When it comes to innovation, there are a lot of unsung heroes out there. Let us introduce you to one of them!
Innovators are everywhere, and some of the greatest thought leaders are just at the start of their careers.
Welcome to the first article (in what I hope will be many) of the Young Innovators Series. Over the course of this series, we want to introduce you to thought leaders under 25 who are leading us into a brighter and more interesting future!
For our first installment, we bring you an interview with a young woman who has brought a mission of sustainability and a message of conscious consumerism to her university and the community beyond!
Meet Maddie Willer, a senior at Illinois State University and a founder of Fix It Friday, a project that provides free mending and repair for clothing, and works to educate people about the impact fashion has on the planet.
Some of you might recognize her name from an article she wrote here on EWC about how we can all become more conscientious shoppers, and in doing so, help support a more sustainable and less exploitative clothing market!
With the guidance of her professor Elisabeth Reed, Maddie started the Fix It Friday project back in September of 2016, and since then, this relatively young movement has had a growing impact on her campus and out in the community.
I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Maddie about Fix It Friday, being a young innovator, and the little things we can all do to be a little more sustainable.
An Introduction to Fix It Friday…
Could you explain your project to our readers, what do you do, what is Fix It Friday all about?
Fix It Friday is an initiative that was implemented through the Fashion Design and Merchandising Association as well as the Office of Sustainability at Illinois State University. We offer a free, basic sewing service to the community with an entirely volunteer-based labor force.
How did the project come about?
The idea came from a professor here on campus, Elizabeth Reed. The idea stemmed from this guy in San Francisco who would roll out his sewing machine once a month and repair homeless people’s clothing. Also, another inspiration was Patagonia’s “Worn Wear” truck. They drive around to different cities, pop-up, and you can get your clothing repaired.
So, Fix It Friday stemmed from those two ideas. And from there, Professor Reed approached me because at the time I was working with Andrew* at the office of sustainability and then we got it off the ground and running.
Is Fix it Friday unique to your campus?
Yeah, so we’ve actually never seen this anywhere else before except for, like I said, this guy who was rolling out his sewing machine in San Francisco, and through Worn Wear.
So, we are actually working on a guide on how other campuses could have this kind of project as well.
It’s been so much more community built than specifically on campus. It was meant in the first place for ISU’s campus and it has stemmed into the whole community.
So you’re not just campus-based, you’re actually going out into the community?
Correct. So, we started off doing every other Friday for the first semester. (We started in September of 2016) This semester we pulled back and have only done one event a month.
We have events everywhere. We’ve done it in local coffee shops, we’ve done one in a vintage boutique, we’ve been at ISU. When it was warmer out we did it out in the middle of the quad.
We are trying to get as many different audiences as we can.
How many people do you see when you set up?
Honestly, it depends on where we are, but I would say generally maybe around 20-30 people.
Oh wow, do people bring more than one garment?
Typically it’s one, but as we’ve gotten more recognized in the community, people have been bringing bags of things. Since it is all volunteer based, and we don’t have the same volunteers every event, we do give the volunteers the power to say what’s too much.
We try to keep it in that basic sewing realm. So fixing a hole, a seem, bringing up a hem, things like that. Nothing too crazy. Just because we are on a time limit too.
Events typically range from 4 to 5 hours.
How many volunteers do you have on campus?
We are underneath FDMA, which is the Fashion Design and Merchandising Association, and that’s where all of our volunteers have been from thus far. We haven’t had any repeat volunteers yet. So every event it’s two new people, and then myself. I’m at every event facilitating. If they are getting busier it’s easier to explain the process.
A Growing Social Impact…
Are you seeing more people from the community coming in, asking questions, and getting interested? You’ve written an article for us about fast fashion – is there an education component to this as well?
Definitely! That’s something that we’re striving for.
We are really looking this semester to get a website up. We want it to be a place where people can go to find out more about why we’re doing this, and how they can start doing this at their home, with information on how they can bring this to their community or their campus.
Additionally, we have had cases where it’s more of like a need thing.
We had a gentleman come in while we were at a coffee shop in town. We were located near the bathroom and he was passing our table as he was going to the bathroom and on his way back he stopped and asked, “What are you guys doing?”
So, we explained to him why we were there, and the service we were providing and he was like, “Oh, I’ve got a jacket here that’s got a rip in it, you think you could look at it?” And I replied, “Yeah, of course!” So, he grabs the jacket, he brings it over, and the whole sleeve is detached.
This gentleman was wearing a jacket that had one sleeve on and one sleeve off!
Jokingly, I was like “Why are you wearing this still?” And he said, “When you’re poor you can’t afford to buy a new jacket.”
He asked us how much it was going to cost, and we told him we were a free service and he was over the roof with how it turned out.
So, we’ve seen that impact, not just the sustainable fashion side.
So it’s turning into a social mission as well?
Yeah, a social responsibility, definitely.
That’s great! How long has the project been around?
Since September. September was our first event!
So, it’s a fairly new movement and you’re already gaining a lot of traction?
Yeah definitely, and I feel like it has been more recognized. The campus itself definitely recognizes it but like a lot of our repeat customers are from the community.
Are you seeing a response growing from the campus community, the outside community, and the faculty and staff?
Definitely! When I’m on campus or in a meeting people say to me, “Oh you’re the girl who put together Fix It Friday!”
And in the beginning, when I would say it to my roommates “I’ve got an event on Friday, I’ve got Fix It Friday.” They were like, “What the heck is that?” and then, eventually, it became a thing, you know what Fix It Friday is now!
That’s incredible. How big is the campus you’re working on now?
Um, 20,000 kids.
Oh wow, so it’s really spreading fast!
Looking Toward the Future…
What are your future plans for the project, what are your hopes and dreams for the future of Fix It Friday?
So, last semester I mentioned I was interning at the office of sustainability and now I’m actually on staff, and one of my main roles is the continuity plan for Fix It Friday.
I graduate in May and since I’m the head of this whole thing, I’ve had the professor looking over me. A lot of the day-to-day kind of things have been on my to-do list.
So now, I’m looking to the future on how it’s going to continue. What we’re trying to do is to get it into the curriculum. ISU is looking to do more civic engagement and a lot of the Deans and higher above are pushing Fix It Friday to be integrated into the curriculum. I’ve been working on putting together an easy thing to hand over to a teacher.
Basically, it would turn into part of the basic sewing course that all fashion, merchandising, and design majors have to take.
We are trying to make working at Fix It Friday a requirement of the course. You go and put the sewing skills that you are learning in the classroom into a real-life scenario.
That’s where we’re aiming right now. Like I’ve said, we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from people and people are really excited about it. So, we’re hoping that that will end up being our home.
So you’re a senior, do you have plans to continue on a project like this into your post-graduate life?
Honestly, I feel like I am terrible at sewing, and I’ve had to step up at some of the events and sit down and sew, but I am such a perfectionist that I have to hand sew everything. So, I’ve taken more of an educational role. I’ve learned so much from it, through research on my own, through course work, and what have you.
People know that I put together this initiative on campus, and taking that and being able to use it to educate people on little things that they can do is important. Now, I have people messaging me on Facebook saying “I made this blanket and I had a bunch of scraps what should I do with them? I don’t want to throw them out, but I don’t know who to give them to”. That kind of thing.
I want to be able to take more of a backseat, but be able to spread the word!
I was reading that you received a grant of $5000 to sustain the life of your initiative. So that’s to keep it going beyond you being on campus and to keep it alive and well?
Yes, I did apply for the grant back in September, it’s through the Student Sustainability Committee. Since I was the one who applied and received the grant it has to be spent within my lifetime of being at ISU.
Through the grant, the things that we have purchased or are looking to purchase are to keep the project going. For instance, we’ve been borrowing sewing machines as of now, we don’t have our own. So, we’re looking to buy sewing machines. We’re working with the technology club at ISU and they’re trying to create a cart specific to our needs to be able to house the sewing machines and have it be very compact.
Within the continuity plan and how it will be integrated into the curriculum we can’t really have the students being responsible for transporting the equipment. So, there will be a grad assistant every semester, and that will be their responsibility. The cart will make it as seamless as possible to be able to just set it down, pull it out, pull it up to the spot, and then have the volunteers just be able to show up.
Lessons From a Young Innovator…
There’s a lot to be learned from looking back at leadership mistakes, and misadventures, what do you wish you would have known from the outset?
I guess just to be really adaptive. To be able to adapt to change.
We had this kind of perfect idea on how it would go in our heads, but the first event we said if we even have 5 people that walk up to the table and say “What are you doing? Why are you sitting out in the middle of the quad on campus with two sewing machines?” it would be a success.
Also, I guess I’ve learned the importance of being really open and having an open mind. It’s obviously not going to go exactly how you would like it to or would hope it to.
And that growth does come and will come if you work for it. Fix It Friday obviously had a lot of success but that didn’t come without having to work for it.
What is your background in fashion? How did you personally get interested in this kind of thing? A lot of the time we forget people have backstories. There is inspiration and knowledge behind coming up with something like this.
Sure, I guess my reason for choosing fashion, in general, was probably the more cliché, selfish reason. As a kid I loved to shop, I loved to put outfits together, that whole thing. Then when I came to college, I chose to major in fashion, again more for the superficial reasons, not really for where I am now.
Honestly, though, ISU’s professors push the sustainable side. This industry has such power, especially in harmful things. Through the water usage, the dyes, the amount of textiles we’re using, we have such a voice. That really resonated with me, and I definitely just see the potential.
Through the major I’ve chosen, there is a lot of negatives to being in fashion, it does have such a negative effect on the environment in general, but I’ve been able to see that as a positive. I have a voice and I did choose this for a reason, and to be able to look at the fashion industry in more of the “What can I do now” stage is important.
We talked about this a little when you and I were working on your last piece, but what drew you to this cause? Was there a lightning bolt moment for you?
I don’t know if I would honestly say there was a specific moment for me. Have you ever seen the Netflix documentary The True Cost?
No, I don’t think I have.
You should definitely watch it. It’s basically about the impact the fashion industry has. In my classes, we’ve seen so many videos that show what is really going on. And I feel like before, I was consuming because it was a fun thing and I loved it. I thought all the things I was getting were great.
Then one day, it changed. The things that I was getting, I knew where they came from. I was asking “Is this textile going to be able to be recycled or up-cycled or is it going to decompose in a landfill, or is it going to sit there?” Being able to get a conscious mind about the impact that I was having made me take a 180.
What You Can Do…
Do you have any tips for people who are just starting out on making better buying decisions? It can be so overwhelming for people to even start and be aware of how their clothes have an impact on things.
Yeah, totally, so Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, he always says that if you don’t know what to do, shop second hand, borrow something from a friend, go to a consignment shop, go to Goodwill, go to your local second-hand shop. That’s the easiest way to give life to an item of clothing. When things are up-cycled or recycled, it’s still a solution, but we’re losing valuable fibers in those textiles. The easiest thing you can do is to literally wear the clothes that are already made!
You’ve talked about the group’s Fashion Revolution and Project Just before. Are there any movements you are interested in that you want to shine a spotlight on? A big part of this starts with educating people on what’s out there!
I don’t have many new resources, just to use the resources that are available out there on the internet. Start with the two I mentioned in my other article.
Oh, and I recently just found out about Terracycle. Do you know about Terracycle?
No, I don’t! Could you tell me a little more?
I’m no that informed on it, but it’s a site where they recycle hard to recycle things.
They take these monstrous hybrids of things that are made of different materials that can be recycled–like a plastic and an aluminum, that kind of a thing– and recycle them for you. It’s great for things that you can’t really disassemble easily at your home, even though both materials can be recycled.
So, what you do is you sign up on this site and they send you a box as well as a shipping label to send that box back to them! They collect all sorts of things like toothbrushes, personal care items like mascara tubes, and shampoo and conditioner bottles. Things that you don’t really think you can recycle or things that take that extra step to be able to recycle.
In general, it’s important for all of us to be more aware of the resources that we have and utilize them. It may take an extra ten minutes but that extra ten minutes is worth it in the long run when you see it from the bigger picture.
I think it’s one of those things that we’re so programmed to do. If you’re not thinking about you just to throw it away even though there are ways you can deal with your waste!
No definitely, once you’re conscious of it, you don’t even think about it anymore. You’re just like “I know this part can be recycled and that part,” you don’t even have to think about it. Once it clicks for you then it’s not really something you need to consciously think about and put effort into.
So to wrap up is there anything you want me to leave people with?
There are people who have spent so much time researching different ways we can give these products a second life and to change what’s going on in the fashion industry and beyond. Those resources are out there, so utilizing them is a huge thing!
Like I said, it’s all about taking the ten minutes. We are so programmed to think so selfishly and if it takes time out of our day we feel like we have so many better things you could be doing. I think that really being conscious of our actions is the most important thing we can remember to do.
Thank You, Maddie!
Well, we have to give a huge thanks to Maddie for sitting down and talking with us!
People like Maddie prove to all of us that it’s still an amazing world! We all have the power to join or start a movement that is working to improve our collective future!
Also, make sure you check out the article that Maddie wrote for us! It contains a lot of tips and information about how you can become a more conscientious consumer.
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
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