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11 June 2021

Curtain call: giving old fabric a second life

Stella Thorp has fallen in love in an unlikely place – among discarded curtains.

The speed of the industrial sewing machine, the chatter around her, the weighty heft of the scissors in her hand – she's in love with her weekly sewing session.

Stella is a volunteer at the Wellington Curtain Bank, part of the Sustainability Trust.

It's time-consuming work, making old curtains new again. But for Stella, the time is well spent.

She goes from unpicking pleating, to fitting donated hotel bed sheets into the backs of curtains to help with insulation and warmth. She’s making something that was discarded and unloved, into a warm gift for people who really need it.

Helping people is nothing new to Stella, as she spent most of her career as a social worker.

“Knowing each curtain is going to a home that really needs it makes the work all the more meaningful. I hope that in 20 [or] 30 years from now, there’ll be no need for curtain banks, because houses will be healthier, and it will be mandatory for a landlord to provide curtains. Until those changes are made, the Curtain Bank has important work to do.”

Stella has spent most of her career helping communities.
Stella has spent most of her career helping communities.

The bank mostly works with donated curtains, so volunteers work their magic on fabric in various states – sometimes the linings are covered in mould, so they need to be cut out and relined. It’s all work that Stella enjoys being part of.

“I really look forward to my weekly sewing session. There's always a lot of chat in the room while we work. The volunteers are mainly retired women like myself, and a few men too.”

Stella knows how important curtains are for keeping in warmth, but also that some people’s budgets don’t stretch far.

“It can be hard for households with a limited income to make an informed choice when buying curtains. There’s such a range of prices and often they just want to go with what is the most affordable. These are usually low-quality thermal backed curtains with no separate lining, which results in poorer insulation.”

The work not only helps those in need, it’s also good for the planet.

Blakedunlop cm low res 5755

In the 11 years the Wellington Curtain Bank has been in operation, 16,670 sets of curtains have been fitted into 4636 homes. It’s also diverted 75 tonnes of textile waste going to landfill and stopped 88 tonnes of C02 entering the atmosphere.

Cold homes are a major problem throughout New Zealand with dire health implications for occupants. A 2018 Statistics New Zealand study found a third of homes are too cold. Measuring the temperature of 6700 houses, one third of properties were below 18C in winter.

Stella is no stranger to cold, draughty homes. Through her career in social work, she’s visited the homes of families and individuals facing financial challenges and daily struggles.

“I quite vividly remember a woman and her partner with their five children in a Housing New Zealand home. There were no curtains and they had blankets pinned up around the windows to try and keep the kids warm,” Stella said.

"I found out about the Curtain Bank and helped her get the window measurements. I remember when she got her curtains, she was just delighted. There was a remarkable difference to the warmth in their home.

The team at Wellington Curtain bank
The team at Wellington Curtain bank

“So many of the houses I went to, simply put, were cold and old. When you did go into houses that had been refurbished and had heat pumps and insulation, the difference to the life of that occupant was just amazing. Especially when you look at the health of children living in vulnerable homes. Overcrowding and damp and mouldy houses brings a raft of preventable diseases, like rheumatic fever, that have long-term health implications.

“If you get rheumatic fever as a child, it sticks with you, and then you’re navigating your life with a damaged heart. I think it’s so short-sighted that we have children in hospital with preventable diseases just because we can’t get our houses warm and dry. It also costs our health system so much more in the long run.”

Consumer NZ research found household energy costs rated as the third highest consumer concern when it comes to everyday expenses.

“We know that nearly one in five New Zealanders have trouble paying their energy bills. Couple that with poor housing stock and we have a lot of households struggling through winter,” Consumer NZ chief executive Jon Duffy said.

New Zealand Green Building Council chief executive Andrew Eagles said warmer homes need to be made a priority.

“New Zealand has an energy equity problem with 30 to 40 percent of properties having damp or mould issues. If we’re serious about tackling poverty, we must ensure our housing stock doesn’t shackle vulnerable households to high energy use and poor-quality homes,” Andrew said.

“We have one of the worst building codes in the OECD and there is nothing councils are doing to incentivise warmer, healthier lower carbon homes. Our insulation is twice or three times as bad as similar countries. To be a more equitable nation, we need to push energy efficiency into every corner of our community.”

Andrew sees the introduction of an energy certificate into the sale of every home as one solution, comparable to EU practices.

"One way we could improve our housing stock is by work by requiring every home to have an energy certificate. A potential seller can improve theirs by improving their home’s energy efficiency. Not only do you get a warmer home, it also provides transparency to buyers about the health of a property."

Consumer has dedicated winter heating advice for renters, tackling issues such as dampness, ventilation, and draughts as well as providing advice on efficient heating.

Do you have curtains you'd like to donate?

If you're in Wellington visit the Sustainability Trust's website. For elsewhere in the country, visit the Red Cross curtain bank website.

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