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Thoughts, musings, questions and inspiration from the desk of our head rebel. We write about creativity, growing a small business, how-to tutorials and popular trends in handmaking.

Sewing with Reclaimed Textiles - How and Why I Started Upcycling

Jill Maldonado

I'm often asked why I started sewing with reclaimed textiles. There was no light bulb moment. There was no master plan. Rather, it was a journey that began almost 10 years ago, when someone gave me an old Singer sewing machine and I decided to learn how to sew.

On my first trip to a fabric store, I fell under the spell of all those lovely patterns and gorgeous colors and before I knew it, I was leaving with a bulging shopping bag and an equally empty wallet. It turned out, that yardage was so pretty and so precious that I couldn't bring myself to use it. I was paralyzed with the anxiety that I, sewing neophyte that I was, would destroy it if I actually touched it.  

Because I just couldn't get over that anxiety, I turned to a plentiful source of cheap material right in my own basement.

My two young kids were constantly outgrowing their clothes and even after handing down the nice things, I still had a big box of stuff that was ripped or stained. It made the perfect material for sewing projects because I wasn't afraid of wasting it, it was "free" and I had practically an endless supply. (Thanks to those growing children!)

As I honed my craft, I developed an appreciation for the unique beauty these well worn fabrics could bring to a finished project. In the same way people often say that handmade objects carry with them the energy of the maker and the love they put into making them, I felt that those old clothes brought their own story and energy to the things I was making.

As word got out what I was doing, people started bringing me bags of clothes that they couldn't pass along to friends or donate to charity*. I was grateful for the material and they were grateful not to have to throw them away.

Delving deeper into the issue of what to do with discarded clothes that couldn't be reworn, I "discovered" the global textile waste crisis. I couldn't believe that textiles make up 12% of the waste in landfills, while 95% of it is actually recyclable. In light of those facts, I found it astonishing that none of the recycling campaigns that I saw (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!) mentioned recycling textiles. We'd become experts at recycling glass, plastic, aluminum and paper, but we'd stopped there. In the meantime Americans continued to throw away an average of 80 pounds of textiles EACH per year.

There's a whole other story about how and why I decided to start my own business (that will be another post, someday). But when I DID start Material Rebellion it was founded on the belief that small changes can make a big impact. When I sell something beautiful that I've made from old jeans and t-shirts, I hope to raise awareness about how upcycling makes a positive impact on the environment. I hope, also, to give folks pause when they're about to throw something away. Maybe they'll consider how to repurpose it and make a beautiful object from something they would have previously considered trash.

* The truth is, you CAN donate imperfect clothing. Many charities sell the clothes that can't be worn again to manufacturers who recycle it into something brand new, like insulation, industrial rags or blanket forts ;)