's neck did not feel right, she said, it was like an undignified marker of his age. Her solution was to create something that looked more like a shirt than a bib.
"Just to see the indignities of losing function and wanting to do something about it ... and when people will happily wear these ... that makes a difference with me," Stech said.
Several assisted-living homes in the area have coverups available for their residents. Some area medical supply stores have also carried the product.
Kassie Cooke, a customer service representative at Lake Superior Medical Equipment in Duluth, said it makes those wearing it feel less embarrassed than a bib would.
"They feel a little bit more comfortable sitting at the table gathering with everybody at dinner," Cooke said. "It doesn't look like they're wearing a bib, so it makes them feel less self-conscious."
The coverups sold out at Lake Superior Medical Equipment, according to Cooke.
Although the coverups are the most meaningful item to Stech, she continues to make young women's clothing such as skirts and reworked tops. Tote bags are another popular item. The shirt's design is placed prominently on the outside face of the bag.
She often finds herself adapting to the buyer's wants. Laptop bags were once in demand she said, but now she makes more bags for iPads and e-book readers.
Stech sells her products to people looking to preserve shirts from special occasions, like a running or cycling race. Additionally, she sells her products through Etsy, a website dedicated to selling vintage and handmade goods.
On the second Saturday of each month, Stech joins a group called the Nice Girls of the North at the Lakeside-Lester Park Community Center to sell handmade products, many of which are also repurposed goods.
Although she estimated she has made more than 1,000 products since establishing Cut Loose, the different T-shirt designs she receives and the different products she creates keeps the shirt collecting and sewing interesting.
"I think if I was making the same thing over and over again out of the same material I would go crazy, but each thing is kind of an adventure - and that's what makes it fun," Stech said.
Anita's Repurposing Tips
Make a prototype.
There are plenty of T-shirts out there. Experiment with your designs until you find something that works.
No need to sew.
With just a pair of scissors, you can convert a collar into a V-neck or add fringe to a shirt. "It changes the look of it instead of just a T-shirt - it's just something different," Anita Stech said.
Most importantly: Look at things differently.
Wool sweaters can become mittens, cotton sweaters can be turned into arm warmers, and the leftover pieces can become cat toys. Stech asks herself: "It's not a T-shirt anymore, what is it?"