Upcycling at its best: Review of “Sewing Green”

Bike Bag

Bike bag made with upcycled fabrics by BikeDailyDesign via Etsy.

In his 2009 book The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World, brilliant peak oil commentator and Archdruid John Michael Greer argued that the coming energy and economic collapse would lead less to a dramatic nightmare implosion with mutant zombie bikers driven by insatiable cannibalism and more to a steady decline in which we’ll live off of the detritus of industrial civilization’s long orgy of abundance.

It would be a salvage economy that was most likely, he said, in which we turned myriad existing products, structures, and objects into something new for sale or trade.

It’s this way of thinking — use and thrive with what we have — that lead to Greer’s now famous saying, “collapse now and avoid the rush.”

The fabulous view from collapse

Looking back on it, I think I took his advice even before I’d heard the advice.

Since losing my job in 2009 — with my husband Erik losing his at the same time — our lives have been all about doing more with less. And because a big part of achieving success within this is the attitude you bring to it, we’ve actually found our lives to be more rich, creative, and abundant than ever before all while being less attached to either consumption or keeping up with Joneses — unless, of course, the Joneses just installed a wood burning stove they found at a thrift store or cobbled together a hoop house from discarded wire and plastic.

We love having stepped away from the industrial economy to a very large degree only to find our lives are as abundant as ever, and maybe more so.

For me, being both inside and outside of the industrial economy has already led to a changed way of making a living and making a life. It’s something that spurred me to get back into artisinal crafts — to making things again, either for my family or for sale to bring in a little money.

And much more so than I ever could with a Big Mac, I’m lovin’ it!

Working with my hands, being creative, bringing something interesting and useful into the world provides great satisfaction, and serves as a counterpoint to all the intellectualization and obsession with the thought-streams around collapse found in politics, culture and the economy — however important they are.

Finding a new way to create personally meaningful work is something that I think more people who are out of work are doing — however reviled the unemployed are by those who think they’re all freeloaders and failures. And it’s a way of life I think more could and would embrace if they too began to see the salvage economy as a way of recontextualizing the old into something new, and through that magic alone, competing viably in the marketplace of the real new economy.

In a sense, it’s all about upcycling, a process that is at once green, creative, and potentially profitable. One way that’s happening is with a good old needle and thread.

Green Sewing

Sewing Green: 25 Projects Made with Repurposed & Organic Materials by Betz White, STC Craft/A Melanie Falick Book (2009), 144pp, softcover, $16.96.

There’s a lot of books out there on crafting and artisan-level work. They’re usually how-to’s that combine techniques, project ideas, and patterns. Some are wonderful, but too often the projects either don’t stand the test of time, or are a real stretch in terms of the use-value of the end product — busy work instead of meaningful work.

Betz White’s Sewing Green: 25 Projects with Repurposed & Organic Materials is a real exception. Beautifully designed, easy to read, and full of great project ideas, the book is a worthy addition to any crafter’s library.

Green is as green does

But more than the above, White makes a case for “green” — for truly upcycling existing materials into new products or uses — with conviction. She loads her book with ample examples of what is authentically green, offering real insight into why this is critical to life today, and provides great examples of people (mostly women) who are doing this with style and success.

This book is not about guilt and sacrifice; it’s about creating style with a conscience, and merging our love of craft with our love of the planet. When it comes to sewing, I have found that I am most satisfied with my projects when I use materials that I know won’t have a negative impact on the planet — or better yet, may have a positive impact! Two ways I do this are by using repurposed fabrics or fabrics made from organic or sustainable materials.

While repurposing is hip right now, White says it has deep roots in our country’s history, when frugality and creativity merged to form such essentially American items as patchwork quilts and penny rugs. She goes on to give examples from Hollywood movies that show repurposing as a big part of our cultural mindset.

How to upcycle

When it comes right down to it, White is all about the salvage economy. Old sweater? New stuffed animal. Shirt with a thrashed and irreparable sleeve? Snip, pin, and stitch and voila — now you’re an apron.

Offering tips about how to look at one object as the potential raw materials for something else altogether — and where to find such resources — White also talks about how to create a crafting work space that draws on the same sense of upcycling, mixed with a similarly new earthy style, to create a harmonious vibe in which to get inspired and work.

But my favorite thing of all may be the inspiration found in the women doing this work already. I’ve written before about the slow clothes movement and its biggest proponent, Alabama Chanin, whom White covers in her book. But she also profiles other artist-businesswomen like Crispina ffrench, and activists like Wendy Tremayne (who’s leading the charge for clothing-based swap meets), among others.

Finally Sewing Green gives suggestions about how to work with others to create the kind of artisan collectives and happenings that make it easier for everyone to get their work done, stay inspired, and be connected, all while lowering expenses and the demands of running a business alone.

And, I love the quotes she adds from luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi, who reminds us that,

There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.

Leaving the industrial economy (at least as much as you can), demands a rejection of the kind of goods that come on the backs of the wage slaves and energy slaves that undermine the integrity of the final product. At least using mostly what already exists out there, rather than buying more cheap, imported goods, can help in breaking the chain.

Coupling a great sense of design with truly worthy and meaningful information this is a craft book that stands above many others in its more holistic look at the merging of content and form.

–Lindsay Curren, Lindsay’s List

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