Living in Africa has taught me to be resourceful. There’s no fabric store in town, no place to pick up buttons or a box of pins. I must make do with what I have on hand. This can mean recycling, up-cycling and yes, even cutting up dish towels to make a new blouse.
When I’m ready to test a new design I sew up the first working sample in unbleached muslin. I mainly use this basic cotton weave for my paste-resist batiks and other craft-type projects. As a fashion fabric, it’s not very inspiring material to work with, but this keeps me focused on the task at hand – testing the construction of the garment. After any major issues are resolved in this workhorse fabric, I’m itching to sew a sample that I will wear. At this stage there will be some sewing surprises, so it’s not time to dig into my stash favorites, but I still want to have fun with the look of the design.
Ever wonder what happens to the clothes you donate to the local charity shop? A lot of it ends up in Africa. In Malawi, selling second-hand clothes is a major income source for local business ladies. Once a week I head into town and dig through a few piles of clothes hoping to find a gem. I keep my eyes out for over-sized garments that can be deconstructed and blouses that can be “harvested” for their shell buttons.
Weeks ago I cut up a huge gypsy-type dress made of cotton batiste. I also harvested some nice Mother of Pearl buttons from a tattered-looking blouse. These bits were perfect for my project. But I needed more…
Goodwill isn’t the only place to look for project material. In desperate times, there’s always hunting for fabric in the kitchen or bedroom. We’ve all heard of shopping for discount bed sheets to use as muslin, or even fashion fabric if you find something with a nice hand. I’d be all over that idea – but around here, sheets are hard to come by. Oh, I’ve thought about taking scissors to sheets, but if I start cutting up our meager collection of bed linens to make a few frocks, there will be questions asked…
Years ago, I was given a box of kitchen linens from my Italian mother-in-law. I decided most of the tea towels were too beautiful to actually use in the kitchen. Some were hand embroidered, others edged in elegant whitework. These gorgeous creatures are kept in my studio, awaiting a project worth their status. Sadly, a few of the linens in the box have become soiled with African “mystery stains”. (One day I’ll discover the culprit – probably the house lizards.) I fished out a slightly marred tea towel, gave it a good wash, and decided it would work for my peasant blouse project.
All that was left was to find some scraps from the stash pile. There were plenty of orphaned pieces to choose from. I decided on a print to give the design a punch of visual interest.
In theory, the idea of cutting up old things to make something new is a great one. But problems can arise if the material has been stretched out of shape, leaving an errant grainline. If you can’t get your deconstructed dress or dish towel on grain, walk away. Don’t waste your time and effort on something that’s only going to disappoint. Throw it in the recycle bin for non-wearable projects.
My other advice for sewing up a project with scraps and upcycled fabrics is to re-think the look of the design. If there’s a stain or hole in an otherwise nifty fabric, turn it into something – consider an appliqued patch or hide the flaw with embroidery. My favorite trick is to cut big pattern pieces apart (don’t forget to add new seam lines) so they will fit the smaller fabric pieces. On this peasant blouse, I cut the bodice pattern apart at the waist where the elastic tube is inserted. This allowed me to reduce the amount of dish cloth material. Take a few risks and stretch you’re design confidence. This isn’t your precious stash fabric – so have some fun and relax. There’s a very good chance you’ll end up loving your up-cycled creation!