Thursday, April 22, 2010


My Grandmother Portfors (Mother's mother) used to say, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." In other words, your finished product will be inferior if made up of inferior elements. My mother would quote that adage from time to time to justify the expense of quality materials for her projects. Mother hardly ever re-made a garment or re-used fabric. She loved new fabric of good quality -- and was keyed to it by touch as well as sight.

Into every life some mending must fall, but Mother also had her take on that: "A hole can just happen, but a mend is premeditated poverty," her point being that mended clothes make a statement. Mother taught me to darn socks, re-stitch seams, and make new pockets, but if a garment was torn, she didn't patch. Patching I learned on my own when my boys were little and I had to make their jeans last as long as I could.

When my mother-in-law visited us, she would check Mike's shirts and turn any frayed collars. It was wonderful of her to do so, and Mike was so pleased by her conservative efforts. But, my thinking was (and is) that when a shirt has a frayed collar, it's worn out, especially if you're a "white collar" worker. Also a shirt with a frayed collar is undoubtedly showing other signs of wear, such as sleeves worn thin at the elbows. Mike has a different view on the preservation of clothing. I mean – this is a guy who was still wearing his Boy Scout pants – and proudly boasting about it -- when he was 50. Believe me – most of Mike's jeans and several shirts sport mended holes.

As you can see, I'm not quite at ease with the subject of textile preservation and re-use. A part of me screams, "New is great!" and "Where is our pride?" Yet how can we reduce the textiles in our collective garbage pits if we don't give thoughtful consideration to this subject and act upon it. Here are some ideas I've seen for textile re-use:

  • Use a vintage tablecloth to make shopping bags, purses, aprons, napkins, placemats, gift bags, whatever. I hate to see a beautiful, usable tablecloth cut apart, but it's another thing if it's stained and worn. (These same ideas might apply to bedspreads.)
  • Felting, involving the deliberate shrinking of wool by means of washing in hot water and then drying in high heat. The resulting product can then be cut like fabric and sewn into slippers, glasses cases, handbags, etc. I have never done felting and am not convinced I want to start. (And this idea works only for wool -- not polyester or blends.)
  • Unraveling of sweaters, afghans, etc., in order to re-use the yarn. I have a lot of respect for the time spent in knitting or crocheting, and I treasure the final product. However, when I see the many afghans available through Goodwill, rummage sales, and consignment shops, I have to admit the disposal of these things is a problem.
  • Cutting fabric into strips to make "rag rugs," hot pads, etc. Now here's something I might consider. When I was a teen-ager, Mother and I cut some old nylon (rayon?) nightgowns and underwear into strips and crocheted a rug. Personally I think this is a rather practical idea. Yes indeed! I'd forgotten about this, but I even have some patterns for crocheting strips of fabric . . .

Textiles wear out. They rot if left in the sun; they wear out with use; they even wear out as they are stored. I gently washed some napkins from my mother's collection and one of them came apart. I had to reconsider a long-cherished plan to make dolls from my hand-embroidered pillowslips when a number of them split in the washing. Now I ask you, what can I do with those, apart from making them into rags?

Back in the day – quite a ways back – people re-used textiles to make clothing, quilts, curtains, etc. These days we don't so much. Today's quilter is particular about fabric; new cotton is recommended. Re-use is not so much encouraged. Are we going too far with that concept? Could we still make a serviceable quilt from used, discarded fabric?

Mike says he never has enough rags for his work in the shop. When we moved to this modular home from "the big house," I loaded two big boxes with bedding and towels I never wanted to see again and told Mike to get rid of them. I confess I meant for him to haul them to the landfill. "Did you take those boxes to the landfill or are they under the house?" I asked him later. "They're under the house," he replied. When he complains that he never has enough rags, I remind him of the boxes under the house.

I have just one more observation, a rather sad one. Any effort that we make as consumers is great – and we should do so. But – the worst offender is industry. Where can we place our efforts so that we make a difference?

[The pillowcases and shirts pictured above are basically worn out. I embroidered the shirts in the '70s and have kept them this long because of the embroidery work. Can the embroidery work be salvaged for something other than rags?] KW


Hallie said...

Sometimes you see things that are made of recycled denim. I came across a Nike website the other day that showed how Nike collects old shoes and then re-process the various parts to be made into sport courts or tracks.

Large retailers buy rags from Goodwill. You know those shirts that you can't bear to make into rags so you give them to Goodwill? Goodwill doesn't have any issue cutting them up and reselling them!

Kathy said...

Remember those rags that our contractor bought for the farmhouse project? I think he pulled them off a roll or out of a box, but they were definitely cut up t-shirts. There was one that said -- well, never mind.

Someone was quoted in today's Trib as saying that 4 million tons of clothing are disposed of in US landfills every year. And I know it's true that when I donate used clothing for a worthy cause, I don't know what happens to it.

There are just so many things we can think about here. Should we make afghans and quilts just because we want to? Should we develop better methods of sharing with those in need? Am I doing the world a favor when I crochet or quilt, especially with new materials?

Chris said...

Interesting post. We've recycled for forever. Moscow has a great recycling program. We have a wood insert in the basement fireplace and use it to get "BTU's" from a lot of things that would end up in the landfill. We burn fairly hot, so there's very little smoke from our chimney. We rarely have our garbage can even half full, often just a bag on the bottom. What clothes we get rid of are sent to our local "clothes closet" which is composed of area churches. They sort, send what's appropriate to the mission field, others are given to the needy locally or sold at the new "Hope Center". We use our wornout stuff as our own rags until they're literally threads and then they hit the trash.

I love to make things, and I'm not going to apologize for knitting, or quilt making. (And no, I don't think you're saying we should!) :-) I am a firm believer in "making do, and using it up," but I'm also a firm believer in using our hands and making this world a more beautiful place.

Kathy said...

"Using our hands to make the world a better place" -- so important to our use of talent as well as time.

Debbie Colgrove at shared lots of fabric and clothing re-use ideas this morning. I'm re-adjusting my thinking and reorganizing my stash. (I feel another post coming on.)

Richard V. Shields III said...

Grandmothers and mothers are usually right, but sometimes a saying is just a saying. When I was doing some research in Boston in the 80's, I was impressed to see the product shown in the link that follows:
I suppose we could look at it as the ultimate recycling. BTW, they also made a lead balloon fly! Pretty successfully, too.

Kathy said...

I was surprised that the article said the adage was used to discourage inventiveness, Richard. I thought it was to discourage the use of poor quality ingredients. But, as they said -- it can be done but not practically. Thanks for sharing the link.