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This Kansas City Art Institute Senior Wants To Save The Planet One Recycled Garment At A Time

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Art Institute senior Nina Littrell has created a line of patchwork jackets using discarded fabric.

Nina Littrell, a senior in the fiber department at the Kansas City Art Institute, says she wants to start a conversation about the fashion industry and its role in the growing environmental crisis.

In her work, Littrell combines traditional quilting and patchwork design to give discarded textiles a new life in the form of colorful jackets.

The average American throws away about 80 pounds of clothing each year. Littrell says she sees great potential in the items most people toss out.

She says she hopes her new solo show "Zip It and Reverse It" will make people think twice before they discard their old clothes.

“The garments that you throw in the trash don’t just disappear,” says Littrell. ‘They go somewhere and they get buried, or they end up in our oceans or they end up in other countries and they pollute other countries.”

Credit Nina Littrell
Nina Littrell
Colorful jackets created from discarded material Littrell scavenges at local recycling centers form the heart of her senior show.

The problem has ballooned in the past 20 years with the rise of fast-fashion houses creating cheap clothing meant to be worn for a single season.

According to the latest figures published by the Environmental Protection Agency, people in the United States generated 16 million tons of textile waste in 2015. That same year, 10.5 million tons of textiles were dumped in landfills.

Littrell finds much of the cast-off fabric she uses at local recycling centers like ScrapsKC, The Goodwill Outlet and Fabric Recycles. So it seems appropriate that one of her haunts, ScrapsKC, will host her senior show.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A puff of steam wafts into the air as Littrell presses a jacket.

Helping people discover new ways to use items that might have found their way to a landfill is a big part of the mission at ScrapsKC. The nonprofit takes in surplus office and art supplies and regularly offers workshops to show people how to use them creatively. In the past two years, the organization says, it has saved 100 tons of material from the trash.

Brenda Mott, Executive Director of Scraps KC, says their new location, in a large warehouse on Roanoke Road, offers more space to allow creatives to show off their work.

“We’d like to showcase artists who have used repurposed materials in their work, to get the word out about us but to demonstrate to families what they can do with recycled items,” says Mott.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Unusual fabric combinations are typical of Littrell's work. She says piecing together some textiles is challenging.

Littrell says she wants the opening of her show to be a chance for people to see that they can make their clothing last a little longer; to that end, she’ll be on hand with her sewing machine to repair minor rips and tears.

For Littrell, who grew up in Kansas City, this is a chance to share the jackets she makes with the greater community. All of the jackets in the show will be available to try on.

“It’s an easy thing to try them on and play dress up for awhile,” says Littrell. “Which I’m really hoping will happen at my show. I want it to be a giant dress party.” 

"Zip It and Reverse It" opens with a reception from 5-9 p.m. on Friday, May 3, and will be on display through May at ScrapsKC, 3269 Roanoke Road, Kansas City, Missouri 64111.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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