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Mindful craft
Recycling old junk for craft materials isn’t new, but it has become a significant part of a growing trend toward sustainable living. If you enjoy a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) lifestyle you have probably found yourself stuck deciding which is better, buying locally, buying organic, or recycling for your craft supplies. At times it can be a mind boggling conundrum, but in the end the difference between the choices can be small. What really counts is that you are considering your craft and its impact on the environment. Like many, I consider my place in the world of excess, consumption and waste on a daily basis with every choice I make, from using paper towels and plastic baggies to sourcing yarn and textiles for my next craft project. What surprised me most was that making these decisions not only made me more mindful of my craft purchases but my projects took on more meaning themselves.
A few years ago, I was paging through a book and saw a handbag that had been made from an old woolen sweater with beautiful Fair Isle pattern work. The sweater had been shrunk in the washing machine and the resulting fabric was cut and sewn to make the bag. It reminded me of the beautiful cashmere sweater in my closet that had been permanently stained when I leaned against a freshly painted door frame. It was only the second time I wore it and I couldn’t bear to accept its demise, so the hapless sweater languished in my closet for seven years. But now…now that sweater suddenly had a new purpose. Shrinking the sweater was a little scary, but I had

nothing to lose, and my first felted sweater bag was a little wonky, but it worked. With my curiosity piqued, I wanted to see what else I could make with things I once considered useless junk. So, I hit the second-hand store with an open mind and a few bucks in my wallet.
Thrifted Relic Bag
As I was cruising the aisles, of my local thrift store, I was drawn to the racks of colorful sheets and linens. The assortment included everything from vintage patterns to contemporary designer sheets with lots of plain white cotton linens in between. I wanted to give them a new purpose and thought of making a crocheted rag rug. Excited by my new endeavor and all of the ideas that were racing through my head, I felt compelled to share it with someone. My mother, who grew up in a small town in Bavaria, remembered how she and her four sisters would rip their old clothes and linens into strips and roll them into balls. When there were enough of the fabric balls, her grandmother would gather them up and send them to a lady in nearby town. A few months later they would receive a crocheted rug that was big enough to fill a room. My mother recalled how exciting it was to see the transformation from something old and worn to something colorful and new again. Her story made my discovery even more meaningful and my stitching more mindful. Later that day, my kids enthusiastically tore the sheets into long strips and I began to crochet the rug. As I worked, I thought of my mom and her family, and of the women in the past who found a practical way of turning the old and worn into something new and fresh whether it was in the name of art or frugality.
Whenever I finish a new project I get a sense of accomplishment, but if some of my project was made using reclaimed pieces and parts there's extra good karma points to top it off. Next time you need a pair of purse straps, some new yarn or a handful of colorful beads, hit the thrift store and see what they have to offer. If you find yourself stuck in a creative rut and need inspiration to get it going again, look at those things you can't let go yet never wear in a whole new way.
Where to find recycled materials
The best place to look for salvageable projects is in your closet. Before you toss, or donate, worn and outdated clothes, accessories, bags, and linens, give them a once-over for crafty possibilities. Worn out bags may have removable straps, clasps, fabric and hardware. Old clothes can be cut up and used as bag linings, rugs, or quilts. Sweaters that don't fit can be unraveled to make a new one that will. Shabby linens can be torn into strips and reworked into a knit or crocheted rug. Belts can be refashioned into a bag strap and broken jewelry can be easily taken apart and used again. Garments, yarns, and linens that look dull or stained can be dyed to give it a fresh color that will suit your needs. Of course you should always remove buttons before tossing a tattered shirt.
Thrifted Woven Bag
If you're hungry for more unique project supplies, head to the local thrift store or hit the weekend yard sales and flea markets. Check out Freecycle.org, Craigslist.com, or your local recycling network for more options. Don't forget to hunt for knitting needles, crochet hooks, and bags of sewing thread, ribbon, embroidery hoops and yarn.

Images courtesy of Julie Armstrong Holetz.

What to look for
When searching for items to salvage, it's important to consider a few things that will make harvesting your project more successful. Here are a few tips to help you decide if the recycling project is right for you.
Is it what you need?
It's important to consider what the material is made of. If you're looking for sweaters or scarves to felt, then you will need to make sure the item is made of 100% animal fiber and has not been treated to prevent shrinking. To find out what your item is made of, simply check the label. Look for fibers like wool, alpaca, or cashmere. Some blends, like wool/acrylic, may felt but you will ensure better success if you use something that has at least 70% animal fiber. The care instructions on the label can also give you a clue whether it will shrink or not. If it is machine washable, put it back, it won't shrink. If it says something like "hand wash in cold water" or "do not wring", then it will likely felt. If you're looking for material to make projects that involve sewing, play with the fabric to make sure it's what you need. Personally, I love cotton fabrics that will be sturdy and can hold up as a quilt top, crocheted rug, or bag lining. Stretchy fabrics might be more difficult to re-purpose as they are tricky to sew with, but they still work fine in a stripped rag project.
Bags have a lot to offer, but before you buy take a moment to consider how much of it is really recyclable. Look for straps, closures, drawstring cords, rings, zippers and reusable fabric.

Finally, make sure you're getting what you're looking for. Is the leather real or fake? Are the straps and closures sewn or glued on? Does everything work properly? Understanding how the item is constructed will make it easier when it's time to take it apart.
Is it worth it?
It's just as important to consider whether the item you want to recycle is worth the time and effort it will take to pick apart, deconstruct, or unravel it. A project can be as simple as cutting off some cool vintage buttons or unhooking a strap that is connected to a bag by a clasp. Then there are projects that require a lot more time, like ripping out seams and unraveling an entire sweater. Taking the time to scrutinize the item before you start will save you from pulling out your hair later.
Thrifted Thread
One of the biggest time investments involves unraveling a sweater in order to reuse the yarn in another project. When you unravel a sweater you work backwards from how the sweater was constructed the first time. With this type of project it's best to scrutinize the item thoroughly before you start. Start by checking out the fiber content; cotton, acrylic, and smooth wool yarns can be easily frogged*. However, yarns that are fuzzy or have lots of nubs can be frustrating as they tend to get tangled up when you unravel them. Also, make sure you like the weight of the yarn. Obviously there is no label to tell you the weight, or thickness, of the yarn, but you can easily check by holding up a small ruler and counting the stitches per inch in the knitted garment to get a rough idea. Of course, you can just forget the ruler and simply look at the stitches. If they're itty bitty, the yarn is probably pretty thin and will require tiny needles or hooks when you go to stitch it up. Finally, and most importantly, check to see if the seams are serged. Serged seams tell you that the edges have been cut and the yarn will not unravel in one continuous strand. Instead, you'll end up with lots and lots of short strands. You don't have to be an expert to recognize a serged seam, simply turn the garment inside out and stretch the fabric so you can see the seam closely. If you can easily identify the piece of yarn (usually the same yarn used to create the garment) that was used to sew the two pieces together, then your sweater should be easy to take apart. If you can't see the seam's stitches or it looks like a bunch of sewing thread worked in a tight zig-zag pattern then move on, this sweater isn't worth it.
Reduce Reuse Reinvent
Whether you're a penny pincher or you're in it for the thrill of the hunt, thrifting and recycling craft supplies can be economical, fun, and good for the earth. No doubt, you'll be excited when you score a cheap handbag with stitched on leather straps or some vintage plastic beads in pristine condition, and you'll find that ripping sheets is not only a fun activity for the kids, it's a great way to vent when you've had an absolutely no good, very bad day.
*Frog is a term used amongst stitchers that means "to rip" or unravel your stitches. It's a play on words that honors the frog who says "ribbit" as in "rip it".

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COMMENTS (36):

Thanks, I have been meaning to clean out some closets, now I can try to apply your principles to stuff I may or may not throw out.
- andrea s, 2014-01-27 09:45:54


Love your article. I'd thought of un-knitting sweaters or scarves for the yarn, but I'd never thought of the beads or things you could get at a thrift store to re-use. Great ideas. Thanks!
- Marcie H, 2013-08-03 10:43:31


Great suggestion for reusing bag parts. I have old bags in the back of my closet that are too beat up to use or donate, I think I'll take them apart and give them new life.
- Ellyn A, 2010-03-31 12:31:53


Great article!
- Sarah M, 2010-03-27 09:46:40


I've found some great deals by looking through yard sale clothing to find knitted items to unravel and remake as hats, scarves, afghan squares, etc.
- Erica F, 2010-03-25 05:09:57


Lovely suggestions! I've unraveled a few sweaters for the wool, but never considered reinventing bags from the thrifts. Thanks for the food for thought!
- Heather, 2010-03-21 06:01:02


This article inspired me to take a trip to the local thrift shop to find some new straps and material!
- Jes D, 2010-03-20 05:44:27


love to see this article, when times were abundant, friends thought i was crazy to cruz the thrifts for supply's. now there asking me how to find what they need. would love to see more projects involving recycling from the thrifts.
- POSEY G, 2010-03-17 04:51:28


Thanks so much for the heads up idea for felting a damaged cashmere sweater. I share your experience (and pain) of damage to a new treasure. Now a new use instead of a clutzy reminder.
- Sandra T, 2010-03-12 12:59:34


Love the artical. Some ideas here I never thought of. Thanks!
- Karie-Linn C, 2010-03-08 01:06:42


I love this article, and was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't just about unraveling sweaters. I've been sewing and crafting with recycled materials for years (before it was cool!) and I'm glad that it's catching on with a wider audience.
- Kim T, 2010-03-05 08:26:53


Hi Julie Your article on reuse, reinvent is quite timely. I raised my eyebrow at my oldest daughter when she came over to my home with a dress that she had purchased from the thrift store because she love the buttons. She transfered those buttons to her winter coat. It never occured to me to look at items that I give away often in that light. For items that I make I always buy new items to emblish them. Now I will look at everything in a totaly new light and I have you to thank for this. Have a good and inventive day. Deborah
- deborah j, 2010-03-04 01:22:28


LOOOOVE LOVE LOVE going thrifting… there's so much good "stuff" out there! And a lot of it is very inspiring. Thanks for a great article!
- Shannon M, 2010-03-03 02:15:23


Makes me look at what I have in a totally different way. I have all kinds of supplies.
- Betty D, 2010-03-03 12:47:11


Enter your comment here.
- Betty D, 2010-03-03 12:46:36


Fantastic article - now I have an excuse to keep all those old bags I have cluttering up the cupboard!
- , 2010-03-03 04:05:55


This is a great article with specifics on how we can each contribute to a more sustainable environment. Yep, my closet and bureau contain the first stashes that can get re-purposed!
- G K, 2010-03-02 11:57:45


Great ideas, I'm going to start looking at things in a whole new perspective.
- Shannon B699, 2010-03-02 01:50:20


This is fantastic! Something my church craft group will definitely be doing more of. Thanks for the ideas.
- Kelly C692, 2010-03-02 11:24:01


Amazing - I love all of the great ways you can reuse things you never thought had recycle value. Great article!
- Wendy H, 2010-03-02 09:30:59


recycle, reuse and reinvent is my new motto, and something fun to do w/ the lil ones.
- Tm J, 2010-03-02 02:03:41


Great piece! I'm big into recycling my own stuff as well as thrift store finds. It would be great to see more articles along this line.
- carol b, 2010-03-01 07:54:20


excellent ideas - especially on checking for serging on thrift sweaters. i have been ripping up old worn out t-shirts for a rag rug for a few months now (every once in a while i grab an old t-shirt and take out frustrations on it - lol)
- Mary Lou R, 2010-03-01 07:14:17


It always makes me feel better to reuse something rather than trash it. Great article. Good info and very inspiring!
- stephanie j, 2010-03-01 12:56:04


Great article! It's inspiring me to go digging in my closet!
- Lisa L, 2010-03-01 12:32:51


honestly it never even dawned on me to do the 'recycle' bit. I'm going to be hitting the salvation army tonight!
- , 2010-02-24 03:03:00


I've been saving little pieces of things like this forever (much to my husband's displeasure... he has actually managed to talk me out of being as big a pack rat as I used to be). I just love finding new ways to use old objects! I recently made a cool chunky scarf from the frogged yarn of an ugly bulky shrug bought from a street vendor in Italy. Amongst my yarn stash I keep a tin full of found buttons, beads, D-rings, clasps, etc. Now if I'd just get over my fear of sewing I'll open up a whole new realm of reuse :)
- Amy M, 2010-02-18 12:07:47


The subject of this article brings out the best in me. Nothing can stir my creative energy as much as the excitement of rescuing "trash." I feel so connected to my ancestors and my own contributions to this planet when I discover new ideas and resources for reusing discarded items. Please keep these types of articles coming.
- Jacqueline S, 2010-02-17 07:41:33


Loved the article & can identify with the sentiment. LOVE the "thrill of the hunt".
- nancy a, 2010-02-12 04:48:43


This article really was an inspiration for me! I've actually never thought about buying a pullover just for frogging it. But since I've read this one I seem to search on every market I pass by. The first time I saw the perfect used pullover but didn't dare to buy it. (It might still find someone who wants it the way it is.) I still regret this. Next time I'll be more courageous, I think.
- Sabine P, 2010-02-11 09:04:33


Reduce Reuse ReINVENT! I admit that I get a deep sense of satisfaction, perhaps even a little thrill, when I discover a clever and useful way to re-employ an object that has been lying forgotten, neglected, or dormant and is seemingly destined for the trash bin. Were you taught to take good care of materials and tools? I was. The conviction that "things are worth our care" stems both from respect for the source of the materials, ideas, time, and talent necessary to create them in the first place, but also from the understanding that energy ought not be wasted. Why purchase a new strap for that bag when there is an object that can serve as a one-of-a-kind strap and add a unique touch at the same time? Things can have a rich second life by being repaired or put to use in a new way. It is this re-invention that so tickles my brain. An added bonus is that choosing to re-use keeps energy in my wallet. Thanks for the article!
- Linda R, 2010-02-10 02:29:25


It's nice to recycle and it's nice too to have some good quality yarn and stuff at the same time. Thrift shops are usually full of stuff worthy a second life
- Patrizia M, 2010-02-04 05:08:57


Interesting article. I have unraveled a couple of sweaters for yarn in the past, and have lately been buying wool sweaters and felting them to make toys.
- debbie c, 2010-02-03 11:25:27


I enjoy the recyling of old to become new, i have been doing that to some of my own projects. Now to check out purses for the hardware!
- Citabria S, 2010-02-03 10:41:02


Finding quality yarn is difficult here in our hot climate (Qld, Oz). But I have bought up big lots of needles and notions, patterns and even knitting machines (amazing accessories to be found with these). I love to hit the garage sales, flea markets and op shops. My latest thing is to find used beads in necklaces and bracelets - lovely beads at a fraction of the new price to decorate my crocheted and knitted items. Cathy
- Cathryn B, 2009-11-14 03:20:02


You would be much admired here in New England because they pride themselves on never wasting anything. Great idea about the bag.
- Cynthia G, 2009-11-04 02:59:10



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