One day at the tailors changed everything, here’s how one woman has helped recycle 2.5 tonnes of textile scraps into sheets, bags and pillows for those in need.

Of the 29 years Shambavi Rajagopal has lived in the UAE, 20 of them have been spent going to the same tailor.

After all that time, one day back in June 2015, she had a revelation.

“I went to visit my tailor, to pick up some stuff that he had stitched for me,” she recalls. “And that’s when I noticed he had two big garbage bags. I said ‘what do you do with these?’ He said ‘I’m going to throw them in the garbage’.”

Rajagopol, who is a university professor in marketing and management, was earning her PhD at the time, evaluating consumer behaviour toward purchasing fruits and vegetables in the UAE.

She’d already been considering all the food that was being wasted in homes and restaurants, and sent to local landfills, when it hit her that this where these scraps were going, too. She couldn’t stop thinking about the sheer volume of textiles produced by thousands of tailors across the country, each throwing away at least two bags of scraps – five kilograms, by her estimates – every day or few days.

With the seeds of what would become Save, Scrap & Sew sown, Rajagopol came home and spoke to her family – “they all said yeah, yeah, yeah”, she recalls – and sent a WhatsApp message to her friends and neighbours.

With Rajagopal’s guidance, small volunteer groups began collecting scraps from their own tailors and then meeting across Dubai to sort and iron the scraps. At first they were sewn into sheets, then also bags, which are donated to those in need through Emirates Red Crescent. Since launching, Rajagopal estimates the organisation has recycled 2.5 tonnes of scraps, producing 900 bed sheets – 45 just in June – and 2,000 bags. In April 2016 they started making pillows for construction workers, who normally use a tiffin box or a brick to rest their heads during their midday break, and have so far produced 2,500.

At any one time there are likely a dozen groups working on projects for Save, Scrap & Sew; most of the hard work involves sorting the scraps – although Rajagopal will instruct anyone who is interested in stitching and they have had almost half a dozen sewing machines donated to their cause along the way.

There have been two guiding principles to the project: The sorting work is tedious, so should be done in groups, and everything produced must be donated, not sold.

“It was important that everybody is working from their home and that whatever is made is gifted to people who need it,” she says.

Among those Rajagopal has taught to sew are some of the 50 students from a local middle school who came to work on their bronze certification for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Most of them were boys, says Rajagopal, some who came back for their silver. The group also donated a sewing machine.

Rajagopal knows she can’t keep all the scraps produced by the UAE’s tailors out of the landfill. But she is hoping to spread awareness to anyone who uses a tailor, that they too can take the scraps and find a new purpose for them. In recent weeks she started a Whatsapp group called Shambavi’s Spectrum, to provide guidance for people to explore their own creativity and make their own projects.

“I would like everybody to get their scraps back and use it, or give it to somebody who can use it,” she says.