Designer and author Betz White is one of the leading forces in today’s do-it-yourself crafting movement, and her new book, Sewing Green, offers projects and ideas for “repurposing” old materials (think of the oversized sweater taking up space in your dresser or those funky 1970s sheets you purchased on a whim at a thrift store) into beautiful, new clothes, bags and house wares.
I spoke with Betz this past Earth Day about the emergence of the earth-friendly stitching movement, getting kids excited about repurposing and new ways to look at a disposable juice box.
MNN: When did you first become interested in repurposing — reusing something old to create something new — and green sewing?
White: My background is in fashion design. Somewhere along the way in school, I discovered felting, which is the process of washing wool so that it shrinks and you can cut it without it unraveling. From there I got into recycled felting because it was easier and less expensive to buy an old, already knit sweater than make a new one and then felt it. That led to my first book, Warm Fuzzies
, which is all about repurposing old sweaters to make new things.
While working on that book, I spent a lot of time in thrift stores gathering materials and realized just how much inspirational stuff is available in a thrift store. The volume in one thrift store, in one town, on one day — it was an endless source of material.
You mention in your book that the idea of repurposing has been a part of American culture for a long time. How does today’s crafty/do-it-yourself movement differ from past generations?
On the one hand, it probably is not all that different, but during the Great Depression repurposing was more of an economic necessity. Besides, our grandmothers did not have disposable things like paper towels — and if you had a picnic, you brought along real silverware and dishes.
Today’s DIY movement is based on some of the same principles of “waste not want not,” but it is also a result of wanting to own things that are unique. These are the people who do not want the same old T-shirt from Old Navy — they want to stand out. For a long period of time, people did not like to let on that their clothes were homemade. Now, homemade is becoming a source of pride.
Has your work with green sewing led to other green practices in your life?
Absolutely. My book is not just about the sewing projects. It also has supportive material and facts. The more I researched and got immersed in environmental issues, the more conscious I became in my daily life. I have started bringing bags to the grocery store, and when I’m there I think more about my decisions — like do I buy the glass jar or the plastic jar?
Packaging is also something I really got hung up on. There is so much packaging on products today versus 10-20 years ago, and so many things are made out of materials that don’t break down. For example, I have two boys and after every soccer game the trashcan is literally filled with Mylar juice boxes. On the one hand, I do not understand why we can’t just make a pitcher of Kool-Aid! But for the things that do get thrown out, my goal is to help people look at them differently and ask, “Is there something that these materials can be used for before heading to the landfill?” [Sewing Green includes instructions on how to turn those old juice boxes into a stylish sunshade for the car.]
What are some other examples from the book you can share?
I pack my kids’ lunches almost every day -- and the Ziplock bags on their sandwiches literally stay on there for two hours before being thrown away. So I made reusable sandwich wraps [instructions in Sewing Green
], which we now use everyday. Another idea I like, which is not in the book, is to save plastic bread bags. The kids put them on their feet inside of their snow boots to keep out the wet snow. I blogged
about that recently and got comments from someone in Illinois who said they grew up doing the same thing.
Aside from repurposing, are there other ways to sew green?
In the book, I list lots of other green fabrics like organic cotton and wool, bamboo and hemp. At this point, it tends to cost more per yard to buy organic, but the environmental costs of conventional cotton are huge. Conventional cotton uses 25% of the world's insecticides, which are damaging to us and the environment. By purchasing cotton fabrics that produced organically, we are essentially voting with our dollars by increasing demand and sending a message to textile manufacturers to do the right thing.
How can parents get their kids excited about repurposing projects from an early age?
Kids get excited about things that change from one thing to another — like learning about caterpillars turning into butterflies, and just think about Transformers. So when I make a little bag for them out of the pockets on their old cargo pants, they think that is really cool. They grow out of their clothes so quickly, so this way they still get to use it in another way.
As someone who is a complete sewing novice, the idea of making my own apron out of an old shirt seems cool, but intimidating. Are there any projects in your book that are especially geared for beginners?
The cloth napkins are pretty easy. You are basically cutting and hemming a square. The leaf scarf on the book’s cover is also pretty easy, and so is the pillow case skirt. Once you get the hang of these things, and start to shift perspective to look at old materials in new and creative ways, green sewing becomes second nature.
Photos from book by John Gruen and author photo by Chris Elenchev.