It is perhaps hardly surprising that I should alight on sustainable crafts when I look back at my upbringing.
As I child I was unaware that my family was a dab hand a repurposing! My little dresses were often fashioned from the skirts of my mother’s own and aunts used to knit us sweaters for when we were on leave in the UK . As we were only here once a year, they were passed back at the end of our stay, unravelled and refashioned for our next trip, often with an added stripe or contrast cuffs as we grew!
For at least some of my early years my mother decided to home-school us to supplement what she saw as the shortcomings of the education system in colonial West Africa. For me this meant spelling lists included ‘chiffon’, ‘habotai’ and ‘taffeta’ (not that we used any of these!)
Maths lessons involved taking a body measurement, halving it, adding seam allowances and drawing our own patterns. A sunhat involved the circumference of the head and deciding on the diameter to create the inner circle of the brim. I was always allowed to make my own mistakes and learn from them. I can still remember when I forgot the seam allowance on a hat project and my little brother ended up with a beautiful flowered sunhat – much to his embarrassment and my fury as it was a favourite fabric!
Of course, I the above also meant I learnt to sew and knit! Later, as a teenager, when shift dresses were in fashion, we were able to continue with our upcycling as full skirts on earlier dresses were often suitable for a shift for a skinny 14 year old!
For my mother, reusing fabrics and wools was perfectly acceptable in the family – but goodness did she throw a wobbly when I discovered charity shops as a source for materials (particularly silks) for my coiled baskets! It still surprises me that it took so long for charity shop purchases to become acceptable and now it is quite ‘normal’ for anyone to show off a charity shop ‘find’.
Most of my baskets are now made to order using customers’ own fabrics as a way of remembering favourite dresses or blouses. Far more useful – and interesting – to have a basket in which you can recognise a favourite dress from when your daughter was three years old than to have a box of little dresses in the loft! I often make baskets from men’s silk ties, too, or colourful shirts. Where would they go otherwise? Probably land-fill, as the collars are usually too well-worn for a charity shop.
Basket made from bridesmaids’ dresses as a memory of a special day
My early feltmaking involved boiled wool. I would buy pure wool sweaters in charity shops and jumble sales and boil-wash them to create dense fabrics to make bags, slippers or decorative cuffs and small offcuts made flower brooches. Some of the patterns created by a Fair Isle knit were really lovely.
However, it wasn’t until 2010 that I discovered felt could be made direct from fibres. This is the perfect craft for me – the basic materials being just wool fibres, soapy water, and a bit of physical effort. Sustainable and bio-degradable.
Wool is, of course, a totally earth-friendly material. Sheep have to be shorn for their own comfort and health, so there is always a ready supply. I tend to use wool from British breeds when I want natural colours, my favourite being Blue Faced Leicester which is soft and durable and the natural fawns and browns are so gentle.
When I want other colours, I sometimes dye my own – starting with natural cream fibres and using silk dyes. For stronger colours I buy merino wool shorn from non-mulesed sheep. Mulesing is the removal of strips of wool-bearing skin from around the breech (buttocks) of a sheep to prevent myiasis, a parasitic infection otherwise called flystrike. This practice is banned in many countries so I am careful where I buy my wool.
A flower brooch made in natural wool and silk fibres and painted with silk dyes
Recognising that sustainability but also earth-friendly materials are important to me, it is perhaps hardly surprising that I launched Well Urned Rest last year, making biodegradable urns for cremation ashes. These are currently all felt, and made to order in colours to suit individual tastes, but recently I have also been asked to make one from a gentleman’s tweed jacket and line it with his favourite flannel shirt. What better way to celebrate a life?
The sections cut from the outer layer of this bowl were not wasted, but used to create ‘slate’ keyrings.
The picture below was made for an exhibition for the International Feltmakers Association Kaleidoscope exhibition. It is made up of many small offcuts and strips of silk fabrics, cotton gauze and part-felted wool rolled together, refelted and cut as ‘swissroll slices’, thus denuding my ‘offcuts bag’!
It is good to see that worldwide handcrafted items are increasingly appreciated, and better still that so many artisans recognise the value of repurposing, and reusing materials to give them a new lease of life.
So many craftspeople are gradually finding ways to use materials previously unrecognised as suitable for crafting – whether ceramics and glass in mosaics or redesigned jewellery, recreated furniture or textile manipulation – there is so much still to discover.