Sunday, March 20, 2016

Finished objects: New dish towels, and a defense of downcycling

Upcycling is all the rage these days. Upcycled this and that are so omnipresent on Pinterest, Etsy, and various blogs that for a long time I wasn't even aware that the term "upcycling" was coined along with, and in opposition to, "downcycling."

Briefly, downcycling describes most recycling processes, in which discarded items are transformed into new products of lesser quality, while upcycling involves transforming trash into something better than it was to begin with.

It's hard to argue that upcycling is a good thing to strive for when it comes to industrial recycling, but in everyday life I think the idea of downcycling deserves a second look.

That's because even though it makes me sound like a crank, I have to say that quite a few "upcycled" craft projects strike me as a little bit, well, lipstick on a pig*. (It would be unkind of me to actually point out examples...but I bet you can think of some.)

Instead I think: Why not just accept that with time and use things will get downgraded to lesser purposes, without having to hide the fact that they have become stained or worn?

That is, "creative reuse" doesn't necessarily require fancying things up: Not everything needs to be a silk purse. A sow's ear is good for its purpose. A dishrag doesn't need a doily embellishment.

This is what I had in mind recently when I made some dish towels from an old tablecloth that belonged to my grandparents. It was given to them as a wedding present, so it must be almost 75 years old, can you imagine?

It's pretty threadbare -- even worn through in spots -- and not really in good enough shape to use as a tablecloth, even for a picnic.

But it's super soft and the color scheme is pretty, and I thought the fabric might have some life in it yet.

I might not have dared to do this on my own, but fortunately my mother views her mother-in-law's possessions less reverently than I view my grandmother's. >:-)>  (<--Devil smiley)

This was a very simple project: I just cut the cloth into six roughly equal sections, using the grid pattern of the fabric as a guide, and hemmed the raw edges. I thought about using this project as an opportunity to learn how to make mitered corners...but in the end I didn't bother.

I have to admit that some parts of the fabric are in worse shape than I had realized. I should probably patch some of those holes (NOT with a doily!). So this project might end up being more a meditation on wear and reuse than an actual source of new dish towels.

On the other hand, while the fabric itself may not be in much better condition than our existing kitchen linens, these towels are a lot more absorbent. I prefer them from an aesthetic perspective too, for their soft colors and uniform pattern. Perhaps most of all, I like the way these towels give me the chance to ponder the history of objects as I go about my everyday life.

*Not to be confused with "lipstick on Pig," which is what my daughter heard when she heard me say the phrase recently. Pig, of course, being the name of Ron Weasley's owl. Actually, I think "lipstick on Pig" should be a saying, too. It would mean something along the lines of "gilding the lily," but rather than indicating an attempt to improve on perfection, it would signify an attempt to prettify something for which prettification is irrelevant. So, a cross between "gilding the lily" and "like a fish needs a bicycle." So now you'll know what I mean when I use the phrase in everyday conversation, which I absolutely plan to do.


  1. Ah, I love that you made something (multiple somethings!) for everyday use out of an object that has meaning for you. (As opposed to just keeping the tablecloth as a tablecloth and tucking it into your linen cupboard and *never* using it ... and then giving it back to your mother because you couldn't bear to put it into the Goodwill bag ... as I did a couple of years ago, sigh). I do hope the use of these dishtowels trigger many happy memories of your grandparents, Sarah!

    I'm with you on the whole upcycling thing ... the thing that really bothers me about upcycling is that it's often used as a justification/excuse to keep creating waste, when the solution should really be to find ways to stop producing the waste in the first place. For example, about a month ago, I read an article about how people could keep using their Keurig machines guilt-free by upcycling the plastic pods into craft projects ... which of course is only delaying, but not at all preventing, their eventual journey to the dump!

    And a big yes as well to the useful endeavour of downcycling, and to the fact that not everything needs prettification! Although I do confess that it IS rather nice when it just so happens that it's pretty enough all on its own (say, by being in a colour that's pleasing to you, like these dish towels are). And the worn spots in the tablecloth-turned-dishtowels is reminding me of what you said about your pepper and salt mills ---- that it can be rather nice to have "age" show on things , because that shows that the objects are well-used (and hopefully loved).

    1. Argh, crafts with Keurig pods! I had never heard of that but that is surely a sign of the Apocalypse. Yes, that's exactly the kind of thing that I'm talking about. I have a hard time imagining a Keurig-pod craft standing the test of time. I think you've helped me put my finger on what bothers me about "upcycling" -- there's a way in which the word keeps the focus on the surface of things. Sort of like: Well that's novel...but then what?

      You're right, the worn spots do hark back to those ideas about the salt/pepper mills. In the case of the towels I'm afraid the wear actually affects the function of the object rather than simply serving as patina. I suspect these towels will only last us a matter of months. But that's okay...better than keeping the tablecloth in the linen closet indefinitely, as you say, which surely would have been its alternative fate.

  2. Yes, yes, yes to all of this. You and Marian have captured much of what I feel when I see things in blogs (or used to; I don't read those kinds of blogs much any more): That reusing any old thing isn't necessarily virtuous just because it's old. I've been guilty of that myself. We put reclaimed wood on the risers of some stairs, but there was no real reason to do that. Now I think it just looks out of place and kinda pretentious and I don't like it at all. It was just decoration. And, yeah, this kind of thing makes me feel like an old crank. I'm not opposed to decoration. I guess I just don't want it cloaked in some kind of false virtue that makes a person not acknowledge the ways in which the decoration might be detracting from the overall goodness of the world.

    Who knew a tablecloth could get so deep, so fast? :-)

    I love your dish towels. They look very soft, and I love the faded quality of the colors in them. I think your solution was perfect.

    1. Well for the record I definitely was NOT intending to call you out with my lipstick-on-a-pig comments! I quite like your stair risers, and a couple of other reclaimed wood/materials projects you and Cane have done that seem funky in a very "you" sort of way.

      And I'm not opposed to "just" decoration either. But I can relate to the experience of having done a project, and then after a while looking at it with different (not sure whether to call them fresh or jaded!) eyes and thinking: Now why did I think it was necessary to do THAT?

      Maybe some of this relates to a shift in mores that's happened in the time we've been writing online. I remember genuinely being jazzed about spray painting stuff a few years ago! Now I think -- what's the point? I do wonder if all this paring back and simplifying that I'm NOW so jazzed about is just me participating in a cultural moment and when it passes I'll just...accumulate stuff again? I guess we'll see. I sort of hope not. In the meantime I'll enjoy my dish towels, which, yes, are getting shabbier by the day, and yet I don't seem to mind.

    2. I have wondered the same thing. And experienced much of the same thing. I don't think I'll accumulate stuff again. At least not in the same way. I like to think that my thinking is evolving, moving forward. Maybe the cultural moments are, too?

      And I didn't feel called out. :-)

    3. You (I) never know, but I don't think I will either -- the benefits of a sparer house are really pretty great, I have to say.

  3. What a spunky, lovely pattern! Love that you took something you probably wouldn't use on a regular basis (holeyness and all...) and made it into everyday workhorses that will remind you of your grandparents every time you use them. That's why my grandmother's quilt is on the guest bed (which sees regular use as we often have folks to stay. And the cat sleeps on it).

    1. Thanks for commenting, Leah! Yes, I've really been enjoying using the towels the last couple months. My grandmother was a very practical, use-the-scraps-in-creative-ways sort of person, so it feels like it's not just the towels as physical objects that remind me of her but also the sensibility with which they were made. Which is pretty cool! Your grandmother's quilt sounds lovely and I think that welcoming guests and sleeping cats is something that most any quilter would aspire to.