3 Women Makes Unisex Garments From Upcycled Rice Sacks

Through resourcefulness and creativity, this women-owned clothing brand proves "every little piece can be sustainable"

For most people, rice is a household staple—the basic yet completely essential ingredient to a host of dishes enjoyed all around the world. But to Crystal Lee Early and Natalie Mumford, the founders of 3 Women, the grain is also synonymous with fashion. Early and Mumford’s Long Beach, California brick-and-mortar store opened in 2018 as a vintage shop, until the duo started transforming repurposed textiles into a nostalgic clothing line. Using rice, flour and feed sacks, they revitalized food fabric waste into patchwork jackets, whimsical halter tops and other garments—with an aesthetic situated at the crossroads of contemporary styles.

Courtesy of 3 Women

The brand’s first piece was made with rice sacks from Early’s family who worked at a Chinese frozen food business. The idea came to Early as a way to hold on to her half-Chinese heritage. After successfully turning the rice bags into jackets (and selling one), Early says she realized, “Oh, this is a really cool thing to do.” From there, rice became a meaningful emblem—not just for the brand, but also for their diverse audience.

Early’s family, courtesy of 3 Women

“Asian people love it,” Early tells us. “I think because it reminds them of their family, but ultimately, everybody is drawn to rice. Rice is something that unites people. Rice is sustenance. Rice is nutrients. Rice is culture. Rice is family. I think it’s a very significant symbol.” It’s also a symbol rich with history, particularly within fashion’s archive. During the Great Depression, women turned to rice bags for fabric to create dresses when resources were scarce. “In the ’60s, they were even doing it for fun,” Mumford continues. “We’re just carrying on the tradition of resourcefulness.”

Courtesy of 3 Women

Mumford and Early exhibit resourcefulness in bounds. To run a business where production is limited to a team of two local seamstresses, and stock is dependent on how much antique yardage Early and Mumford can dig up, being flexible and inventive with the material is a must. “One rice bag sack is usually not even enough to make anything, so you have to always find something that complements it that’s also vintage,” Early describes. This limited size and quantity of pre-existing fabrics contributes to the collage-like nature of the clothing line’s design.

Courtesy of 3 Women

“Sometimes, we’ll just lay things out and piece little pieces together and see what works well. Crystal’s got an incredible eye to visualize the finished product,” says Mumford. Aesthetically, this obstacle’s become a creative opportunity. “It’s definitely a challenge,” she continues, “but a good one, because it presents itself as way more interesting than if it were just one solid piece of fabric.”

Natalie Mumford (left) and Crystal Lee Early (right), photo by DLBA

When it comes to production hurdles, the women have proven they are undeterred, especially when these difficulties are symptomatic of their sustainable ethics. Still, they commit to using every scrap of fabric, so nothing goes to waste. Their production practice can be best summed up by Mumford’s own ethos: “Every little piece can be sustainable.”

Courtesy of 3 Women

Whether it’s the women’s fortitude or background in vintage selling—which is how the pair met, sharing a booth at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in 2016—Mumford and Early are steadfast in sustaining the environment and community. They often collaborate with local artists and designers to create new collections or jewelry. In fact, the more is the merrier for 3 Women. Alongside their small-batch, ready-to-wear collection, the duo works on custom designs.

Courtesy of 3 Women

During the pandemic, Early virtually met with customers, pulling and showing them fabric based on their conversation. Together, they would go over the piece in a more detailed, intimate and accessible way. Mumford describes this custom aspect of their process as a universal approach. “We want everyone to be able to wear what we offer and connect with it on a certain level,” she tells us, and working one on one with customers allows them to do that to the fullest.

Courtesy of 3 Women

This inclusive, collaborative spirit was integral to the company even before they began working on custom orders. The ideal began with the start of the brand and is how the store derived its name: 3 Women was inspired by a scripture Early had received while picking up clothing racks, that read, “a threefold cord is not easily broken.”

She explains, “Essentially it means that there’s strength in numbers, collaboration, connectivity and community. That’s where our strength is.” And that’s central to how they run 3 Women. Even as Mumford and Early dream and plan steps to grow production, they are not prepared to sacrifice sustainability in order to so.

Looking ahead, the duo is getting ready to roll out their upcoming collection, fittingly titled Threefold Cord. Early tells us, “more collaborations and more unisex clothing” are on the horizon, but “still on a small scale.” Mumford adds, “We have faith that we have a lot to put out. This is just the beginning.”

Hero image of 1940s flour and rice sack, courtesy of 3 Women