By his mid-teens, Fred Brown had fallen into a cycle of crime, jail, release, repeat. He credits his young son with finally breaking the pattern. But he praises—of all things—a wooden antique loom as the key to keeping him on track. “When I was fifteen, they said I wouldn’t live to see eighteen,” says Brown, who now is thirty. “I’m just happy to do something that’s legal and positive, and to set an example.”
For three years, Brown has worked for a Decatur-area nonprofit called Re:loom operated by the Initiative for Affordable Housing. He’s one of nine full-time weavers, a group that includes homeless and low-income women and Bhutanese refugees. In a former antiques store, they push, stomp, and pull on fifteen bulky looms, each named for a donor (like “Agnes,” for the women’s college).
The weavers transform donated textiles—abandoned dry cleaning, tablecloths, high-end fabric scraps, even the orange jackets of Delta Air Lines’ tarmac workers—into stylish products that sell online and at boutiques. Long strips of the “upcycled” woven material become anything from $25 checkbook covers to $675 rugs, offerings that tap into consumer zeal for repurposed things, whether old buildings, salvaged barn siding, or vintage table linens. The Re:loom customers “have a new appreciation for character, for that handmade, tactile approach,” says Lisa Wise, executive director of the nonprofit.
After humble beginnings in 2009, the charity now sells about $3,500 in merchandise monthly and counts a retired Georgia Tech professor, the troubleshooting “loom doctor,” among its volunteer ranks. Spanx founder Sara Blakely recently recognized Wise as a “Leg Up” award winner for Re:loom’s mission of helping adults transition to full-time work.
For now, product sales and donations cover the weavers’ salaries and program overhead, but Wise foresees a day when Re:loom will expand to offer more comprehensive services for homeless people and refugees. Meanwhile, weavers are learning job and social skills—and finding confidence. “The job is just amazing,” says Leila Wright, who commutes forty-five minutes to work at the vintage looms. “I like to make nice stuff—gorgeous stuff—for people.”
This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue.