Sorting Fabrics at FabMo

I bet you don’t know what “gack” is. Well, if you’re curious you have one of two options: 1) Volunteer to sort fabrics at FabMo, or 2) Read this blog post all the way to the end (no cheating, please!) 🙂

FabMo is the amazing non-profit organization from where I source most of the luxurious designer home-decor fabrics I work with. Many people in my area know what a fabulous resource FabMo is, and purchase fabrics there. Only a few, however, realize how much behind-the-scenes work goes into making these fabrics available to the public.

After I wrote a blog post about Hannah Cranch’s weekly trips to the Design Center in San Francisco, quite a few people–including long-time FabMo customers–told me they were amazed to learn how hard the collection work was. Many others wanted to know what happens to the fabrics after they make their way to FabMo’s warehouse. Well, today I want to fill you in about the next step in these fabrics’ journey: the sorting.

I already mentioned that, while at the Design Center, Hannah collects all the fabric samples into big plastic trash bags (which she reuses over and over again):

Hannah and a mountain of fabrics

She hulls these full, heavy bags into her truck, and packs them tightly:

Hannah organizing the half-loaded truck

Hannah and her volunteer helper then drive back to FabMo’s warehouse in Mountain View, where they unload the truck’s content into a back room.

The bags wait there for the next sorting event.

Bags Full of Fabric waiting at FabMo headquarters

Regular Sort

Every week FabMo hosts a few hours of “Regular Sort.” This “Sort” is a gathering of several volunteers (usually around eight), who open the bags Hannah brings.

Opening fabric bags at FabMo's facility

The volunteers spill the content of these bags onto big tables at the center of the room.

Fabric bag content revealed! FabMo

Then they start unfolding the pieces and sorting them by size.

Opening folded pieces at FabMo

Sorting rescued fabric samples at FabMo

Sorting fabric rescued pieces by size at FabMo

Sorting fabrics by size and kind at FabMo

Neat sorted fabric piles at FabMo

Fabric piles at FabMo

A “Regular Sort” typically lasts three to four hours. The volunteers stand on their feet for most of that time. I can attest that this sometimes takes a toll on the body, especially if you have back issues!

Once the volunteers arrange everything by size, they carefully place each pile into a plastic box, which they clearly label. They store the boxes on shelves with similar-sized fabrics.

By the time the volunteers complete a “Regular Sort,” they have emptied all the bags Hannah collected on Monday, neatly sorted and packed all of the fabric pieces she brought, and placed all the boxes on their rightful shelf. The fabrics wait there for the next step in their journey: The Regular Selection Setup.

Curious about the next step? Click here.

A Few Words on Gack

So what is “gack,” you wonder… Well, not all fabrics are created equal. Many textile designers design beautiful pieces. Some, however, come up with textiles that are … uhmm … less exciting… For every beautiful and luxurious piece that comes from the Design Center, there is one that is just … not. Some pieces are so drab, in fact, that they are unlikely to find forever homes even among sustainable-fabric enthusiasts. Those usually come in shades of beige and brown, are synthetic or have boring textures. Some are torn, cut or stained. FabMo jargon (yes, there is such a thing!) refers to these as “gack”.

Hannah, by the way, assured me that “gack” was a real word. There is even a story behind it. If you know it, there will be brownie points for the first person to write it in the comments 🙂

FabMo volunteers put gack pieces aside during the sorting process. This, for example, is a gack bag:

FabMo customers never see these pieces. The larger ones go to resale stores to be sold there. Some are left on “free” racks outside FabMo. Volunteers take some pieces home, to use for things like pet bedding, stuffing or as rags. Everything else goes to a fabric recycling facility.

How You Can Help

If you live in the California Bay Area and are interested in supporting FabMo’s efforts to save fabrics from the landfill, consider volunteering a few hours of your time! Sorting is fun, and an entire community will thank you for it!

If you don’t live around here but would still like to help, there are other ways to support this amazing organization:

On Creative Clutter and Productivity

I admit that the clutter in my sewing room is a bit out of control. Getting in and out requires acrobatic maneuvering. Various projects in different stages of completion are piled everywhere, sitting next to piles of fabric and boxes of zippers, hardware and buttons. There are only narrow lanes in between, to give me access to my sewing machine, the cutting table and the ironing board–the three essential stations for any sewing activity. Things are so bad, in fact, that I’m actually ashamed to post a picture of the room for you to see.

That was why I made a New Year’s Resolution to finish all the unfinished items before I start any new ones. It’s been incredibly difficult, but I’ve been working hard to meet that goal. I’ve been fighting a flow of new ideas, and resisting strong urges for new experiments. Instead, I’ve been tackling one pile after the other, even when a pile calls for the less-exciting aspects of creating. So far I’ve been making slow-but-steady progress. And that despite the many distractions that life keeps throwing my way, such as mid-winter gardening, sick kids, or a never-ending array of school vacations.

I already finished most half-started messenger bags. I spent a couple of weeks ironing heavy interfacing onto new market totes, even though I strongly dislike that particular task.

When the market totes were done, I spent another workday or two hand-stitching the corners of the outer shells to the lining (another tedious task), so that everything remains stable.

I was happy with the results, however, especially with this one:

And seeing the finished pile gave me much satisfaction!

Once the market totes were done, I moved on to the pile of unfinished Renaissance Totes. These are my most luxurious items, and the ones I like making most. I keep my most lavish-feeling fabrics for them, and line them with the most beautiful silk-blends and brocades I can find. Collecting the right fabrics for each takes months, sometimes. The last time I sewed those was over a year ago, and in the meantime I collected beautiful textiles to construct several new ones. Over the last week I pieced together a few outer shells, and matched some with lining:

I also started sewing the outer shells of some:

Sewing the pocket-rich linings will take a couple of more weeks, along with the final completion.

So, as you can see, definite progress. However, a funny thing keeps happening as I work on all these: the more piles I tackle, the more new piles emerge. I don’t quite know how this happens. It’s a true mystery. Magic, perhaps; or wicked sorcery…

It is possible that my love of fabrics has something to do with it. Last week, for example, my daughter asked me to go to FabMo to get something for her. She didn’t have to ask twice! I went to get this:

And returned with that:

And since my fabric cabinets have been full for a while … Well, needless to say that most of it ended up in piles…

My kids claim I have a fabric addiction. I say I need a palette to work with… They say my studio is a disaster. I agree with the following:

Often, seeing a couple of fabrics randomly lying next to each other gives me new ideas. Seeing my raw materials out in the open opens up an entirely new array of possibilities… In the clutter I find combinations I haven’t thought of. I get ideas for new designs, or even new products. Thus, although I find the mess distracting, it is also inspiring all at the same time.

Yesterday we had a little family conversation, and I ended up getting an earful from my children. They suggested putting a quota on the new fabrics I’m allowed to bring in (!!). The kids argued I should not buy any new fabrics unless I get rid of old ones. They even brought up the idea of imposing a tariff on fabrics!

So maybe it’s time to be a good parent and lead by example. Perhaps I should take time off sewing and tidy the room up instead… As for limiting new acquisitions … well, that might be a wee bit more difficult…


Finally organized! Installing and Stocking My Fabric Cabinets

It took a while, but I am happy to report that I finally finished my new fabric cabinets!

After building, staining, and letting them dry, we finally moved them into my sewing room. We set them up in the alcove, where the piano used to be, and they fit perfectly! Since I put them together stair-like, they don’t feel bulky, and don’t suffocate the narrow entrance. Their light color matches the other furniture in the room, and helps keep the space airy and bright-feeling.

I spent a couple of days loading them up with all my sewing materials. My different-sized pieces of fabric all fit in nicely, as if the cabinets were custom-made just for them:

I couldn’t be happier!! Thank you, IKEA! Finally, a well-organized studio 🙂

Now, Knowing myself, I’m sure the room won’t stay tidy for long–when I sew, I need too many things all at once. Furthermore, there is hardly any space in my sewing room to put partially-sewn projects. As a result, there is no better place than the carpet to lay out my work-in-progress. But at least now I will not have to move everything out of the room (which is also our guest room) once guests visit again. One hour of tidying up should do it.

Almost There… Finishing my Fabric Cabinets

We really need rain here in drought-stricken California. It was wonderful to get a few days of good precipitation last week. The plants in my garden are happier than I’ve seen them in years! Still, it was nice to get a break from the rain over the weekend. My new fabric cabinets were already put together, so I was able to take advantage of the dry weather to take them outside and paint them with three layers of a transparent coating.

Painting my fabric cabinets

I was hesitant to leave them out overnight. In the morning, however, I found only a couple of Kamikaze-bugs glued to the veneer.

Staining my fabric cabinets

I managed to scrape them off without causing too much damage 🙂 My fabric cabinets are almost ready to go back to my studio!

Cabinet Building! Creating Fabric Storage

The mess in my sewing room got out of control. I realized I had no choice but to add adequate fabric storage. This was the only way to get rid of all the piles, and turn the room into a functional textile art studio. After some internet research (more like MANY hours of internet research, actually), I found OK-looking (and affordable) cabinets at IKEA. These were exactly the size I was looking for–wide and deep enough to hold all my different-sized fabrics, yet still small enough to fit into my sewing-room’s alcove. I raided the store this last weekend, and returned home with my loot: three large IVAR cabinets!

My kids and I spent the weekend getting them ready. As it turned out, all those lego sets I bought over the years proved to be a great investment. The children were well prepared for the real-life challenge of putting IKEA cabinets together! In addition, I’m quite sure that that carpentry camp a couple of summers ago didn’t hurt, either 🙂

It was heart-warming to see the children working together and cooperating instead of squabbling, for a change. A shame we don’t need to build furniture every week…

Rethinking Space: Rearranging My Textile Art Studio

As I mentioned before, our spare room, which is also where I sew, is lovely. It has many windows and lots of light, which I like. Sadly, this become a liability when I needed to turn the room into a textile art studio, and add storage space for my growing piles of materials. Windows occupy two of the wall. The bed blocks the third wall. This really left only one option for my grand reorganizing plans: The fourth wall.

This last wall has an alcove near the entrance, which for a long time housed my daughters’ piano. It was an ideal place for the piano, for not only was it the exact right size, but it also offered privacy during lessons. When my daughters wanted to practice, they simply closed the door, thus not disturbing anyone else.

Unfortunately, I had no other place to put my much-needed fabric storage cabinets. With a heavy heart I realized that the piano had to move.

This didn’t go so well with my family. So we spent the last few weeks negotiating. Eventually we found a new (albeit a lot more public) location for the piano, and with the help of our neighbor moved it to another room. All of a sudden that alcove looks so much bigger!