Thoughts on recycling textiles

I am so ready for spring! I am itching to dust off my sewing room, which resides in an unheated outbuilding. I now own not one but two sewing machines…and don’t fully know how to operate either one of them. So I keep stitching things by hand. I’m becoming more and more interested in recycling old clothing and other textiles, not just because it’s inexpensive (or free), but because it can be fun, creative, and extremely satisfying. 

Rummaged through our rag bin and pulled out a pair of jeans, a pair of khaki cotton pants, three men’s dress shirts (two of them all cotton), a pair of flannel pajama bottoms with a torn crotch, and a cotton rag. 

Darned the tear in the crotch of the pj pants. It took a long time and I probably should’ve just patched it, but it was good darning practice. They’re a little tight on me, so either someone will wear them or maybe they’ll just go back into my scraps pile.

Took apart the pair of worn-out jeans. I told a friend that I was worried I’d get over excited and tear out a hem or a seam I’d later wish I’d left alone. She replied, “That’s just part of the journey.” And I immediately felt calmer, and even more eager to get ripping. I’ve learned that ripping seams is incredibly therapeutic. Accidentally removed the pull from the zipper – whoops! But quickly reminded myself, “That’s just part of the journey,” after my initial panic.

The waistband is perfect for a shoulder strap for a bag. And I really love the color changes from dark blue to faded denim where the seams were turned under. The frayed white threads provide so much interest and texture. I never would’ve seen a pair of old jeans like this if I hadn’t taken a pair apart. I can really see how it’s constructed, which will be instructional later, when I start constructing new things. You learn so much from taking things apart. I even got out my iron, laid out a bath towel on the floor, and ironed out the pieces. 

Mended a worn area on the elbow of one of K’s wool jackets. Ripped out my first effort. Second effort was much more careful, but I just couldn’t see very well. I used black thread against a dark background, and did my best to make the mend as invisible as possible. I’m not entirely happy with the second mend, but it’ll do for now. Managed not to snag the lining, so good for me.

Brainstorming window treatments that provide light, privacy, visual interest, and insulation in winter, and are also easy to sew, easy to clean, and use as little material as possible (and are therefore inexpensive). To that end, I’ve decided to make reversible, flat panels for each window. They will hang on tension rods, and I’ll do some decorative stitching across them that will allow them to be hung at various lengths.

Stopped in at a local thrift shop. I found a few really nice pieces – some of which I’d potentially like to use for material. Mostly cottons and flannel, and a small woven wool blanket. I even found a set of sheets for C’s bed, and a twin flannel plaid duvet cover that needs a little love. I’m considering inserting another twin bedspread (or two if they’re worn thin and soft) – and boro stitching the whole thing in large stitches, and kind of turning it into a quilt. I couldn’t say the price of any of these items as none of them were marked. The total bill came to just over sixteen dollars.

 

Future Projects:

  • a little roll-up sewing case
  • Curtains.
  • A satchel purse with a cross-body shoulder strap.
  • Assorted smaller bags.
  • A “faux-dori” wallet.
  • find one of those indigo cotton jackets and embellish it with stitching
  • a scarf
  • cross-shoulder pinafore smock apron thing, in canvas, or linen. Maybe both.
  • pincushions made from the Harris tweed coasters I brought back from Scotland but don’t use. I could put some stuffing between them, sew the edges together, and in an hour have myself a pin cushion that will forever remind me of my trip to Lewis.

I love making the most out of as little as possible. With cooking, foraging, sewing, mending, gardening – I just want to be clever and work smart and be creative and transform things from trash to treasure.

Any time I can avoid spending money, yet end up with something useful and beautiful, I feel a little bit freer. Like I won a tiny battle. Like I slipped out of a snare.

 

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Make do and mend

My way of going about things is not always the most direct. My thoughts swirl, coalesce, disperse, and coalesce again – a murmuration of starlings over an open field. It can take weeks, months, even a year or two to get from thought, to intention, to actually doing a given activity. But doing things can be expensive.

I don’t think, “I’d like to try X,” and then go buy all the stuff I need to do X. Instead, I first look around my house for things that could be used or repurposed for X. It’s amazing, the useful bits and pieces that suddenly reveal themselves, once you start looking at your things in a more flexible way. I keep my eyes and ears open to opportunities to do or learn about X. Maybe there’s a free class at my local library? Maybe someone on Craigslist or my local Buy Nothing group is giving unwanted X supplies away? I add “X supplies” to a list I keep on my phone of treasures to look for at yard sales and thrift shops. I tell everyone I know that I’m looking for certain things. I start shaking things up at home, maybe rearranging furniture, just a little bit. Shifting. Making space. Being patient.

Currently, X = mending clothing.

Now I would no more go out and buy new supplies to mend clothing than I would buy new bones to make stock. The point of both (to me) is to creatively turn bits and pieces that would otherwise be discarded (i.e., garbage) into something useful and beautiful (i.e., gold). I find this deeply satisfying.

Gathered up all of my sewing things into one place: needles, pins, thread, embroidery floss, seam ripper, measuring tape, darning egg, and various scissors. Somewhere in my house still lurks a crochet peyote button pincushion; I look forward to finding it again. I also gathered all of my scrap fabrics and notions into a couple of large plastic shopping bags so I can move things from room to room and be able to see it all at once. A thing you can’t find is a thing you don’t have.

Noted any items still needed, and set out to find them secondhand. Purchased a packet of darning needles and a few hanks of embroidery floss; found two embroidery hoops and a few squares of scrap fabric at our village thrift shop. Altogether, I spent around ten dollars. The only things bought new were the needles and the floss.

Then I had a good rummage through the laundry, sock drawers, and closets, looking for clothes or other fabric items in need of repair or no longer used. This turned up the following:

wool socks with threadbare heels

wool socks with threadbare heels,

 

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jeans with a hole in the pocket,

 

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and a badly torn fitted king sheet that I stopped mending only when I ran out of cotton thread.

I also took apart a too-small canvas hat and saved the pieces for scrap.

I have no idea how to deal with my ends, and I could really use a piece of tailor’s chalk. My sore fingertips remind me to find a thimble, too.

Thank goodness I’ve been sick all weekend or I might not have accomplished anything at all.

Catching up and cleaning out

Been meaning to do a catch-up post. Things get so busy with work and home obligations, and at the end of the day I just want to sit and turn off my brain for awhile. Finally got a weekend with no appointments, and it’s felt like a vacation. I got up early and spent all day in the kitchen, prepping and cooking, taking inventory of my pantry, fridge, and freezers, and having a general culling and clean out. It feels wonderful! Every time I open a cupboard, I smile.

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Before the purge. I’d already removed some items before this photo was taken.

I keep thinking about something Sean Sherman said at the talk he gave at Brown University: he said industrialized, highly processed food is prison food. It keeps us sick, stupid, and passive. Spending a little more money where possible for good, whole, local, densely nutritious food is money in the bank for our health and general well being. I’ve pulled together a whole shelf in my pantry for wild foods and seasonings. I love looking beyond the garden, to the wider landscape, for food. I’ve been reorganizing my pantry, and really considering what’s there and where it came from. I’ve now devoted an entire pantry shelf to wild and/or indigenous foods: spruce tips, pecans, dried blueberries, curly dock flour, amaranth, dried mushrooms, mint, wild carrot seed, wild bay, monarda, peppergrass, rose hips, spruce tip vinegar, nettles, spice bush twigs and berries, local honey and maple syrup, deer jerky, corn silk, and more. Most of these cost me nothing, or very little. These foods add much-needed variety, flavor, and nutrition to our meals while reinforcing our relationship with our landscape.

It’s rained all this weekend, giving me ample opportunity to focus on indoors projects. Took a long, hard look at my spice cabinet. Condensed a lot of things into mixes. Relabeled stuff. Swapped jars. Took nearly a dozen little bottles of spiced salt blends and rubs and added those to my pre-made mixes. Curry salt went into the curry powder, rosemary salt went into the Herbs d’ Provence. Most of the rubs and “Southwest” or “Mexican” salts went into my taco seasoning blend (most had the same ingredients anyway, plus salt). I’ll have to remember not to add extra salt to my recipes when using these blends, but I think it will be fine. If I’d left all those little bottles as they were, I know I’d never use their contents. This way, they’re incorporated into things I already use. Fewer things. Better.

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Flavored salts and spice rubs I condensed.

Also organized my recipe folder: desserts, baking, bean dishes, vegetables, meats, salads and pickles, condiments and dressings, and soups and stews. As I use a recipe from a given category, I’ll clip it to the front of its pile. The goal is that after a year, I’ll easily see which recipes I used a lot and which ones I don’t make anymore. Those I haven’t used will be archived to another folder, stored with my cook books.


What I’ve Been Cooking

  • Roasted Brussels sprouts with lemon and bacon
  • Curry with sweet potato, carrots, and sausage
  • Wild rice
  • Butter
  • Wild rice and mushroom pilaf
  • Filipino chicken adobo (made twice!)
  • Frittata with roasted veg (note: every squash must be Delicata from now on – no peeling!)
  • Fried cabbage with bacon
  • Oklahoma baked beans. I found it written on a recipe card, in my own handwriting. It must have come from my mother. It’s only two cans of red beans (I used red kidney), an onion, a bell pepper (the recipe called for green but I used red), honey, and two cups of ketchup, baked uncovered for two hours at 350F. Absolutely delicious with crunchy tortilla chips – even better the next day, cold.
  • Chowder with cod, potatoes, and smoked trout. Luscious.
  • Collards with coconut milk and peanut butter – a new favorite.
  • Made juniper salt from crushing ⅛ C juniper berries (taste like orangey citrus at first but the finish is very bitter) and adding them to ½ C kosher salt. I told K we’ll probably laugh at ourselves in five years’ time – “Remember when we picked those nasty, bitter old juniper berries because we didn’t know how to tell if they were good or not?”
  • Made fresh elderberry tincture this past week, diluting 190 proof vodka half with water. Will let it sit for six weeks, shaking the jars every so often. I only wish I’d made it three months ago, with this bad flu season.
  • Checked my fermenting chile sauce – it is still REALLY HOT. Hoping it will mellow a little bit, eventually.
  • Mushroom broth – used up some dried mushroom bits I’d kept for stock, plus a package of dried enoki I discovered in the back of the pantry (who knows how long that’s been there), a jar of minced and dried mushrooms and onions I dehydrated after we made mushroom ketchup, and a large freezer bag full of vegetable skins and a few chicken bones. Put nearly six quarts in the freezer.
  • Tuna salad with orange bell pepper, celery, chopped apricot paste, pecans, capers, lemon juice, and curry powder.
  • K said to buy more BBQ sauce, so I made some (from a recipe I was only able to find because I’d just reorganized my recipe folder, yay!) and decanted it back into a plastic sauce bottle.
  • Banana bread
  • Lentil tacos with red cabbage slaw.

My grocery store find of the week was three pounds salt cod on clearance for $5/lb. These went into the freezer – I have a great Jamie Oliver recipe for Zuppa di baccala.

Bought two punts of blueberries (on sale), and a package of fresh sage that I’m drying.

Been missing the wild onions of Oklahoma, so I’ve been grabbing a couple bunches of green onions (aka scallions) whenever I’m at the store. I find they last so much longer if I just slice them up fine right when I get them home and keep them in a jar in the fridge. This way they’re also prepped and ready to use over salads, curries, soups – just about anything.


Finances and Sundry Purchases

Last month we spent around $250 on groceries for the three of us. I’m hoping to keep it under $300 this month. We saved enough during our no-spend January for an extra mortgage payment, plus a little more to put back into emergency savings. The recently implemented federal tax cuts have added an extra $30 onto our paychecks. We plan to put this toward our mortgage at the end of the year.

My excitement over visible mending techniques for clothing is slowly building. I’ve gathered up all of my material and a bunch of sewing supplies. Purchased a packet of darning needles, which I see as an investment in making our clothes last longer and possibly as a creative outlet, as I’m keen to learn boro and sashiko mending techniques.

Found a vintage 8 or 9” Wagner cast iron skillet in excellent condition in an estate sale store – we don’t strictly need it but we will get a lifetime of good use from it. I paid $25 plus tax. K washed and re-seasoned it, then cooked some eggs on it, with beautiful results. Then we made pancakes to use up some of his old sourdough starter. They were slightly tangy and delicious with my homemade butter and local maple syrup.

Purchased a pair of boiled wool clogs on ebay for just over $20, including shipping. These usually go for around $100. They are well made and comfortable and I’m very pleased with them.

 

 


And I think that about does it for my catch-up post! Lots going on, and often very little time (or energy) to write it all down. Feels so good to trim down and get organized. What have you accomplished over the first half of February that you’re most proud of?

Sean Sherman’s Wild Rice Pilaf

My new love is a recipe from Sean Sherman, aka the Sioux Chef, for Wild Rice Pilaf with Wild Mushroom, Roasted Chestnuts, and Dried Cranberries. As usual, I winged it a bit, based on what I had to hand. Instead of chestnuts, I chopped and toasted pecans and walnuts, and instead of dried cranberries, I threw in a handful of raisins and some dried blueberries. Added a couple of small sprigs of cedar to flavor the rice, plus a rounded tablespoon of wood ash from our stove instead of salt. For mushrooms, I roasted some cultivated maitake (aka Hen of the Woods, Grifola frondosa). In a fit of inspiration, I also added some chopped venison jerky that my sister sent me for Christmas. A touch of maple syrup and a sprinkle of smoked salt finished things off.

I can’t tell how you absolutely delicious this dish was – earthy, nutty, chewy, with unexpected bursts of sweetness from the dried fruit. It was filling and satisfying without being heavy – a wonderful feeling. You can find this recipe – and so many more beautiful dishes – in Sherman’s outstanding and thought-provoking book The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. While I still love a good cornbread stuffing, this wild rice pilaf will definitely take pride of place at our next Thanksgiving table.

Making butter.

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This past weekend, I made butter. I knew it could be done by simply shaking cream in a jar, but that seemed like an awful lot of work for someone with access to electricity and a food processor. I watched a few YouTube tutorials to work up my courage, took a deep breath, and went for it. Poured a quart of fresh, whole cream into the food processor and buzzed with rapt attention until…magic happened.

I tell you, it was so stinking easy, I can’t believe everyone doesn’t do this. I didn’t salt this batch, just to keep things simple. And I immediately understood why butter paddles look the way they do, with their little grooves – and sorely wished I had a pair. Didn’t do the best job of rinsing and squeezing out all the buttermilk, and will definitely do things a little differently next time. But the results were beautiful and delicious, and the entire process took no more than 15 minutes.

 

Weekending: duck eggs, maple tapping, and more stock

It’s been one of those hectic weeks where I get home from work feeling utterly wiped out and all I want to do is sit and drink wine and watch funny British panel shows on my laptop until I fall asleep. Then Saturday finally rolls around (and a warm one at that! Oh joy! Oh bliss!) and I get a simply enormous amount done, and feel so much better about myself.

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The day started with a dozen beautiful duck eggs from a neighbor through our local Buy Nothing Group. I gave her some mushrooms in trade. Looking forward to doing a bit of baking with them. Also brought home several pounds of freecycled frozen enoki mushrooms. Hoping to salvage them; if that proves unworkable, they’ll be compost.

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Spent $17 on some really lovely veg at the farmers’ market, including a new one to me: sunflower greens. They’re actually sprouted sunflower seeds, and they’re delicious. I threw some into a cheese omelette when I came home.

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I was nearly out of dry shampoo, so I made another batch. Just the thing when your hair is looking a little bit oily but it’s so cold or you’re in such a hurry that washing with water is impractical or extremely inconvenient.

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We’re also having a bit of unseasonably warm weather – a much-appreciated break from the arctic temperatures we’ve endured for most of January.

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“Nearly fifty?!” we exclaimed, and immediately ran outside in our boots, flannels, and old sweatshirts – but importantly, not our coats.

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We took down part of our back fence. The posts have rotted and some sections blew over in the last big storm. I’m considering putting in rhododendrons as a living privacy fence, but that is a project for another season, and possibly for someone else’s budget. :/

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And lastly, K tapped our maple trees. The warm days but freezing nights we’ve been having lately mean that the sap is rising. A drill, a few store-bought spiles, plus a few soda bottles hung with nail and bailing wire are all the equipment we need. Not allowing perfect to be the enemy of good, K doesn’t bother to fully boil the sap all the way down to syrup (which would require gallons of sap and an outdoor cooker); instead, he just reduces it in small batches on our stove until it’s more like a sugar water to sweeten herbal teas and kombucha.

In sad news, I noticed the bottom of my iron bird bath has cracked from ice over winter. Now it’s only suitable for a fire pit. I may need to scavenge more bricks to make that work.

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I think I’ve done fairly well with my No-Spend January, although I have had a nagging case of the wanties, mostly where shoes and clothing are involved. I need to replace a few pieces of my winter capsule wardrobe. Also, my well-loved boiled wool clogs are falling apart. I’ve considered several options for repairing them, but so far nothing’s worked well. I will probably find a lightly used replacement pair on ebay.

Cooked up a pot of black beans last night, to eat with the last of the corn bread. Today I’m making stock again, and have cleaned out the freezers to do so. Tonight I’m going to use a few of those lovely duck eggs to make an English classic: Toad in the Hole. Might even try my hand at a few Yorkshire puddings, while I’m at it.

One last thing. I’ve discovered these videos of a young Chinese woman gardening and cooking in what appear to be very “traditional” ways (e.g., from scratch, using food she’s grown in her garden or foraged, with no packaging, no plastic utensils or tools, and using wood fires, drying racks, and fermentation crocks). These videos are incredibly calming to watch. I don’t know anything about her, and I have so many questions: Is all this her land? Does she have help with the garden? Is she a university-educated young woman from a wealthy family who’s cleverly tapped into the Chinese version of the American hipster handicraft market? How does she support herself? Why is she always alone? Since I can’t read or speak Chinese, I may never know. But I am watching every single video, because they inspire me and bring my blood pressure right down. See what you think.

 

2018: Week 2 overview.

FOOD

Brought my lunch to work every day. Spent a whopping $82 on groceries, which feels like a lot.

This week’s meals were a bit of Britain-meets-Mexico (which, honestly, kind of sums up my chief culinary influences):

  • Made a sort of cottage pie with ground chicken, lentils, and sweet potato mash. Used half a bag of lentils, a pound of ground chicken, an onion, a can of tomato paste, half a cup of frozen peas, plus the sweet potato mash I made over the weekend. Sweet potatoes and ground chicken were free from a friend; the rest I had in my pantry and freezer. Came out really tasty.
  • Made shredded BBQ chicken tacos in my slow cooker with boneless, skinless breasts a friend gave us. Used store-bought BBQ sauce from Aldi because we had it but I really prefer to make my own. (Tip: Rhubarb makes a terrific BBQ sauce.) Used half a large cabbage – sliced it thin and tossed it with a dressing of mayo, red wine vinegar, and a bit of sugar. This made a quick, crunchy slaw for the tacos.
  • Made a creative colcannon by mashing up a couple pounds or so of potatoes with butter and half-and-half. Cooked up a quarter pound of bacon and the remaining half head of cabbage, sliced thin and sautéd with a splash of homemade scrap apple vinegar. Also threw in three chopped caramelized onion “muffins” from the freezer, a bit of sour cream, and the last dregs of honey mustard swished out of the bottle with a bit of homemade scrap apple vinegar. The results don’t look particularly appetizing, but I assure you, it’s delicious. The addition of the caramelized onions really put it over the top. Perfect stick-to-your-ribs comfort food for cold winter days.
  • In order to use up a gifted package of pork stew meat, I made pozole, a traditional Mexican tomato-based pork stew with beans and hominy. Roughly followed this recipe, but instead of using a can of crushed tomatoes, I remembered we had three small bags of dehydrated tomatoes in our freezer from (gasp!) two summers ago, when a relative generously but unexpectedly brought us a LOT of tomatoes. So I dumped them into a pot, covered them with water, simmered until softened, then pureed the lot with my stick blender. It made more than enough thick sauce for the pozole – I froze what was left for another meal. Threw in some chopped pickled jalapenos, chopped tomatoes, and a random tablespoon or so of grits as a thickener. Husband and son pronounced it absolutely delicious with tortillas and topped with shredded cheddar and lime wedges.

NOT BUYING THINGS

Husband needed a balaclava so the wind wouldn’t blow snow straight into his face when he’s clearing our driveway of snow. A friend gave us two. Friend definitely has baked goods in his future.

RECYCLING/REUSING

Brought home the Star Wars-themed wrapping from my office’s copy paper reams, as well as crumpled (but perfectly good) brown paper used to as packing material, to use as wrapping paper.

OTHER EXPENSES

My little car’s normally very quiet engine suddenly sounded like a motorcycle revving up. Took it to our mechanic; $147 later, I have a new gasket and a very quiet car once more. 

We all drove up to our favorite thrift shop and spent just under $60 for clothes for the entire family (mostly school clothes for our son), plus a beautiful NWT 100% cotton shower curtain (retail $25-60) I found that just needed a wash. I learned a new word, too: ramie. I thought it was another type of synthetic fabric, but it’s actually a plant fiber related to nettles. At some point, I will probably do a post about cheap, synthetic (read: “plastic”), sweatshop-made clothing. I thought a lot about that yesterday, going through the racks.

Small win: I hadn’t eaten before driving to the thrift shop, and by the time I was done there I was starving. Plus I had to stop at the grocery store for a few items forgotten in last night’s shop. It took every single drop of willpower I had to not “treat” myself with fast food…but I persevered. Drove home, unloaded the car, put everything away, and steamed the last two (slightly freezer-burnt) Trader Joe’s frozen green corn tamales. Topped them with salsa and melted cheddar. Tasted good, and filled me up enough that I could cook without shouting at anyone.

I did break down and buy wine. It was that kind of week, I’m afraid.

FAILS (FOOD WASTE)

Somehow a few boiled eggs got overlooked in the fridge. Went to peel one for my lunch salad and got a whiff – ew. I usually keep our fridge so well organized that this never happens. But nobody’s perfect, least of all me.

OTHER

A friend invited me to her home for tea, biscuits, a small fire, and a nice chat. She showed me her photo album from her trip to England. Free, and very much appreciated. I wish I had more opportunities to spend time – real, face-to-face time – with friends. I find it kind of mandatory for maintaining good mental health. In our hyper-connected world, isolation is (ironically) a serious problem.