7 Ways Textiles & Design Are Helping Refugees

In the face of the refugee crisis, many designers are using their skills with textiles and design to find solutions to problems. Housing is the first design-focus that comes to mind, and many have stepped up to the plate to come up with creative solutions for emergency housing. In 2016, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the IKEA Foundation partnered up to host What Design Can Do, an international design contest aimed at using design for social good. But even on a smaller level, designers are finding ways they can use their skills to help refugees, both at home and on the other side of the world.

Here are 7 textile-focused initiatives we are inspired by that are not only giving back to refugees, but allowing refugees to create a living.


A Multipurpose Jacket That Serves As Safety and Security

Feeling overwhelmed by the refugee crises, Angela Luna was inspired to take her fashion background and use it for good. She launched ADIFF, a humanitarian fashion brand focused on using design for good, working on a collection that responds to the refugee crisis. The designs include a reflective reversible jacket that the brand successfully funded on Kickstarter, and a jacket that doubles as a tent.

“I wholeheartedly believe that good design can save lives. If someone is wearing dark clothes in a dark ocean, and trying to get the attention from passing fishing boats, their life is at stake because of their lack of visibility,” says Luna. “The same goes for the exact opposite, for someone who is trying to safely cross a border – if their clothing is noisy, or too bright, or troublesome, their safety and lives are at stake. Good design can help that, it can mean the difference between life and death.”

For every purchase made, ADIFF donates one item to refugees and displaced persons.


Using Craft to Bring Refugee Women Together

In Chicago, the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago started an initiative called Loom, a program that brings together a community of refugee women to make and sell handmade products.

Many refugees, when they arrive, they come with many skills and no one tells them that those are very useful skills to have in the US. These artisan skills are especially helpful to get an extra income for their families and to empower them and build self-confidence,” says Neta Levinson, Loom Coordinator.

“We started Loom so that these women could have a platform in which they can put these skills to use,” says Levinson. Loom hosts weekly workshops which allow the women to to collaborate, develop new skills, earn extra income and be part of a community of creative, enterprising women. The women also have access to training focused on financial literacy. Loom encourages the women to use their skills from their home countries and apply them in new ways, to make products that will work for the U.S. market.

“Yashoda, one of our Bhutanese ladies who has her own signature pattern makes beautiful infinity scarves, and as she knits them, the pattern reminds her of the grassy and vast fields back in Bhutan,” says Levinson.

Muck Shoes

Shoes for Refugee Children

Using old bike tubes, Andrea Boyko of Bula Jean’s Boutique makes soft soled shoes for Syrian refugees.

“Like most of us I felt heartbroken seeing all of the photos coming out of Syria. The problem seems so big, it is easy to feel helpless,” says Boyko. Boyko had started making the shoes for her own children when they were toddlers and wanted soft soled shoes to wear outside, but needed something that wouldn’t get soggy. She decided to apply her shoe making skills to help the refugee crisis.

“Muck Shoes are ideal for the muddy camps because they are waterproof, clean easily and stretch a bit so can be worn longer than traditional shoes,” says Boyko.

Boyko has since inspired other members of her community to help her, hosting cutting parties and sourcing materials for the shoes.


Chair Covers Made from Upcycled Textile Waste by Refugees

Bright and colorful, the flexible “chair rugs” by Ragamuf are far more than an interesting interior accessory. Using scraps of textile waste, every chair rug is handmade by Syrian women in Turkey.

“Beauty affects human the same way as love does,” says Ragamuf founder Martta Leskelä. “So making beautiful design strengthens and brings joy.” Ragamuf ran a successful crowdfunding campaign in February 2017 and aims to hit the retail market later in the year.


A Bag Made from Discarded Boats

Volunteering on the Greek island of Lesbos, helping refugees to disembark from inflatable boats, Floor Nagler noticed that many of the refugees who had landed had nothing to carry their few belongings in. She returned to Amsterdam with 20 kilograms of boat material, and with her friend Didi Aaslund, set out to design a backpack that could be made from the materials, and easily made by the refugees themselves. ”

“As a maker, of course I was extremely inspired to design a bag that is put together with the least effort and three tools actually,” Nagler told Radio Free Europe in an interview.

The two designers launched an organization called No Mad Makers, as well as a Kickstarter campaign for the bag design, called Bag2Work. While they weren’t able to crowdfund the project and build the production facility they were hoping for, the backpack is an excellent example of the intersection of design and humanitarian solutions. The two designers have continued with No Mad Makers and are planning future projects with impact.

Welcome Mat Project

A Mat Woven Out of Life Jackets Worn by Refugees

This spring Becca Steven, author, speaker and founder of Thistle Farms, will travel to Greece to work with women in refugee camps. The goal is to use orange fabric from life jackets worn by refugees on their way to Greece to weave mats and table runners for the Welcome Mat Project. Partnering with I AM YOU and Lighthouse Relief, the production and sales of the mats will help women refugees gain economic freedom.


Employing Resettled Refugee Women to Create Handmade Accessories

Selling beautiful textiles and accessories, GAIA is not just another lifestyle brand. Founded by Paula Minnis, GAIA has a mission of empowering “refugee women through employment, encouragement, and dedication to their long-term success in our local communities.” The company works with resettled refugee women in Dallas, Texas.

“Although each refugee group is different, what unites them is the desire to work. They don’t want to just ‘receive’, they want a job that allows them to support themselves and their families, that gives them a sense of purpose and belonging in a foreign place,” says Minnis.

“If they are lucky enough to be resettled here (our vetting system is the world’s strongest), they’re eager to integrate and become productive members of their communities.” All of the accessories are handmade from vintage and handwoven textiles, resulting in everything from earrings to clutches. Pillowcases made with vintage textiles and backed with repurposed or organic hemp cloth. Each item comes with a hangtag signed by the woman who made it.

To learn more about how brands are taking on sustainable strategies, check out our Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.