Student entrepreneurs turn plastics, scraps into fashion

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BENNINGTON — Two Bennington College students in Judith Enck's fall 2019 class have devised a way to keep some old fabrics and plastic shopping bags out of landfills, and brought their solution to market.

Ella Simon and Grace Kenney, the founders of Coastal Caps, use scraps of fabric and plastic shopping bags to manufacture new hats.

"In our studies, we've learned a lot about how single-use plastic bags are the one thing that really can't be recycled," Simon said on a break from the class, which is taught in a lecture hall inside the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action. "When they go into the recycling plant, they just get caught in the machinery."

Since last year, the commercial partners have produced and sold more than 100 hats. The two met at college but had been creative with crafts before arriving at Bennington.

"I figured that with both of us crafting, we could easily make this into something that was sustainable for us," Kenney said.

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"The fabric scraps either come from old clothes that we find in free piles," Simon said. "Or people give them to us, or we get scraps from other artists."

The hat brims are also made of fabric but get their internal structure from many layers of repurposed plastic bags. The bags have been sourced from a local retailer's bag-recycling bin, or readily given to the hatmakers by shoppers who've accumulated them by the dozens.

Coastal Caps have been sold to other students at Bennington College. Last summer, Kenney brought some caps home to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where they were sold at select stores and street fairs. Simon took some to her home, in Camden, Maine, and sold them in a few local stores.

Summertime visitors to Camden and Martha's Vineyard bought the caps and carried them far beyond the point of purchase and far away from Bennington.

"Social media has been a great tool for us," Simon said. "When our hats sell and we don't know who winds up getting them, we sometimes see pictures of people in them and they'll let us know what's happened to their Coastal Cap."

Charles Erickson is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Southern Vermont Landscapes.


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