Saving money and materials fuels robust reuse-it culture

Creative projects grow from diverting Bellingham’s waste
August 10, 2023 at 10:06 a.m.
Design build program manager Myra Volkmann builds a garden bench out of reused green and yellow wooden slats on Thursday, Aug. 3 at The RE Store. The shop provides recycled materials for projects and also builds furniture to sell.
Design build program manager Myra Volkmann builds a garden bench out of reused green and yellow wooden slats on Thursday, Aug. 3 at The RE Store. The shop provides recycled materials for projects and also builds furniture to sell. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

When Rue Macdonald started working at Ragfinery two years ago, she didn’t even know how to operate a sewing machine.

Now Macdonald is making her wedding dress out of 6 yards of white silk previously used as curtains, thanks to skills she picked up at the nonprofit store dedicated to innovative recycling of textiles and mending.

Many Bellingham residents, like Macdonald, have honed the reuse mentality — saving and repurposing materials instead of throwing them away — from textiles to building materials, furniture, office, garden and art supplies.

“We have so much of a community here,” she said. “There’s a culture here of reuse, of inspiring each other, and educating each other to get better at our craft and find something new. We fix what we have.”

photo Kristen Hall, left, and program manager Rue Macdonald work at Ragfinery in Bellingham. (Sophia Nunn/Cascadia Daily News)  

The bustling RE Store supports this culture, too.

Created in 1993 to save as much reusable building material as possible from the landfill while also fostering the reuse culture, the store has been at its current locale on Meridian since 2007. 

The 22,000-square-foot store, which includes an adjacent warehouse, is crammed with donated materials that include stacks of kitchen cabinets, multiple rows of doors, hardware, tools, lumber, trim, windows, flooring, paint and furniture from a variety of decades.

On any given day, shoppers may find unique items such as leather scraps, standing desks, an old fir cabinet from the 1930s — formerly used in a University of Washington chemistry lab — or a burly rocking chair that looks like it was built for Santa Claus.

The RE Store Director Tim O’Donnell estimates the store diverts more than 3 million pounds of building materials from the waste stream each year, and sells approximately the same amount back to the community for about half the price (or less) than they would pay for new materials. 

He said he thinks customers are savvy about supporting the “circular economy” aspect of the business, but they are also interested in giving used materials a second chance.

“I think it's exciting for a customer to build a whole project — like a shed or something — that was once a completely different structure and has been restructured to have a new life,” O’Donnell said.

photo  Arora Joseph, left, and director Tim O'Donnell move an old cabinet Thursday, Aug. 3 at The RE Store. The cabinet was once used as storage in the University of Washington's Chemistry department. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

This summer, O’Donnell is remodeling the only bathroom in his “fixer-upper” Bellingham home, and he said most of the building materials were found at The RE Store — including the toilet, vanity, sink, counter, tile and light fixtures.

“We did have to buy a new bathtub,” he said, laughing. “We don’t get a ton here.”

Additionally, a Revision Division section of the store found near the front door showcases unique furniture made locally from reclaimed materials: Lamps, end tables, shelving, art and earrings made from the ends of plastic screwdrivers.

“The idea behind that whole gallery is to sell some value-added furnishings, but really we want to just inspire others to build the same thing,” O’Donnell said. “You can get some of those materials here at a fraction of the cost.”

Inspiration and education

Macdonald first came into Ragfinery as a customer soon after moving from Michigan to Bellingham because she was eager to learn how to sew. From the beginning, she was intrigued by the “magical place” that diverts an average of 10–15,000 pounds of textiles from the landfill each month. 

Walk into the store at 1421 N. Forest St., and it's clear how they do so. At the front, donated clothing offers like-new dresses, pants and shirts on racks for jaw-dropping prices. Nearby, more clothing, jewelry and accessories created using at least 75% upcycled materials are displayed with care (everything with a bar tag is on consignment by local artists).

Donated textiles are sold by the yard, and shoppers will also find yarn that’s been burn-tested to ensure it’s natural and not synthetic.

Go further back in the space that was a former auto shop, and you’ll find clean and well-sorted clothing and shoes sold by the pound, handmade rugs made by discarded materials, quilts and assorted tools, and sewing notions such as measuring tapes ($1), thimbles (25 cents each) and needles (5 cents).

“We want to make sure everything is affordable and accessible to everybody,” Macdonald said. “If people come in and are in need, we're not going to turn someone away. If someone needs shoes, we'll get them a pair of shoes.” 

photo Scraps of fabric are for sale along the wall of Ragfinery to be reworked into new projects. (Sophia Nunn/Cascadia Daily News)  

Another component of Ragfinery’s mission is education. Although classes such as Sewing 101 were cut during the pandemic, a recent grant from the Department of Ecology allowed them to open a Community Classroom from noon to 2 p.m. every Tuesday (or by appointment). There, people have free access to the classroom and sewing machines, scissors, rotary cutters and more. A volunteer is always on hand to assist.

The RE Store also has a variety of how-to educational videos on its YouTube channel. O’Donnell said Matt Vaughn, the Revision Division manager, lead designer and builder, has also compiled “pretty foolproof” plans for building greenhouses out of glass panels they regularly source from a local solar panel company.

photo  Revision division manager Matt Vaughn cuts squares out of old whiskey barrels to be used as garbage, recycling and compost bins for the Portal Container Village in Bellingham. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Of architecture and art

Contemporary folk artist Randy Clark (aka Fishboy) is no stranger to The RE Store. 

In addition to sourcing a lot of the wood he uses to paint on from the store, when remodeling his 1916 house, he and his brother separated his bedroom from his living room using two cupboard doors and a piece of old stained glass — all three pieces purchased from the DIY hub. 

photo  Randy "Fishboy" Clark points to a small knot in a piece of recycled wood he found on the side of a road and used as a canvas at his gallery. Clark has used recycled materials in his works for years. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Clark said about half of the artworks currently on display in his home gallery in the Sunnyland neighborhood were painted on repurposed wood he found there. 

“RE Store is still a major source for me,” Clark said. “It always will be. It's always fun because you don't know what you're going to find. I like that — being adaptive. A lot of times I just use quarter-inch plywood or old shelf boards. Things I can make cut-outs out of.” 

Clark also scours area alleyways for discarded materials and has found large pieces of free wood panels in front of the soap-making company Bramble Berry, which is located across the street from him.

For younger artists unsure of where to source materials such as paint for a cheaper price point, Clark advises they check out the “Oops” paint sections (incorrectly mixed paint) at local paint stores and building behemoths such as Lowe’s or Home Depot. Purchasing small sample cans is also an option.

photo  From Fishboy Gallery, Randy Clark sells a painting of a flower on a piece of a door he found at The RE Store. The beveling of the door created an automatic frame for the piece, once painted black. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Clark said these days, he only visits The RE Store four or five times a year for big projects, or when he gets the sense he could find something special there. 

"The people who really get the coolest stuff —whether it's furniture, chairs, plywood, covered doors, whatever it may be — they’re in there all the time,” he said. “But I like The RE Store just because of that unexpected pleasure of not knowing what you're going to find.” 

Share your reuse-it, up-cycled projects and ideas with us. We want to hear – and see – how you re-purposed materials for your home or business. Send images and a short explanation to with your full name. We may publish some of the responses, or be in touch for a future article. 

Resources for reuse and education  

Allied Arts Reuse Thrift Store, 1418 Cornwall Ave. Sells reused products and materials to make arts, to explore creatively, and to have new conceptions of art.
Bellingham Craigslist, free stuff. From sliding closet doors to cabinets, glass partitions, moving boxes, nightstands and roosters, find an array of items.
Bellingham Makerspace, Bellis Fair Mall. Tool- and skill-sharing space provides access to tools and space and supports learning to use tools and technology to bring creativity to life.
Buy Nothing groups on Facebook. Search for your neighborhood, city or county. One example: Ferndale Buy/Sale/Trade group.
Fix-it Fair, noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26 at Ohio Street Workstudios, 112 Ohio St. There will be clothing menders (including Ragfinery), small appliance repair, houseplant triage, a knife sharpener and bike repairs. All services are free or by donation.
Habitat for Humanity, 1825 Cornwall Ave. Accepts donations and sells a constantly changing inventory of diverse, high-quality merchandise to the public at a fraction of the retail price.
Northwest Free Repairs. Fixes small appliances, kitchen items, tools, electrical items, toys, space heaters, etc. Will be at Bellingham Makerspace Aug. 13 and 20 and at the Bellingham Public Library Aug. 15.
 Pumped Bellingham, various outlets. Refills everyday essentials like cleaning products and personal care items to divert single-use plastics from the waste stream.
Whatcom Buy/Sell/Trade group on Facebook. You will be asked to verify where you live. 

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