A School Jumper that Helps the Planet

I was standing in a room surrounded by knitwear. Shelves and racks filled with sweaters, school jumpers, beanies and animal toys, all neatly folded or hung. For once I wasn’t hot and sweaty from riding my bike here; I was laying over in Hobart for a few days rest and had taken a local city bus to this factory to learn their unusual story.

“Hello! Are you the blogger?” A short older woman had emerged from a side door. It was the first time I’d been called that. Vicki greets me warmly and invites me through. She suggests we dive straight in to the tour of the factory before all the machines are stopped for morning tea.

We walk through a storage area and past the staff kitchen, then through a door and into a big room filled with the whir and clatter of large machinery.

It’s a marvel. I’d always associated knitting and embroidery as something our grandparents might do to pass the time, but here it’s happening on a large scale. Large, modern, computer-controlled knitting machines, about three metres long, are working right beside fully-mechanised versions that use old-fashioned punch cards to control the pattern. Bobbins are twirling, punch cards are clanking and mechanical fingers are moving rapidly, unspooling lengths of wool and turning it into knitted jumpers before my eyes.

There are numerous people working at the assorted knitting machines, and Vicki greets them and introduces me as we make our way amongst them. The room is full of noise and Vicki is doing her best to speak loudly, but I often need to bend over to hear her, making me self-conscious of my excessive height.

Before we get very far the buzzer sounds and the machines are stopped for morning tea. I ask Vicki if I can join the workers on their break, and we follow them in to the staff kitchen. I join about twelve of them sitting at a long table. It becomes apparent that many of them have an intellectual disability. I knew about this before I came, but as I meet them I soon realise a problem: I don’t know how to write about people with disabilities. What is appropriate to mention, and what isn’t? I make a mental note to ask Vicki for advice on this later.

Sitting opposite me is a shy lady named Liz, who reluctantly tells me of her role keeping the machines running smoothly and preventing faults. Next to her is Matthew who is more chatty, though I find his speech more difficult to understand. A man named Carl to my left, who I later learn is one of the support staff here, sits reading the newspaper while at the same time tactfully interpreting for me what Matthew is saying. A girl named Mary to my right with short pink hair just repeats back to me key words of the questions I ask her. It occurs to me that I’m judging their intellect based on their communication ability, but it might not be as simple as that.

I want to dive in and ask questions about their lives, their intellectual disabilities, and what it’s like to work in a factory like this while having an intellectual disability. But I feel that would be weird and inappropriate. So I settle for asking about how they came to be here, and what they think of the renewable energy project on their roof. I’m surprised that many of them have been working here for twenty years or so. They offer me cake, apparently leftover from a celebration for one of their colleagues reaching forty years working at the factory — I hadn’t realised the factory had been running so long.

I would later find out from Vicki that the factory, Tastex, is one year shy of its 50th birthday. And it’s been a bumpy ride. Tastex comes under the auspices of the St Vincent de Paul Society, and was set up as a non-profit enterprise to provide support and meaningful work for people with intellectual disabilities. But it was almost closed down due to a dishonest manager who was misappropriating funds. The manager was fired, but by that stage the factory was running at a huge loss.

Vicki and the team asked to be given six months to turn things around, and the St Vincent de Paul Society reluctantly agreed. Vicki’s team made improvements during that time, but by the end of the six months the factory was still running at a loss. Nonetheless, they’d made an impression and were granted another year. At the end of that year they were breaking even.

Vicki remembers when she first started at the factory about 18 years ago. There was no heating and only a small kitchen. They only made knitwear, no embroidery. When embroidery machines were introduced here ten years ago it changed what they could do. They started a whole range of embroidered goods; not only the logos on things like school jumpers, but also souvenir beanies and stuffed toys for tourists. The number of supported employees with an intellectual disability increased from 11 to 19.

Vicki says it’s taken years to get to this point, and they still don’t make much in profit. “But we’re not here to make a lot of money, we’re here to provide support for the people with intellectual disabilities who work in our factory.” With a turnover of just under $1million each year, they’re lucky to make $10,000 in profit, which is all re-invested back into the factory.

But they’re not only supporting people with disabilities. As I’m to find out from Vicki, they’re doing good things for the environment too.

As the morning tea break continues, Matthew, Liz and I end up chatting about movies and the new Fantastic Beasts sequel (a spin-off from Harry Potter), which we’re all looking forward to seeing when it comes out. The buzzer sounds again and the workers pack up their morning tea and head back to their work stations. Vicki comes in to collect me and continue the tour.

She takes me to a shelf on the factory wall where there are stacks of offcuts from the knitting process, and picks up pieces for me to feel. Nearby one of the workers is unravelling the wool from the offcuts into a box, creating a squiggly pile. Again, Vicki picks up clumps of this and gets me to feel it.

Vicki has no arms, so she is using her feet instead. She slips her foot from its slipper and dextrously picks the wool up off the high shelf with her toes, while remaining solidly balanced on her other leg. Her movements seem practiced and natural. I find it remarkable seeing her use her feet with an agility I could never achieve myself, but I realise that for her it’s just normal. I make another mental note to ask Vicki whether I can mention her physical differences in my writings.

She tells me that they only use Australian wool. Any offcuts are kept and unravelled, and then used as stuffing for their animal toys, which apparently sell very well at the Parks & Wildlife souvenir shops. They used to throw away 50kg bags of woollen offcuts every couple of weeks. Now nothing is thrown away.

I’m taken into another room where another woman named Liz (it turns out there are three women of that name working here) is using large automated embroidery machines to create the animal facial designs on the beanies and stuffed animals.

Liz is fastidious about reducing waste. She keeps all the offcuts from the embroidery backing sheets to use again when doing smaller pieces. Any plastic bags are kept for recycling, and she’s been working with their suppliers to no longer send them their supplies wrapped in plastic.

Many of their customers are getting onboard too. In the past, orders were sent to customers with the garments wrapped in plastic and stacked inside a box. Now many customers are willing to receive their deliveries plastic-free, with just scrap paper stuffed into the boxes to protect the garments. Smaller orders are put in recycled paper carry bags.

In a final room workers sit at tables using small sewing machines to finish the beanies and stuffed toys. Vicki shows me the tags on their finished products with the Tastex logo or their ‘Devilknits’ brand. Apparently even these tags are made from environmentally-friendly materials, and come from a factory down the road called Tadpac Print, another not-for-profit enterprise employing people with intellectual disabilities.

While I’m there a man enters — Vicki’s husband, I later learn — and invites the workers to join him going for a half hour walk if they would like. Apparently this is a daily thing, to improve their well-being.

At last Vicki and I return to her office to talk about the community solar project that happened on their factory roof — the initial reason for my visit. It feels anticlimactic after everything I’ve experienced here, but I know it’s perhaps their biggest environmental improvement, and it’s made a profound difference to the factory.

Their electricity bills were huge, Vicki tells me. With all their machinery, plus their heating requirements in winter, they were paying $7000 to $8000 per quarter. A board member suggested getting solar power, but it would cost them $40,000 for a suitable system. How would they afford it?

They had the idea of crowdfunding for it, and managed to raise $20,000 from community donations. Still not enough. They ended up approaching CORENA — a not-for-profit fund that gives out zero-interest loans for renewable energy projects, with the money to be paid back from the savings on electricity bills.

With the funds secured, they installed 115 solar panels, producing up to 30kW of power. It had a drastic effect on their bills, with their last quarterly power bill only $600. I hear later from another friend involved in the project that even though the loan was interest free, Vicki insisted on paying it back within the first two years. Now all the savings go to the factory.

Vicki is clearly a busy woman, yet she’s been incredibly patient with me. I’m conscious of how much of her time I’ve taken up, but before I leave I ask for her advice on writing about my experience with the workers and their intellectual disabilities.

I also ask if she minds me mentioning her own physical differences. She says she doesn’t mind. After thinking for a moment she adds that she doesn’t think it should be seen as part of the Tastex story; that it’s about the workers and it’s been a team effort to get this far. I understand this, and I admire her humility. She is part of my story though, and I realise later that she’s made a special impression on me. Not for her physical differences, but for being a warm and welcoming host, and a hard-working CEO of an amazing enterprise, dedicated to helping people with intellectual disabilities as well as the planet, one school jumper at a time.

A huge thank you to Vicki and all the staff and workers at Tastex for allowing me to come and visit, and patiently showing me your work.