To be of use - about a humanitarian, an ecological and a (missing) political perspective on the work with clothing.


In 1982 I got caught up by "Clothes for Africa" and the humanitarian work carried out by the group, and I took part of it until its break-up in 1987-89.

In 1982 I came back to Løgstør after being away for most of my grown up life. I had family in the village but no friends, and I was looking for a human network, as we call it nowadays.
A woman told me about the ragpicking group "Clothes for Africa", that in her opinion was doing important humanitarian work. She asked me if it was something I might be interested in. Some weeks later on my way home from work, I came across a young man and his van. He was unloading sacks with clothes at the premises of the group, situated in the old school at Løgstør. I understood at once that he must be one of the members of the group that I had been told about and so I approached him. The man, whose name was John, was both nice and talkative. He told me that the group met every Wednesday evening at the school to sort clothes.

Next Wednesday I turned up expecting to meet a group of committed and active people. At first nothing happened. It must have been between October and March because it was already dark. Finally a car showed up and a person with a slightly exotic appearance, in my eyes, stepped out. She had the same black garbage sacks with clothes as John. Even if she looked surprised to see me, she soon got me busy, dragging the sacks up to the group's premises on the first floor. For one reason or another the lights were out. Yet one sensed the mountain of sacks with clothes in the room, on top of which I was told to climb and drag the additional sacks up. Nothing more happened that evening, as we couldn't sort clothes in total darkness. But we introduced ourselves, and her name was Kirsten.

I can no longer remember if I was surprised that night on my way home. But I went to the next meeting, which was a Saturday or a Sunday. This time there were more people present and I got introduced to the ingenious work of sorting that consisted of several levels. First, the clothes were to be sorted in three categories. While I was taking part, the most important category consisted of clothes that were to be sent to Eritrea. These clothes had to be in good shape, not worn out, clean, preferably practical and not containing too much synthetic fibres. Shoes, bags, carpets and bigger pieces of cloth, as for example curtains, could also be of use. Sheets of pure cotton could be used as bandage material.
The second category was the clothes that could be sold in Denmark, either at the market place in Aalborg or at the annual flea market at Hornum. These clothes amounted to 1 % of the collected clothes. They also had to be in good shape and were typical dresses from the 5o´s, damask or velvet curtains, dressing up clothes and of course good children's clothes. We collected especially for the flea market at Hornum. From those big annual collections all good clothes were for the flea market, after that clothes that weren't sold were packed for Eritrea.
The third category in the first sorting was the waste. But waste wasn't just waste: clothes of 100 % cotton could be sold for twist-production, 100 % wool should, as far as I remember, also be put aside. Pure waste was minimal. Also the other category, clothes that were sent to Eritrea, were sorted in subdivisions: Shoes and bags apart, because they had to be packed in a certain way, they couldn't be pressed together like clothes could. Men's clothes were apart, as were women's and children's clothes, as well as older children's clothes.

The clothes had to be put and pressed together in an ingenious press, that only the more experienced among us could operate. Woe betide the person that didn't pack the clothes carefully enough into the press! That was rapidly revealed by a distorted bale with fringed edges, which was impossible to wrap up properly. But the finished bale was also the token of a collaboration between several persons. The persons at the sorting tables that put together the clothes and made the piles ready had to be just as careful; the clothes put together should have the accurate length, that fitted into the press. One was only skilled after several sorting evenings and weekends. Once in a while when enough bales were finished, a couple of persons (as I remember it was especially Finn and Flemming) started the wrapping up. First strong plastic to make it waterproof, then sackcloth, which was more durable during the transport, fastened with staples and then plastic girths all around. Finally, the bale got marked with a code which indicated the contents.
For security reasons there wasn't any written address of the sender nor of the receiver on the package. Used clothes was a merchandise in Africa, and there was no reason for tempting to theft.


The flea market in Bislev 1978. Bales with clothes are prepared for shipment.


Our premises were set up for the whole process. There was one room where the before mentioned mountain of clothes was situated. There also was a row of rooms, that were used for the work. In the first one of these were the sorting tables, where 4-5 persons could stand on each side. Along the wall there was an arrangement for the waste-sacks, a framework where you could fasten the sacks and mark them: Cotton, Wool and Pure waste. Along another wall were broad shelves for placing the "treasures" one found and which were off to Aalborg and Hornum.
In the next room, there were the two presses and the wrapping table with plastic, tape, pairs of scissors, staplers, sackcloth and so on. Sacks and cords of hemp (that were put down into the press and tied around the pressed clothes), were recycling materials from coffee companies and from farming connections. Ink markers for writing addresses and tape we got for free from the local stationer's. In this room we stacked the finished bales. It looked nice just before a shipment when the bales, sacks and other packages piled up.
In addition we had some smaller rooms that we mostly used for storing. All around on shelves and in piles there were other goods, as the surplus from last year's flea market, waiting for the next one, and things like toys, sewing machines and schoolbooks waiting for the next shipment. But there was also an extra sorting table, that was used on the days when e.g. the ragpicking group from Ollerup payed a visit.
A sorting evening lasted from 7 pm to 10 pm and the number of people who showed up varied. During the period I participated 6-8 persons normally came. We brought coffee in thermoses and if we were lucky someone had made a cake.
But as I remember it, we were very efficient. The mountain of clothes next door kept us working intensely. There was a special satisfaction from this work: to make order out of chaos, to see the piles of clothes on the sorting tables transform during the process into nice piles of bales, ready to be sent away, and the fact that so much of the western world's surplus could be canalised to other parts of the world, where there was so much more need for it. In the global solidarity work our bales of clothes were an infinitely small part, but to us it became more real than the 100 Danish crowns usually given at Christmas, when our bad conscience made itself heard.

As time passed, I got to know the group: Eva, Sofie, John, Lotte, Tove, Rita, Flemming, Carsten, Kirsten, Finn and many more. They - we - were very different from each other, both in the manner of practical work: I can still see Sofia´s efficient movements and Rita´s calm attitude- and in other ways. But maybe it was the differences that made us complement each other so well. It turned out after a while of talking over the piles of clothes, that it wasn't just the solidarity work we had in common. To different extents the members of the group became my new "network", and some of them my lasting friends. These are friendships that developed from acting together, sharing some point of views and having a common goal, but maybe most importantly: turning views and opinions into a piece of practical work.

One part of the satisfaction from the collecting work was that things became useful. There was an ecological aspect: saying No to the use-and- throw-away mentality. By reducing the waste as much as possible we also reduced the burden on our own ecosystem. But hidden in the ecological aspect, there was also, as far as I was concerned, the joy of people of small means: that things were used to their maximum. Grown up as I was in a family where nothing was thrown away if there was any chance at all of it being reused at some time.

But the real or deepest satisfaction was that one could be of use for some fellow-beings. People that we probably would never meet personally, but that we knew needed practical help and through that, moral support. It was the humanitarian aspect "to do something for other people". Something that reached further than your own nose and your point of view. This may well sound pathetic and self-satisfied, but I really do believe that it's most healthy at a personal level to take an active part in one's fellow-beings and not always be so self-concerned. Maybe it's in fact necessary for us to get beyond ourselves, if we want to stay human and not just let the suffering peoples of the world remain pictures on our TV-screens!

Some of us in the group took part in a study circle, started by Kirsten and Finn, in order to keep us informed on the liberation movements we were supporting and the political development on the international arena. It was a fundamental work in which I at the time wasn't particularly interested (even if I showed up at the meetings), and which I maybe didn't understand the importance of until too late. Not everyone showed up for the meetings, but that didn't affect the group. We had a mutual understanding that everyone didn't share the same interests. The most important was the solidarity in the practical work. That it for some of us primarily was a work of solidarity or of anti-imperialism, and for others a kind of humanitarian aid work, was of second importance.

Internal disagreement came up in the group in 86-87 and lead to it's break up and later on to the end of the solidarity work. The reason for this was of political character: What countries and movements should we support and why? This was the controversial question among those who were politically aware. After several attempts to overcome the differences, the group split into two, that each was too small to manage such a task. On top of that, people that had been anti-poles during the discussions, gradually left the groups. In our group, it was Kirsten and Finn who had led the work for many years. When a flea market was turned down in a voting in 1987, they decided to leave the solidarity work.

It was as if times had become different in the late eighties. Until then we had been able to borrow the market hall at Hornum, if we paid light and water. After the last flea market in 1986 when we had the biggest revenue ever, we suddenly had to pay a rather high rent. Nor could we get rid of the cotton waste, the twist factory paid less for it than the cost for transport and handling. The Løgstør municipality was going to use our premises for other purposes. Earlier we had been able to persuade the council that our work was important, and that it was reasonable that we had the right to use decent premises even if other organisations were interested. Now those premises were renovated and leased to business activities, and we were assigned a run down factory building. With low attendance at the sorting evenings, the piles of clothes grew and it was depressing to watch. For a short while we again made a joint effort; Sofie came back and began sorting clothes again with Lotte, Rita and me. But the heaps of clothes became unmanageable , and the end of the story was that an activation group run by the municipal council had to finish it : to sort and pack clothes for shipment until the building was empty.
Even a church organisation that ran a recycling store in the town had problems getting their heaps of clothes sorted. So maybe at this time, there was simply not will and room for voluntary solidarity work.

Now, looking back, I think the lacking political commitment was a contributory reason to the fact that solidarity work couldn't survive. There was a split between those who acted pragmatically and those who were politically committed. In the political battle those of us with lacking political commitment got into a corner: Without knowledge of the background and a political stance we had no real possibilities of acting.

Finn Thybo Andersen
Kirsten Dufour

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