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Saving the fabric of society

FabMo diverts unused textiles from landfills and gives them away

This is a story of a Palo Alto couple who went dumpster diving, and how they discovered the mother lode of thrown-out goods.

It was the early 1990s when Jonathan and Hannah Cranch were taking a short day trip up to San Francisco. It was their routine visit to the city's Design Center, a large home furnishing emporium with dozens of showrooms displaying the latest trends in interior design (think IKEA, but with hundreds of independent designers).

For the Cranches, it was a delight to tour the curated rooms to see different ideas for decorating the home. But on this particular visit, they discovered what happened when a showroom cleared out for a new display. The old accouterments -- roomfuls of curtains, carpets and textiles -- all went into the dumpsters behind the center. They were both aghast.

"At each showroom when new stuff would come in, the old stuff would get thrown out," Jonathan Cranch recalled. "It was offensive to both of us. All this good material would just be thrown away."

With permission, the Cranches began digging through the scraps to rescue anything reusable. Now, 25 years later, they haven't stopped sifting through the discards of the Design Center, or a multitude of other textile companies.

The Cranches are still saving whatever materials and fabrics they come across, and that mission has expanded dramatically over the years. Early on, that meant pleading with manufacturers to let them scavenge their discarded goods, and then sometimes pleading with friends and neighbors to take it off their hands.

Now they rarely have to implore anyone to repurpose anything. In fact, so many opportunities now come their way to collect free items, they often have to say no. Today, they have their own nonprofit -- the Mountain View-based FabMo -- and a team of roughly 250 volunteers helping to collect and sort what seems like an inexhaustible supply of discarded materials.

On the other side of the equation, people are literally lining up to take these goods off their hands. On a visit last week to FabMo's headquarters in the Terra Bella neighborhood, about two dozen people were patiently waiting outside for one the nonprofit's free giveaway days. When the doors opened, the customers raced inside to snatch up the choice wares in a frenzy that called to mind a Black Friday sale.

Among the customers browsing the items that day was Alison Reich, an assistant for a San Jose high school drama program. The school's production of "You Can't Take it With You" is starting next month, and she needed some 1930s-era decor for the set design. Given the level of funding for drama at public schools, it certainly helps that FabMo gives away their materials for free, she said. The only problem for her was she didn't have much time to ponder what to take, or else someone else would snatch it up.

"I see all these people here with these big heaping bags, and I think, 'well, there goes probably exactly what I wanted,'" Reich said.

Over the years, people have designed garments, quilts, toys and myriad art pieces from materials sourced by Fabmo, said Hannah Cranch, who formerly worked as a Palo Alto Unified arts teacher. For most of the early years, she tried to find materials that she could pass on to arts classrooms at Peninsula schools. But eventually the quantity of textiles and items they accrued simply became overwhelming. For a period, many rooms of their two-story house were packed with rescued materials, and they resorted to Craigslist and other networks to find anyone who could use them.

"The idea to start FabMo didn't come to us, except that we had to find a way to share this bounty," she said. "We had absolutely no idea to start a nonprofit at first, we were just responding to a situation we thought was intolerable in terms of waste."

Away from the frantic showroom, FabMo's board president Holly Welstein gave a quick tour of their storage area, an industrial size warehouse filled floor-to-ceiling with a kaleidoscope of colorful fabrics, wallpapers and furnishings. A cheery retiree who formerly worked as a Palo Alto teaching aide, Welstein first learned about FabMo about a decade ago through the local Freecycle email list. As a sewing fan, she decided to visit back when it was still centered at the Cranches' residence, and she remembers seeing whole rooms of their house stockpiled with their rescued materials. Welstein was handed a black plastic bag and told she could take whatever she thought she could use. Not long afterward, she became a volunteer.

The idea to organize, expand and create a nonprofit around FabMo happened almost without trying, Welstein recalled. As their collections grew, someone had the idea to accept cash donations, then someone had to the idea to launch a website, and so on, she said. One regular FabMo customer asked if something similar could work in Santa Cruz, and now they hold multiple giveaways in that coastal city each year. They've also trucked out supplies to give away in Vallejo and the Sacramento area.

"We just grew little by little, and it just continues to be organic," Welstein said. "That feeling of not wanting to throw away good stuff, I think more and more people are feeling that way in the world."

The FabMo philosophy -- take only what you need, don't waste anything -- might seem old fashioned, yet it was ahead of the curve for the larger do-it-yourself movement that has taken root in the Bay Area. For years, FabMo has set up a display table with sewing machines and fabrics at the annual Maker Faire. Previously the organization also partnered with the popular makerspace TechShop until it abruptly closed last year. FabMo still holds regular sewing tutorials for Google employees at the Mountain View campus.

Despite all of this, FabMo operates entirely on volunteer help and a shoestring budget of less than $90,000 a year. The group's marketing consists mostly of word-of-mouth among its fan base across the Bay Area. Even though they have hundreds of active volunteers, they still lack enough help, especially to sort through all the items, Welstein said.

On that point, Welstein points out that FabMo volunteers have learned over the years to limit what they accept to only fabrics and home decor, such as carpets, curtains, trim and even tiles. Sometimes they have to say no, like when someone wants to unload tattered materials unearthed from an attic. Anyone looking to unload clothing, furniture and appliances should probably take their stuff to Goodwill, she said.

FabMo organizers estimate they are able to divert 70 tons of goods each year that would otherwise be going to the landfill. That's a great milestone, said Jonathan Cranch, but it still amounts to little more than a "rounding error" compared to what gets thrown away, he said.

He balks at the word "scavenge" to describe what FabMo does, since it implies they're digging through rubbish, he said. He beams with pride when he hears stories about how people are repurposing these materials, such as a photographer using fabrics for backdrops, or a quilting club stitching together old textile scraps.

"We love that we can tap into people's creative spirit, especially because our cost of entry is low, he said. "We do this because we can -- we have the volunteers who are committed to keep stuff out of the landfill."

FabMo is open for three consecutive days each month for its free drop-in giveaway days at its main showroom at 970 Terra Bella Ave. More information can be found at its website.

Next month, FabMo will be organizing its Textile Art Boutique, the group's largest annual event. This event exhibits dozens of different artists' works that were designed using recycled materials. It is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Palo Alto Elks Lodge at 4249 El Camino Real in Palo Alto.

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