The Place That Makes FabMo Possible: A Salvaging Trip to SF’s Design Center

Every Monday morning Hannah Cranch drives from Mountain View to San Francisco, a forty-mile drive. Hers isn’t a leisure drive. It is more of a weekly hunt, a quest, a mission. Hannah, you see, is one of the founders of FabMo, an amazing Mountain View non-profit organization. Her weekly drives are what make FabMo possible. Hannah has been making this routine track for well over a decade.

FabMo, short for “Fabric and More,” is a California Bay Area non-profit organization that rescues discarded fabrics and other materials, and makes them available to teachers, artists and other creative souls. Each year FabMo helps divert over seventy tons of such materials out of the landfill. The source of FabMo’s riches, and Hannah’s weekly destination, is San Francisco’s Design Center on Henry Adams St. There, Hannah collects beautiful materials that the different show rooms no longer need, and brings them to FabMo’s headquarters in Mountain View.

Hannah is a smallish, delicate-looking woman, yet she drives a big, monster pickup truck. Jonathan, Hannah’s husband and FabMo’s co-founder, bought the truck especially for this purpose, over Hannah’s protests. She now admits that it has been very useful in more ways than one.

Hannah's monster pickup truck

Early last spring I had the honor of accompanying Hannha on one of her Monday-morning hunts. I went to help, but also to see first hand where the fabrics I use come from. Once at the Design Center, I witnessed how one woman can–literally–move a mountain. Following the trip, my admiration for Hannah, her husband Jonathan, and what they do grew many fold.

The Design Center, for those of you who don’t know about it (I certainly didn’t!) is a Mecca for fabric lovers. Or it should be! It is composed of two separate buildings, both several stories high, built as squares around central courtyards. The buildings are oldish, and look very industrial and somewhat unappealing. Yet, they are full of every imaginable kind of gorgeous furniture/tile/home decor stores, carrying beautiful designer good that are hard to find anywhere else. Most of these showrooms are open to the public, but sell only to designers (apparently there are resident designers available for hire if you want to buy something and don’t have a designer of your own).

Hannah comes to the Center well prepared, with meticulous lists of showrooms to stop at. She takes a bagful of large, black garbage bags from her truck. As she enters each building, she first picks up a ginormous trolley from the bottom-most floor. She then starts making her rounds, following the list, going around one floor and then up to the other.

This is what one of the showrooms looks like. And this is Hannah, showing me some of the beautiful textiles on display. Sadly, FabMo rarely gets these large fabric pieces, but looking through them was a real treat!

This, for example, is but one beautiful piece. The birds are embroidered, and I was salivating all over them (and over the other fabrics, too!).

Here is another showroom. The small pieces on the right, rather than the large swatches on the left, are more likely to end up in Hannah’s bags.

A showroom in the Design Center

When Hannah walks into a showroom, she knows all the salespeople by name, and has something nice to say to each. In some of the showrooms people hand Hannah whatever fabrics/other materials they no longer need. Sometimes they have nothing, or just a miser piece or two. Sometimes they have more. In some showrooms, Hannah makes her way to the back rooms, through hidden doors that normal visitors won’t even notice. There, in the behind-the-scene storage rooms, she often has a special bin dedicated just for her, where people deposit discarded items all week long.

Hannah puts all the fabrics, rugs, and wall-paper samples she collects, both big and small, into a garbage bag. Whenever a bag gets heavy, she ties it up, loads it onto the cart, and starts filling another.

After a while, the bags start piling up, forming a mountain of fabric-full garbage bags. Pushing the trolley becomes ever more difficult!

Things get even worse in the second building, where Hannah picks up tile samples. Now, those get incredibly heavy!

By the time Hannah is done, a  trolley or two are full. She then loads all her collected treasures into the truck. This, too, is no small feat. It requires much planning and elaborate packing skills, which Hannah seems to have mastered over the years!

The collection takes the entire day, and is hard physical, back-breaking work. I was utterly exhausted by the time we were done, but Hannah soldiered on without complaints, working with good humor, full dedication, and a genuine love for what she does.

Hannah drives the truck back to Mountain View, where she unloads everything into FabMo’s facility. This is where the FabMo chapter of the fabrics’ story begins. It’s not where it ends, however. More work needs to be done before these treasures can go on to their next adventure.

The Amazing Story of FabMo: How Two Dedicated People Can Make a Big Difference

Exactly two years ago I came home with a small stash of beautiful upholstery fabric samples. Little did I know how quickly and profoundly these textiles would change my life! Today I want to tell the amazing story of FabMo, the non-profit organization where I acquired those samples, and the inspiring story of it’s two co-founders, Hannah and Jonathan Cranch.

Hannah and Jonathan Cranch

How It All Started

A couple of decades ago Hannah and Jonathan Cranch were ordinary people going about their own business. Hannah taught art in Palo Alto primary schools, while Jonathan was a general contractor. They occasionally enjoyed attending seasonal open houses at the Design Center in San Francisco, seeing what was new in the design world. They both enjoyed the refreshments, browsing the beautiful displays and chatting with the salespeople

One day, during one such visit, they saw a man toss a big trash bag into the dumpster. The bag tore open, spilling out a bunch of gorgeous fabrics. It turned out that in preparation for the open houses, the showrooms had to make room for newly released fabrics, which meant getting rid of all the discontinued textiles. These exquisite, expensive designer fabrics, which were displayed but never used, were thus headed for the landfill.

Hannah, as an art teacher, knew her fellow teachers would salivate over such a treasure, so she began the quest to save these resources. She visited showrooms and spoke with key people, asking for some fabrics, and they gradually agreed to give her some. Each time, she returned home with a bag or two full of lustrous samples, which she distributed to Palo Alto teachers.

As she gradually built relationships, the amount of material she acquired began to grow. Soon, she and Jonathan started supplying five school districts, and passed some fabrics on to the Children’s Theater, as well.

When Things Got More Serious

Hannah later learned that someone named Steve was visiting the showrooms every Monday to collect discontinued fabric samples, which were then picked up by a charitable organization run by a group of nuns. One day the charity did not come by to pick up, and so showroom workers asked Hannah, who was fortuitously at the Design Center at that moment, whether she wanted the fabrics. She certainly did! As it turned out, the charity never came back, and Hannah began a weekly pickup from then on. With the sudden increase in quantity, the picture changed dramatically.

At essentially the same time, in summer 2007, Palo Alto schools closed for the summer. Hannah and Jonathan were unable to distribute the growing amounts of fabrics they were collecting. They published notices on Freecycle, Craigslist and other online venues, and began compiling an email list of interested people. Soon after, they set up five tables in their living room, filled them up with materials, and invited these interested fabric-lovers to come over and pick whatever they wanted. Before long this became a recurring event.

Originally, Hannah and Jonathan distributed the materials they gathered. They were the ones deciding what resources to give each school/theater. Once they allowed people to come over to their house and pick on their own, however, they could no longer think of it as “distribution.” They decided to call these “selection events” instead, since patrons got to choose their own treasures.

At first, their living-room events lasted two days. As the amount of fabrics kept growing, they were extended to three. Soon, the living room wasn’t big enough for everything. Hannah and Jonathan set up yet more tables in their family room.

But the rescued samples kept accumulating. In no time they filled one spare bedroom, then another, until all the bedrooms in the house were full of textiles and other materials.

Hannah and Jonathan began holding regular selection events, timing them to open up a guest room as needed.

Their email list, initially limited to about thirty people, kept growing. Before long, some one hundred and seventy people came by every month. Some were hesitant to enter a private house. Others, however, came regularly. Some of the latter offered to help pay for the gas for Hannah’s collection trips to SF, so Hannah and Jonathan put up a donation box to help finance their drives. Then someone offered to help take care of welcoming guests. One day, when Hannah, who was also co-owner of a catering business, was too busy with an event, Jonathan took that woman up on her offer. From then on the Cranches relied more and more on volunteers to help them with the many tasks of gathering, sorting and distributing. They started documenting who came to their house, and, in order to limit crowding, began setting appointments.

How FabMo Was Born

In 2009, after years of making fabrics available from their private house, Jonathan learned that their home insurance would not cover such large gatherings. Although the Cranches distributed everything for free, the insurance considered what they were doing as a business. So they found a small shared space in Palo Alto where they could hold Selection Events, but which had very little room for storage.

Six months later they moved to a bigger warehouse on Old Middlefield Road. Later they added another warehouse.

That same year FabMo was born as a public benefit corporation, and in 2010 was granted 501(c)(3) status. FabMo was now officially a non-profit organization! The name FabMo is short for Fabrics and More, as by then the Cranches rescued many different materials. In addition to fabrics, they also saved wallpapers, trims, tiles, leather, carpets and so on.

Since then, FabMo’s activities have continued to expand. Nine years ago, a regular attendee suggested creating an event for people to showcase items they created with FabMo materials, so as to inspire others. That’s how the Holiday Boutique came about. In 2015 FabMo moved into their current location in Mountain View. They regularly hold monthly three-day Selection Events, as well as 8-10 Special Sales a year.

In 2014 FabMo started holding regular events in Santa Cruz as well, with an active volunteer and consumer base there. They also hold Selection Events in Vallejo, as well as in different Bay Area Tech Shops. FabMo has a regular presence in at least four fairs every year (MakersFaire, San Mateo County Fair, and two Earth Day Fairs).

FabMo Now

These days, FabMo rescues more than 70 tons of materials every year from Design Centers in San Francisco and San Jose, and from other miscellaneous sources. They make these amazing resources available to creative souls all over the Bay Area and beyond. More than 8,500 people are signed up to their mailing list, with about 300 coming to collect treasures during each Selection Event. Hannah and Jonathan continue to be very involved with the organization relying on an active Board, a growing family of several hundred volunteers, and textile aficionados, who, like themselves, appreciate the creative and environmental impact of this amazing endeavor. People come from Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, Michigan and beyond to attend, determining their own schedule based on FabMo’s.  

To this day, FabMo distributes fabrics for a suggested donation. It trusts patrons to give what they can to help keep the project running. Costs of maintaining such a business in the Bay Area are sky-high, as are utilities and fuel. Teachers still receive many of the materials for free. FabMo only sells Special Sale materials, but even then for low prices.

Hannah and Jonathan didn’t plan any of this. They simply couldn’t stand to see fabulous textiles thrown away and wasted, and before they knew it, FabMo had appeared. What started as a small project of love run by two individuals, turned into a collaborative effort of a creative, eco-friendly community, a family of sorts. But it still remains a not-for-profit project of love.

FabMo’s dedication continues to keep tons of precious resources out of the landfill. It also progressively builds an entire community of like-minded people who care about the environment. Likewise, it encourages the creativity of numerous others. The Cranches certainly changed my life, re-sparking my own long-suppressed creativity.

Now, people from all over the United States are starting to ask how to establish similar organizations. The Cranches even received a few inquiries from overseas. Imagine how many resources could be rescued if every community had a FabMo! Imagine all the creative things people could come up with!

To learn more about FabMo or sign up to their mailing list check out their web page: http://www.fabmo.org/fabmo/Home.html. You can also like their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/FabMo. And, if you live in the Bay Area, make sure to come check out this year’s Boutique. You will not only be able to buy one-of-a-kind, earth-friendly and locally-made pieces of art, but also support this amazing non profit!

How Fabrics Are Made: From thread to Textile

A few weeks ago I wrote about the route my friend Monika Ryser took to become a textile designer. Today I’d like to briefly describe what she told me about how fabrics are made. Please note that this describes the making of woven fabrics. Knit fabrics are created somewhat differently.

Fabrics begin their journey as raw materials. Those include plants (such as cottons or flax), animals (sheep, silkworms), or synthetics (man-made materials). These raw materials are collected/harvested, and are then taken  to spinning facilities, where they are separated/combed into fleece. From the fleece, the fibers are spinned into yarn/thread. Over the last several decades most of the world’s spinning facilities have been located in third-world countries.

After the threads are made, they are turned over to weaving mills, to be woven into fabrics.

When Monika was working at such a mill in the later 1980’s, threads were imported to first world countries, where they were shown in special exhibitions. Representatives from different weaving mills went to these exhibitions to select threads. They often met with their customers first, to hear what kind of fabrics they needed. They then chose threads based on those needs.

The weaving process itself requires the combination of vertical threads (called warp) with horizontal threads (called weft), and is done on a loom. Since the Industrial Revolution, most of the world’s commercial fabrics have been made on automatic industrial looms.

When Moika worked in a mill, mills first wove short samples, about 100 meters long, of 20-30 possible designs for each of their customers. They sent these samples to the customer for evaluation. Once the customer chose the sample that best fit their needs, the mills went into full-mode production, and wove thousands of meters of the selected fabric.

The weaving process is noisy and dirty. The industrial looms are so loud, that if long-time weavers don’t use earplugs religiously, they often end up damaging or losing their hearing. Yarns shed a lot of lint in the weaving process, so mills are often full of dust. No one knows the health effects that breathing this dust has on workers.

Because of the noise and dirt, the unhealthy working conditions, and the cost of labor, most weaving mills, too, have moved to third-world countries in the last few decades. The Swiss mill where Monika worked, for example, was shut down long ago. It is now hard to find weaving mills in first world countries, and the ones that did survive often weave specialty items, such as car safety belts.

A freshly-woven fabric is called greige. It is full of impurities, dirt, and particles. Often, it is the color of the raw materials, mostly dirty white or beige. Plaited fabrics are an exception, as they require the threads themselves to be dyed before they are woven.

Here is an example of a plaited cotton:

And here is another plaited cotton (This is made to look a bit like plaited wool, as generally wools are more often dyed before weaving):

Once off the loom, the fabric needs to be processed. First, it needs to be cleaned, to remove both natural oils, waxes and dirt, as well as materials that were added during the weaving, such as potato starch or glue. After the cleaning, some fabrics are dyed or printed. The dying process is different from one type of fabric to another. Different textiles are treated with different chemicals to make them softer/stiffer. Some fabrics undergo both chemical treatment and dying.

Denim fabric, for example, is dyed once finished:

When the fabric is complete, it is ready to be cut and made into the many textile products we see all around us (including all my ANY Texture items :-)).

If you would like to see how fabric is made, the internet has a lot of videos to chose from. I found these fun ones with which you can start. This one is about cotton fabrics:

And these are about wool:

 

 

 

 

Working To Make Fabric Possible: The Training of a Textile Designer

Fabric is everywhere. Most of us are wrapped in it the minute we come out into the world, and again when we depart. We wear fabric, sit on it, sleep in it, step on it. We wipe our mouths and bodies with it, and use it to clean our kitchens. We decorate our houses and persons with it, wrap it around our necks, and carry it with us shaped into accessories. It’s all around us, everywhere, all the time. And yet, instead of being grateful for fabric, we often barely notice it, and hardly ever think of it. We take it for granted the way we take breathing for granted, or our own mothers. And we never, ever think of the many people who labor unseen to make fabric possible.

I’ve been thinking about fabric a lot since I started sewing seriously almost two years ago. I’ve been admiring the richness of the fabrics I use, the great diversity in their textures, colors, designs and feel. The more I work with them, the more curious I become about their origins. Where did these fabrics came from?, I wonder. How were they made? What kind of knowledge, work, and creativity went into creating them? Who were the people who made them possible?

Luckily for me, my friend Monika Ryser was able to shed light on some of the latter questions. Monika comes from a long line of Swiss textile experts. Her grandfather and father were in the textile business, and so it was only natural that, as a young adult, she, too, joined the industry. Monika’s experience illustrates how textile experts were trained in Europe in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, and demonstrates what it took to become a person who made fabric.

Textile Assistant Apprenticeship

In the late 1980’s Monika made her first steps into the textile world with an apprenticeship as a Textile Assistant. For three years she worked for a Swiss factory that mostly produced woolen fabrics for the Swiss army, as well as fabrics for car and plane seats. There, she learned hands-on how to make fabrics. She learned how industrial looms worked, as well as how to use them. She also learned how to design different-textured fabrics by drawing patterns on grid paper. Here, for example, is one of her designs, with a piece of fabric she wove from it:

Here are two more examples:

She also learned how to test the quality of already-woven fabrics .

Once her apprenticeship was over, Monika went to Germany, where she interned for half a year at the Hoechst Company, working mainly with artists who designed prints for mostly synthetic fabrics.

Fabric Designer Studies

After her internship in Germany, Monika returned to Switzerland to continue her studies. At this point, she had four options. She could have chosen to become:

  1. A Textile Designer: a person who either designed the technical components of fabric, or its looks.
  2. A Textile Mechanic: a person who could design, build and maintain the machines that made the textiles.
  3. A Textile Dyer: a person who specialized in fabric dyes, dying techniques, chemical treatments, and fabric printing.
  4.  A Textile Salesperson: someone who specialized in selling yarn and fabrics to customers who made things out of them.

Each of those options would have required a different course and detailed training and specialization.

Monika chose the first option. She enrolled in the Swiss Textile School (Schweizerische Textilfachschule Wattwil), where she spent another year and a half learning to be a Fabric Designer, specializing in the technical composition of fabrics. Monika jokes that whenever she tells people that she was a textile designer, they immediately assume she designed fashion. In fact, she was responsible for the basic composition of the fabric itself!

Her studies covered topics that included information on the raw materials from which fabrics were made: where cottons were grown, how cottons from different areas were different, which sheep to use for wool, where they were raised, and so on. Monika also learned how to choose threads, which threads to use for which fabrics, how to weave different kinds of threads, or how dense the weaving should be. She learned what fabrics to use for which purpose, and how to determine how well they held up with use or in the laundry.

Altogether, Monika spent about five years learning her trade. It took that long since creating fabric is a complex procedure that requires expertise in many different fields!