Saturday, March 12, 2011

Upcycling--trendy word or old school philosophy?

Upcycled bracelet

The upcycling trend is intriguing. I love the idea of taking something old and discarded, then turning it into something new--something that might be even nicer than the old thing was when it was new. What a great concept. The arts and crafts that are produced with this philosophy are sometimes breathtaking. But we are fooling ourselves if we think upcycling is new. It is a new word (a great word!) for an old idea.

My grandmother was born in the United States as the oldest daughter of Hungarian immigrants. She lived through the depression and helped her parents support the family by working as a courier for a dental supply company. When I was growing up and went to visit her, she would make us what she called "American Chop Suey". She could feed twenty people for the price of two pounds of pasta, a can of tomato sauce and a pound of beef.

We loved to hear Nagymama tell us stories of her life during the depression. For her entire life, she lived frugally and saved everything. Nowadays we watch shows about hoarders, and that is the image we have of someone who saves everything. But that was not Nagymama.

She had a box of rubber bands, black with ink from the newspapers they arrived with, but the box was tidy and stored in its proper spot. She had stacks of sour cream containers, cleaned and neatly arranged on top of the refrigerator. She used those sour cream containers to store food. She cut them up and used them in projects around the house, and she even made crafts out of them.  She reduced, reused and recycled long before it became a catchphrase.

Nagymama was not the only one who lived this way. Her whole generation was like this. I'm sure that people who are in their nineties today are still like that. It reminds me of a book called Joseph had a Little Overcoat. My son owned this gorgeous picture book with a wonderful story about  a man whose overcoat wore out, so he made a jacket. And when the jacket wore out, he made a vest. The vest turned into a scarf, then a hankie and so on until all that remained of the original overcoat was a single button. It is an illustration of a way of life most of us hardly remember.

This week I honored thrifty grandmothers and joined trendy upcyclers by making this gorgeous and comfy wool bracelet. Here's what I did. I visited the local thrift store, where I found an old wool sweater for $.99. I brought the sweater home and washed it in hot water and soap. (In order not to waste, I put it in with jeans. The copious amounts of lint that the sweater shed in the wash came right off the jeans when they went into the drier.) After several loads, the sweater had felted. Then I cut a long strip from the sweater, tapering the strip from about 2.5" at one side to about 1.5" on the other side. I washed the strip a final time. Now I had the form for the bracelet.

I raided my oldest daughter's craft stash for some wool roving scraps and Czech glass beads left over from her projects. I took the scraps of wool roving and rolled 'snakes' with them, then needle felted the snakes onto the base in random spirals. I knew I wanted the bracelet to be 7.5", so I marked that distance and hammered in a snap closure on each end. My youngest daughter had an old turquoise shirt that she had outgrown, and which was really too worn out to pass on to anyone else. I cut the t-shirt into strips and rolled the strips into roses, then sewed the roses onto the bracelet. I hid the snaps under the roses. Finally, I used beads to bring out some more detail. The final result? An awesome, upcylcled bracelet that cost me about one dollar to make.

I hope Joseph and Nagymama would be proud. I think they would.


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