Many of us have faced the day when we realized our T-shirt collection has run out of control. Sure, you could throw out those shirts, or if they happen to be in servicable condition donate them to the Salvation Army — but it’s not always easy to let go.
Particularly if the tee in question is more than just a shirt, but a momento of a happy life experience.
While many of us have lost hours of our lives agonizing about throwing away shirts or justifying keeping unnecessary shirts, Project Repat Co-Founder and President Nathan Rothstein found a better use for old T-shirts by giving them a new purpose — as textiles in memory quilts.
“We have joked it’s like saving a marriage one quilt at a time,” Rothstein told PYMNTS. “It’s really about trying to find people with too many T-shirts and trying to show them that this is a great option as a gift or a way to clean out their closet and preserve memories.”
So far, Project Repat has recycled about a million T-shirts — which Rothstein notes is a just a tiny fraction of the number of shirts out there looking for a second life. In the last 20 years alone, 20 billion T-shirts have been sold in the United States. And those T-shirts often find unlikely new homes.
“My business partner, Ross [Lohr], was in Nairobi and when you are there, you see all the T-shirts that get donated and shipped overseas to the secondary market. He actually saw a T-shirt that some guy was wearing that said “I Danced My A** Off At Josh’s Bar Mitzvah In 1997,” and that guy clearly didn’t go to Josh’s bar mitzvah in 1997. And that is what got us thinking about how T-shirts travel around the world.”
And that thinking led the two entrepreneurs to conclude that there must be a better use for the T-shirts than simply shipping them off to secondary markets — and so the idea to fashion them into something else was born.
Rothstein said the original iteration of that “something else” was tote bags and scarves that they carted around to various markets and craft fairs. Though their original designs got compliments, they didn’t get sales. What people asked them about were T-shirt quilts, which was not an idea the partners picked up on right away —but Rothstein noted they came around quickly.
“We didn’t listen to them the first 10 or 15 times, but finally people weren’t buying what we were selling and it seemed T-shirt quilts were what people wanted and so we tried to make one. We made the first in the way your grandmother or aunt would make one and it took us six to seven hours to finish. Then we tried making them the way we were making our circle scarves by just sewing T-shirts together and then finishing them around the edges. That cut down on production alot, and created a price point that customers wanted to pay for. And that was the product that took off.”
The products are available in a range of sizes, and they also offer a variety of panel sizes to suit the cloths.
“So if what you have are baby clothes, you would pick the 8 by 8 panel size, if they are regular size shirts, you would pick 12 by 12, and if they were XLs, you would pick 14 by 14. We have sizes that range from a lap size to a king size, which takes 64 regular sized T-shirts.”
Project Repat has come far from its days of selling in local craft marketplaces. Rothstein said that to make that initial jump into eCommerce, they were able to successfully leverage the flash sale to get their product out there.
“We ended up selling two thousand quilts in a week during the summer of 2012 through Groupon. We were working in a small little office in Boston and about three days after the promotion went live we had sold a thousand at a time and we had hundreds of customers sending in their shirts. We had to play Tetris to even get out of our office at night because there were so many boxes.”
Project Repat is a thoroughly bootstrapped — or, perhaps more appropriately labeled, patchworked — operation. The firm brought in $18K through a San Francisco accelerator program and another $10K in the form of a convertible note from one investor.
“It is pretty fun to explain this business,” he said. “We were two guys in their 20s who are now in their 30s. It is not the most common thing to start a T-shirt quilting business.”
But the market needs memory quilts, and something worthwhile to do with T-shirts past their prime, and Project Repat is ready to deliver.
“We think we have a lot more quilts to sell and we are excited to continue to grow,” Rothstein said.