Get Stuffed

A block away, there is a mattress and box spring sitting out at the curb to be taken away. They are in front of a tiny little rowhouse cottage built in the 1880s, and probably by necessity, the box spring has been sawed in half, revealing the inner stuffing.

This fabric pulp is mostly grey, but is dotted with various splashes of colour. On further examination, the colour becomes actual chunks of fabric; a teal blue silk, some red wool, a swatch of green jersey.

I examine that fabric pulp almost every time I pass it, which is two or three times a day, depending on which route we take to walk the dogs. And every time, I can’t help but wonder what masterpieces were destroyed to make that melange of threads and fibre.

When I ran a vintage clothing store, back in the 80s, one of the questions I was asked most often was – where do you get your stuff? Where do these clothes come from? This was usually asked by someone figuring they could go directly to the source and cut us out as the middleman. The assumption being that we spent a lot of time at the Sally Anne or Goodwill.

In fact, most of our merchandise came from the US, from a number of rag factories in and around Buffalo, NY. This is where people always did a double-take. Rag factories? Like, where they make rags??

Mattress and upholstery stuffing needs to come from somewhere, and there were/are a number of factories dedicated to the sole purpose of grinding up old fabric to make a fibre pulp to put in furniture.

We would drive down to these places once a week, don dust masks (and sometimes goggles), and sort through mountains of old clothes for the gems in among the trash. Because hidden under those piles of dirty underwear, stretched and torn t-shirts, faded curtains and bed linens that reeked of cigarette smoke, urine or worse, could be a dress that needed rescuing.

In the 80s, there was still lots of true vintage around, and it was not uncommon to come back with silk ballgowns from the 50s, wool jackets with massive shoulder pads from the 40s, velvet opera cloaks, sharkskin zoot suits, and even the occasional beaded gown from the 20s or Victorian-era items. Designer pieces popped up occasionally but rarely; a Salvador Dali tie, a Chanel suit, a monkey fur muff. Anything that was in good condition and could be cleaned or repaired was pulled from the piles and brought back to Toronto at a buck a pound.

Everything left behind got removed to a separate room and sent through the shredder, a great massive piece of equipment in a room of its own, covered in the fine dust of tiny thread particles that filled the air. Ladies with invisible faces; hidden behind masks and goggles and hairnets; hacked away at garments with giant scissors to remove buttons, snaps and zippers – anything that could jam the grinders and break the machine. It didn’t matter what the fabric was, or what the name on the label read, if it wasn’t wearable, it went to the shredder and on to more machinery that mashed it all together into that fluffy pulp that fills mattresses across the land.

I think about all the beautiful pieces we tossed to the  harsh jaws of the shredder simply because of an unfixable tear, or an impermeable stain. Of all the beautiful items lost over the years.

And as I walk the dogs past that abandoned, chopped open box spring, I can’t help but wonder what each of those little fabric chunks once was. Dior? Chanel? Balenciaga? Someone’s wedding gown, or prom dress, the suit someone wore when bringing their baby home from the hospital? A favourite sweater? Or maybe the apron that Grandmother always wore on special occasions?

Abandoned articles carry secret stories of past owners. Abandoned mattresses have stories that are X-rated. But I don’t care about what happened on the fabric covering the mattress… I long to know the story about the fabric inside it.