• JoJo

Making Treasure From Trash

Take What You Can, Throw Nothing Out!


The inspiration for this blog post came to me while walking my dog, Amber, in rain. Amber is a skinny Spanish galgo and is not built for rain. When we lived in Spain, this wasn’t a problem. Taking her for a shorter walk than usual on the occasional rainy day didn’t hugely limit the amount of exercise she got. Letting her pull me back towards the flat in an unexpected shower didn’t happen very often and didn’t really seem like a bad idea at the time. This relaxed attitude to rain has, however, come back to bite me in the arse now we live in the north of England, where it rains a lot more regularly. It means that Amber pulls on her lead a lot more often because she still has absolutely no interest in being outside when wet stuff is falling from the sky. Unfortunately, she now has to walk in the rain to avoid becoming a potato-shaped sighthound. 


So, this week, I found myself standing in the rain trying to teach Amber that rain in Spain and England have very different implications. Rain in Spain means we stay indoors and wait for it to stop. Rain in England means we put our waterproofs on and go for a walk anyway. Sorry my skinny Spanish friend. This may sound cruel, but I’m not just throwing her out there to fend for herself. She has a lovely selection of fleecy and waterproof coats to keep her warm in this inclement climate. However, Amber is approximately 30% neck (she may in fact be part giraffe) and, while stood in the rain, I realised that none of her coats cover any of her lengthy neck parts. Being the problem solver that I am, I promptly trotted home, with as little lead pulling as possible, acquired an old fleece from my mother-in-law that had already been partly disassembled and turned into a rag rug, and set about fashioning Amber a snug snood to keep her neck warm during her rainy training sessions. This got me thinking about how much I enjoy making things from random shit lying around the house or extending the life of my existing clothing in a similar way. 

A happy pointy dog wearing a scarf or snood smiling galgo
Snug as heck!

Don’t get me wrong, I love wandering around fabric shops admiring the beautiful material as much as the next sewing enthusiast. Its lovely to stroll amongst the rolls of fabric imagining what it could all become, running the material through your fingertips to get an idea of how it will feel against the skin or how it will drape over my gently curvy curves. I’m delighted by walls of buttons, shelves full of ribbon, and baskets of bias binding of every colour you could possibly ever need. However, I can honestly say I get more satisfaction from making things out materials that people would generally consider useless or unwanted, rather than freshly cut from the roll, brand new fabric. 


Part of this is because I am easily intimidated by new fabric. In the past, when I wanted to make something new for myself, I would go into a shop, wander around until I found some fabric that took my fancy (usually black or tartan), buy a big chunk of it, then go home and wonder what the hell to do with it. Admittedly, this was a stupid way of fabric shopping. It would’ve made a lot more sense to have a clear plan about what I wanted to make before buying anything. Often, I would buy new fabric and hold onto it for a ridiculously long time while looking for the perfect thing to turn it into. It would sit there looking shiny and perfect for so long that I just wouldn’t want to cut it. Every idea never quite seemed good enough for the precious fabric that I’d held onto for so long. Eventually I would feel so silly about letting the fabric sit in a drawer for so long that I would simply pick something at random to make with very little thought. I just wanted the fabric to stop looking at me and making me feel guilty about not using it to its full potential. By the end of this process, I rarely ended up with a garment that I loved, or even really liked. 


New fabric can be expensive and making clothes takes a lot of time and effort, which, for me, is where most of the stress lies. If I go out and buy a cheap item of clothing that I don’t end up wearing, sure, it’s a waste of time, effort, money, and material but I can give that garment to a charity shop or a friend and I personally haven’t lost that much (the planet has, but that’s a post for another day and another kind of blog). On the other hand, if I've bought good quality, costly, brand new fabric, drafted or bought a pattern, cut the pieces and made the garment and don’t end up wearing it, that feels like a proper waste of time and resources.


I’m absolutely not saying that nobody should ever make things from new fabric. We’d all be wandering around getting arrested for indecent exposure at a much higher rate if we abandoned this idea altogether. But I find using things that are unwanted or would otherwise have be thrown away removes a lot of the pressure. Obviously, the materials would still get wasted if my sewing project went tits up. But knowing that it was destined for the dustbin anyway makes me feel much more relaxed about trying new, possibly silly, ideas with whatever material comes my way. I see it as a challenge to take something that has been deemed useless and give it another life, rather than feeling pressured to use brand new shiny material to absolute perfection. I’m capable of worrying about almost anything given enough time and cups of tea so taking one less worry away is a big win in my book. 


It also costs a lot less to make things from leftovers, castoffs, and other people’s curtains. As I mentioned above, new fabric is not cheap. So, if I can use the skills I have to create something out of free stuff or cheaper materials and save myself some money that could be spent on gin instead, why wouldn’t I? Gin leaves me feeling far less stressed and guilty than new unused fabric sitting in a drawer, so it seems like a much wiser investment to me. 


If I do buy new fabric for a project, I use every single scrap of that material. Some of the things I’ve made from the leftover bits of fabric have ended up being used significantly more than whatever I made with the fabric in the first place. This is partly because of my terrible forward planning described above but it’s a nice consolation that I’ve managed to make the most of the random bits of fabric I’ve ended up with. I’ve made a very mismatched selection of napkins, a stylish patchwork dog bed and an extensive collection of headscarves, to name but a few things, from leftover bits of fabric of various shapes and sizes. The headscarves in particular came in handy during the strict lockdown in Spain, when I couldn’t get a haircut for three months, and during my recent misguided attempt to grow out my short hairstyle. 


Luckily, fabric seems to have lovely a knack of finding its way to me. People obviously know that I’m into sewing so they often offer me bits of material and haberdashery that they no longer want. I’ve also acquired plenty of fabric from charity shops over the years and used these acquisitions to give new life to many garments already in my possession or that I have subsequently bought secondhand. 


For example, I’ve found old bedding and curtains to be great sources of material. I’ve already written a post about making a waistcoat from my husband’s childhood bedroom curtains. I also have more plans for this material that I will talk about in future posts. Throughout my wardrobe and home, you will find a lot of things made from the Power Rangers duvet from my own childhood bedroom. If I’m being totally honest, some of it was my own bedding and some of it was the same set I bought secondhand on eBay because I love the material so much. I’ve used this fabric to make a dog bed, pajama shorts, lining for a blazer, a cover for my ereader, a headscarf, several gifts and hopefully a few more things in the future as I still have plenty of this fabric left. 

Power Rangers pillow case and pajama shorts
Power Rangers bedding in its original and transformed forms

Bedding and curtains are particularly good for dog beds. I love my dog, and dogs in general, very very much but the amount of money people spend on stuff for their dogs regularly blows my mind. Stuff that comes into contact with dogs has a hard life. Toys get shredded, beds get vomited on, and clothes get torn on plants and other dogs’ teeth. Paying for quality makes sense if it will last a long time and do the job its designed for well. For example, Amber has a beautiful Equafleece jumper that I cannot recommend highly enough. It fits her well, is amazingly weatherproof, and is much better than anything I could have cobbled together from scraps. I’m not sponsored by Equafleece but if anyone who works for them is reading this do feel free to drop me an email. But some stuff that you can buy for your dog just seems totally ridiculous to me. After a quick Google, I found dog beds for upwards of £300. I’m sure they’re lovely dog beds but, honestly, Amber doesn’t give a shit if her bed is made of an old duvet or luxury tweed stuffed with top quality duck down. On one very unfortunate occasion, Amber ate a rancid dead rabbit and subsequently covered everything in our living room in a river of shit the size of the Thames. If she’d done that on a £300 dog bed, I’d have been pretty miffed about it. Of course, I want Amber to be happy and comfortable and have everything she needs to live her best life. But she is a dog. She eats fox poo, licks her own arse, and will sleep on a pile of leaves if there’s nothing else handy. A couple of squidgy cushions made out of old duvets and curtains will do the job nicely and leave even more money available to spend on gin. The skid marks will also be easier to wash out when she wipes her arse on it. 

Amber's homemade dog beds


I also enjoy using discarded fabric and leftovers to make my own clothes last longer. For example, every pair of jeans I own tends to go through quite a life cycle. They begin as they were intended to be, full length blue or black jeans. They then get worn extensively, repaired and patched to within an inch of their lives, and eventually, when the knees can no longer be patched, they are chopped down to become shorts. The legs that have been removed go in the fabric stash and wait to become patches for my next pairs of jeans and so, the cycle continues. I have one pair that began life as a ridiculously baggy pair of Levis, back when I was about 16 years old and baggy jeans were still remotely cool, and are still going strong(ish) now as a pair of very distressed and heavily patched shorts. Even I have to admit they won’t last much longer but I reckon almost 15 years of wear is a pretty good achievement.

a lady wearing roller skates and a pointy dog
The immortal pair of shorts

All the buttons, zips, and accessories I’ve stripped off the corpses of clothes that cannot be resuscitated have also come in handy for embellishment on simpler garments. I’m particularly pleased with a plain black waistcoat that I painted a silver spacy swirl on the back of and trimmed with zips (because I never grew out of my emo phase) and ribbons. Possibly my favourite customisation project is a plain black shirt that I spent fucking ages jazzing up with buttons, hand stitching, and rouleau tubing. To make rouleau tubing you cut long thin strips of fabric on the bias, fold it in half lengthways with right sides together, sew it together, trim the excess, turn it inside out and then you have a pretty tube of fabric. This is kind of fiddly but ends up looking really cute. As you can see from the picture below, I used the rouleau tubing to outline parts of the shirt and make a swirly shape across the front. I then hand stitched buttons and extremely basic embroidery stitches all over the outlined sections of the shirt. I generally find sewing on buttons by hand pleasingly relaxing as it’s easy and repetitive, but it turns out that effect leaves after about the fortieth button. I was so pleased with the results of my labours that I refused to throw this shirt away when I took up climbing and could no longer fit my newly buff shoulders and forearms into it in its original form. Luckily, it fit fine when I took the sleeves off and also gave me something else to wear in the never-ending Madrid summer. 

We took loads of photos of me wearing the shirt on the right and this one, which I posed for as a joke, was the only one I didn't hate. You win some, you lose some.


My first pair of black skinny jeans became a handbag. Excess fabric from my wedding dress became a corset. The five years' worth of fabric scraps I collected while living in Cambridge became a yoga bolster. T-shirts that no self-respecting charity shop would deem worthy of selling have been chopped up and plaited together to make dog toys for anyone in my life who gets a dog. I made one for Amber but she ignored it completely. The possibilities are endless when you get a bit creative and refuse to throw anything away. You also end up filling a decent percentage of your house with random bits of fabric, but I don’t necessarily see that as a downside. Who needs storage space when your jeans last 15 years, in one form or another, and you’ve saved enough money to buy a very respectable gin collection?


I’m currently very excited about a job lot of fabric I got from a friend’s recent house clear-out and the rest of the curtain fabric that I made the waistcoat I mentioned above from. Watch this space for more of my adventures in turning scraps into stuff in the not too distant future. Until then my friends, remember, take what you can and throw nothing out!

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