The BugShop: From Riches to Rags

This page last modified- 11/3/01

I remember as a young teenager, just starting out in my bicycle manufacturing-from-junk-parts and restoration business, going into the linen closet at the end of the hall in our house to get a "rag". As soon as I grabbed some soft, tattered old hand towel, or torn-apart cotton T-shirt, my mom would materialize out of thin air and grab it from my hand.

"You can’t have that one, that is my best duster"

I would grab the only other all-cotton shred in there and she would grab that too, "No, you can’t have that one either, take this one". She would hand me an old leg from a pair of jeans (polyester jeans from the Sears catalog, not the Levis you are thinking of) or a now-see-through sweatshirt, and off I would go, only to find that what she gave me wouldn’t absorb a milliliter of moisture if you submerged it in a lake to a depth of 12 feet. Mind you, this was in the 70s when non-cotton, polyester, rayon, nylon, plastic-on fabrics outnumbered good old cotton garments ten times over. Years later, I figured out what mom was doing; a little documented human ritual called "cotton guarding".

There is no substitute for a good rag. You know how it goes, you are doing a kitchen table overhaul of a rare 26 PICT carb, or wiping down a fender of you pristine ’62 sunroof, or polishing a piece of early door panel aluminum molding. You reach into your rag box/bucket/drawer and grab that all-cotton favorite. The one that is your "good duster" (what is "dusting" anyway?). You could pick it out of the box blindfolded.

Fortunately, in the 90s we have become the wiser, and cotton "post use" garments are somewhat easier to find than a good set of 36 hp engine tin. I held fast to the cotton-diapers-better-than-creating-all-that-waste ideal through or first child’s early years and about half of our second child’s, so there are few nice, soft diapers in that bucket too. For the same reason I diss’ed the disposable diapers, I try not to use paper towels much (although a roll is mounted on a dispenser over the workbench). I did once buy one of those boxes of heavy a paper "shop towels", they worked fine but again, I didn’t like creating all that waste.

But recently as I grabbed one of my favorites in my rag bucket, I paused for a moment and reflected on its history (Ok, I didn’t "pause", but I did think about it as I went off immediately cleaning a paint gun with thinner). It was a shred of an old navy blue T-shirt that I bought, probably around 1975. A new mall had opened near our house, within bike riding distance, and I was at that phase of earning money mowing yards and buying the clothes that my mother wouldn’t buy for me. It was a Hobie Cat T-shirt that served my many years of beach going in South Carolina well, eventually became a tattered racquetball T-shirt and for the longest time was my "tournament" shirt, as I never lost a game wearing it. Eventually one day, I did, and with armpit holes the size of baseballs, I retired it. Most if it was torn into wide strips and serve as headbands for racquetball play today. Sort of an American Indian/animal skin/warrior dress thing. But a few short fragments of this 25 year old T-shirt can be found in the rag bucket in the garage. I gave some thought to the "lifecycle" of the T-shirt recently and decided to write about it.

Most all of us have them, the "good" T-shirts. With our recent acquisition of some very expensive and large bedroom furniture for out home (Ok, with my wife’s "acquisition". I paid almost as much for one dresser as I paid for my ‘57), I am proud to say that my "good" T-shirts have their own drawer now. These are the shirts that you would argue with anyone are as appropriate as a white button down oxford or a single needle, 180 thread count LL Bean dress shirt. They are pure white, the designs are (at least today) very classy and neat. You cuss when you get spaghetti sauce on these shirts and will quickly take them off and rush into the bathroom to soak them before the stain sets. You make sure you take them off when you come back from the mall and are going to work on your car, and really don’t even like to perspire in them very much. They are neatly folded and smoothed by hand right out of the dryer and put away quickly (I can safely say, however, that I have never ironed a T-shirt).

These are what I call "tier one" shirts. Today, my tier one shirts consist of my very own "Original recipe." Shirt (washed probably a hundred times, but still looking sharp), a New Beetle shirt that a dealer in Canada sent me ("A car like this only comes around twice in a lifetime"), a shirt from "Cheeseburger in Paradise" in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, a shirt from Ed Robinson’s Diving Adventures in Maui, a shirt from the Omaha Nebraska VW club that an enthusiast sent me unsolicited after I granted him permission to print one of my articles in his club newsletter, a Wolfsburg West shirt that Tony Moore gave me and an "" shirt that John Connolly traded me for one of my "Original recipe." shirts (then he had the nerve to ask for another for his girlfriend). One of these shirts is usually worn every Friday to work on "casual" day.

But shirts slip from this lofty status eventually. I’m not sure exactly what merits the demotion, but usually it is when you get some new shirts. One day you are wearing one of your oldest tier one shirts and you start working on the car or in the yard. We’ve all been there. A little subconscious light comes on in your head, "tier one shirt protection warning" and you consciously "override" the warning. The event is often very subtle, without fanfare or ceremony, but important nonetheless. That shirt has fallen off the top shelf, there is no going back. In a sweaty moment in the garage, it has just become a "tier two" shirt.

In my garment management, tier two shirts immediately take one of two paths at the start. One takes them to the racquetball bag. This path carries a bit more status. While these shirts will be sweated in profusely and occasionally serve as towels when I forget to bring one to the club, they are protected from staining other than the typical "gym bag yellowing". While in my social circles it is acceptable to wear a yellowed, paper thin, holey concert T-shirt for racquetball, paint or grease stains on the court will earn you the scorn an disfavor of your fellow club members. Racquetball shirts are among the elite of the tier two family.

The demise of the tier two shirt that is selected for the garage/yard work pool is particularly harsh and quick. While you might have been rushing to soak a peppercorn sauce stain out of shirt last week, you will now wipe fresh Eastwood "Chassis Black" overspray on to you belly without a second thought. The shirt has now become a rag you wear. Perhaps the scarlet letter for the tier two shirt though is the fact that it can no longer be laundered with the "regular" laundry. It must now be washed among like-class shirts, and even the peasant class rags. It must be quite disheartening for the cotton fibers on this day.

The tier two shirt will continue to survive in this status as long as it is basically wearable. Some tier two shirts that are a little cleaner looking (or those not white, that hide stains much better) may also be garnered some level of protection, such as not being worn when sealing the driveway (those of you with asphalt driveways who live in snowy climes know what this industrial accident-like job is). To get picky, these are, at least for a while, tier two "plus" shirts. But the degradation of the tier two shirt to the next lower level is often not very easy to pinpoint. In fact, some of my own shirts have often "waffled" across the line, dropping to tier three for a few weeks then mysteriously re-appearing in the garage clothes drawer. It is like they are fighting the inevitable. I wouldn't be surprised if the pay a bribe to my wife when she sorts the laundry. Eventually, they suffer another humiliation. My wife just dumps all the "garage stuff" (tier two and three) on the sofa and tells me "do something with all your garage stuff…".

Tier three is what most of us call "rags". Species cottonus-wipus-oilus. While the virtual exit from the "clothes" phylum might be the ultimate dishonor of the shirt, it actually enjoys some celebrity-ship when entering the new tier three hierarchy. That is, a "fresh" rag, is a celebrated item in tier three-dom. While it may have been strategically placed in the center of the drawer in its last days as a tier two garment to avoid "contaminating" the drawer sides, it is now nothing short of a celebrated individual in the rag bucket. "top of the heap" in more ways than one, garnered when only the "best rag" will do. Used to host that old Oval Beetle steering box rebuild after the swap meet.

The life of the tier three rag is, in most cases, limited only by its ability to retain its textile threading (Those nylon ones, worthless as they were, will be dug up as relics, still in their original state 400 years from now. They will be perfect as they will have absorbed nothing). While a few rags of mine have been tossed after getting too much of a non-removable substance on them (like silicone rubber), most live out their lives until they literally fall apart or catch fire as a result of some careless welding (have lost more than I care to count that way). How do I maintain them? Well, I sort of have what I call petroleum and non-petroleum rags. The petroleum rags are used for cleaning parts, wiping up oil spills, etc. When they get really skunky, I rinse them with gasoline and let them dry out. They can be washed in the machine at that point along with "garage" clothes, but I have to agree to the Komissar of the Wash Machine to wipe the grease ring out of the tub with mineral spirits when I am done. The non-petroleum rags are used for cleaning windows, applying Rain-X, wiping down cars, etc. Another socioeconomic classification in the rag realm I guess. I have a couple "super rags" in the garage, a couple sickly lime green bath towels I got for almost nothing in a clearance bin years ago. These are used for wiping down cars after washing and drying of dogs after baths.

And some notable rags enter the arena from non T-shirt sources as well. When my wife replaced a full length terrycloth robe and was about to toss it, she said "do you want this for the garage?" Do I want it!? Major score. The lavender color compliments the battleship grey walls of the garage nicely. I also once bought a bag of red all cotton shop "towels" (about 12" square, maybe a "towel" if you are a squirrel or something). They are really nice, I still use them today, but be warned, the dye bleeds off in the wash immediately, don’t wash them with anything you don’t want tie dyed.

So that is about it. I talked about T-shirts because they seem to be the best source of cotton rag stock in the garage. You might think it odd that I have given this topic so much thought, but this literary work was a result of yet another long business trip. It was either "cost of ownership" spreadsheets for work, or writing something fun on a 7 hour flight. What is in your bin? Some memories? Next time you grab one to wipe off a valve cover, take some time to stop and reflect. What stories does that rag hold in its fibers……?

Copyright© 1999; John S. Henry