Heller alumni craft quilts from old T-shirts with Project Repat

March 16, 2018

To entice students to participate in on campus events, promises of “free food” and “free shirts” are common. But after graduation, many t-shirts that sport lettering from a specific activity get thrown out or stuffed in the backs of drawers as a way to hold onto the memories. For students who are not planning to spend their post-college lives wearing their “JURY” shirts but want to keep the memories, Heller School alumni Nathan Rothstein and Ross Lohr’s company Project Repat “upcycles” old t-shirts into something a little more practical and cozy—a quilt.

Rothstein and Lohr met while in classes for the Heller School Social Management and Social Entrepreneurship MBA program.

“There were only about five men in the program, so we couldn’t avoid each other,” Rothstein said. “We were in some classes together, and for one of the classes, I started showing up later and later each week. Ross started making fun of my lateness, so that’s how we got to know each other.”

Although Rothstein dropped out of the program after a semester, their partnership continued when Lohr started to think about all of the t-shirts that end up overseas during his time in Kenya. While stuck in a traffic jam, he was surprised to see a Kenyan man pushing a cart of fruit wearing a shirt with the text “I Danced My Ass Off at Josh’s Bar Mitzvah.” He was amazed by the amount of t-shirts that are sent around the world after being discarded. When Lohr brought the idea of finding a way to upcycle t-shirts to Rothstein, they started meeting with Kenyan fashion designers to make different products out of used t-shirts to sell at local markets. However, there was one request they kept hearing from their customers.

“There were tote bags and scarves, but people kept coming up to us and asking ‘can you turn my t-shirts into quilts?’ After we heard that enough times, we started figuring out a way to do that part of the business,” Rothstein said.

Launched in the summer of 2012, Project Repat comes from the idea of repatriation, or to return something to its country of origin. The company aims to bring textile jobs back into the United States instead of overseas. In the early years of the business, the founders sold the quilts through Groupon and marketed through Facebook and Instagram to direct customers to their site, but it wasn’t long before the project took off, with Project Repat shipping out around 60,000 t-shirt quilts a year and recycling 1.5 million t-shirts in 2017.

The newest development in the business is the Project Repat retail store in Newton, opened last month, where customers can come in and lay out their t-shirts in the exact pattern they want before sending it off to production.

“We thought that there’s some people who maybe aren’t comfortable sending their shirts away through the mail and want a little more hand holding and want to see samples,” Rothstein said, “Those were some of the assumptions we had to make before opening up the store.”

As a part of the company’s mission to bring textile jobs back to the U.S., the quilts are made in the Project Repat factories in Fall River, MA and North Carolina. The t-shirts are first checked for size, cut into perfect squares with a die-cut machine, sorted into a grid, sewed and then backed by a sheet of PolarTec fleece, a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles, produced in Massachusetts. Each yard of the fleece recycles 23 plastic bottles, making the product with as low a carbon impact as possible.

“The technique is relatively simple, but the hard thing is making 1,000 to 3,000 shirts a week,” Rothstein said. “It’s a lot of shirts you have to keep with each customer, and everyone has different requests.”

At $130 for a 6×5, full-sized quilt, the most popular size, Rothstein said that the quilts are popular gifts for graduations or for other transitionary periods in someone’s life.

“We’re sitting on a business idea that can be a lot bigger,” Rothstein said. “There are about a billion t-shirts printed and sold in the U.S. every year, and so in the same way that people get a diploma…we think it’s going to become a household thing. You could get a t-shirt quilt once you’re done with a certain stage of your life. Instead of throwing [shirts] out or donating them to Goodwill, you’re going to get a quilt out of them.”

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