After a recent merger, SouthState Bank had hundreds of unused T-shirts featuring its old logo. Rather than send them to the landfill, it donated them to a community textile arts project that continues to inspire others.
By Paul Sisolak
SouthState Bank had a swag problem on its hands.
In 2020, the $46 billion-asset community bank in Winter Haven, Fla., merged with CenterState Bank and went through a complete rebrand that left 650 T-shirts emblazoned with the bank’s old logo sitting in a corner of a warehouse.
“We had changed our logo, so these were shirts that were left over,” says Donna S. Pullen, SouthState Bank’s senior vice president and director of corporate giving and events management. “We didn’t want to just throw them away and we didn’t want them [circulating] in the community. If we could do something interesting with them, they wouldn’t just go in a landfill.”
For inspiration, Pullen recalled a charity art event the community bank held 20 years ago for the grand opening of its new headquarters building, where local artists were given carte blanche to select pieces from the building’s former offices and reuse them in their artwork. One participant, Susan Lenz, took old office phones apart and fashioned their multicolored wires into works of art.
Now, in 2022, Pullen reached back out to Lenz to gauge her interest, but Lenz had a better suggestion: Gardner Cole Miller, a textile artist who was then curator at the Sumter County Gallery of Art in Sumter, S.C.
“[Lenz] knew Cole had been making rugs out of recycled strips of fabric. That’s how we got connected with him,” Pullen says. “I asked him if he could do the same thing with T-shirts.”
Miller leapt at the chance, seeing the T-shirts as ideal materials for a community fiber arts project he was leading. “I had mentioned [to SouthState Bank] that my pandemic lockdown project was making rag rugs,” he says. “It was sort of the perfect opportunity. Here are all the materials I could have dreamed of.” With that, the community bank shipped the T-shirts to the gallery in 14 large boxes.
As part of the Sumter County Gallery of Art’s community fiber arts project, Miller was teaching others to create rag rugs and other textile projects. He visited four rural community and senior citizen centers across Sumter County over the course of a week, mostly in underserved areas where such resources are scarce or where low-mobility seniors can’t attend gallery classes.
“I wish more banks would do stuff like this, because there’s so much stuff that gets tossed out every year, whether it’s old styles or merchandise. It gives it a new life rather than filling a landfill.”
—Donna S. Pullen, SouthState Bank
Miller taught his students the Amish knot method. First, they cut off a T-shirt’s sleeves and then the body of the shirt in half. Next, they sliced those pieces into thin strips of fabric, producing about 20 feet of yarn. After that, the weaving began; they used a toothbrush needle to stitch a series of half-hitched knots, so that each consecutive knot spirals outward, forming an oval. Miller says it takes roughly three T-shirts to knit one rug for a small kitchen or bathroom.
He encouraged student artists to flex their artistic muscles. Some made small potholders. Others made doilies or placemats. Miller believes the project also helped his senior students with their hand-eye coordination and motor skills.
“It seemed like it was a good way for them to think through the process,” he says. “It’s almost like crocheting; there’s a certain geometry to it. There’s also a lot of dexterity, so it was great to put it all into motion.”
Knitted closely together
There’s still plenty left to create. Miller says the remaining T-shirts could be used for many other projects, from fine arts applications to quilting bees. “It’s something we’ll see more iterations and incarnations of,” he says.
For SouthState Bank, donating something other than money felt good. Pullen hopes it will set a precedent.
“I wish more banks would do stuff like this, because there’s so much stuff that gets tossed out every year, whether it’s old styles or merchandise,” she says. “It gives it a new life rather than filling a landfill.”
Paul Sisolak is deputy editor of Independent Banker.