This article first appeared in Taproot magazine Aug 2022 issue.
For many years, my husband and I cherished a dream of renovating and living in an old home. We loved everything about old homes—the interesting architecture, the detailed craftsmanship, the coziness of closed floor plans—and were delighted to begin our journey of old-homeownership when we acquired our historic 1923 home in Salem, Oregon. We knew there were parts of old-home living that would take some adapting to, such as no eating space in the kitchen and smaller closets. But one look at our grand living room with its old-growth Douglas Fir beams quickly banished our concerns and we dove into sanding, floor refinishing, painting, and gardening.
As it turned out, old-home living was just right for us—I now design embroidery patterns in my basement workshop, loving the ease of having my studio just downstairs, and my husband tends the large garden, sharing his heirloom roses and towering artichokes with a steady stream of pedestrians in our urban neighborhood. We don’t miss the eat-in kitchen of our previous suburban home and we delight in living in a house with so many windows. But certain aspects of old-homeownership have taken a bit of adjustment, most notably fewer electrical outlets and those small closets.
Which is why I found myself cleaning out my closet recently: in the 1920s when our home was built, people owned far fewer clothes and I have discovered that I need to be very intentional in my clothing decisions if my wardrobe is going to fit in my small closet. I’ve learned to embrace cleaning out my closet because the tiny space has turned me into a very intentional consumer—each time I’m tempted to purchase a new piece of clothing, I first need to consider if it will fit in my closet! It’s turned out to be a great way to prune my possessions and wear clothes I truly love each and every day and, rather than being a frustration, my tiny closet has become one the many things I love about this house.
Yet every time I review my wardrobe, there are a few garments I can’t bring myself to give away, and on this recent round of cleaning out, one of the garments was a skirt I had made for myself years ago out of a Liberty of London cotton lawn with an Art-Deco-inspired peacock feather design. I no longer wore the skirt, but the fabric was really special—Liberty of London has been producing cotton lawns for over 140 years and their signature fabrics are synonymous with quality, fineness, and ornately beautiful designs. Because of this, they are also quite expensive, costing up to seven times as much as other cotton print fabrics.
I didn’t wear the skirt anymore, but I could not bring myself to let go of that fabric. So, it was time to find a new use for this beautiful cotton. I began by taking it apart carefully and pressing out the gathered sections of the skirt so I could see how much yardage I had. Realizing I had more than I expected, I took a small section and sewed a simple embroidery workbag that I’m enjoying anew every time I sit down to stitch. The remainder of the fabric I’ll use to sew a dress for my granddaughter, delighting in seeing her in this beautiful blue cotton lawn. We’re fabric connoisseurs in our family and my daughter will value this fabric as much as I do: when the little dress I sew for my granddaughter becomes too small, my daughter will remake the fabric into a skirt or a bodice for another dress and once that garment has become too small or worn, my daughter will turn the remaining fabric into doll clothes which will be handed onto the next generation. This one piece of Liberty of London fabric will serve a variety of purposes over five decades in our family and that is a striking testament to its beauty, quality, and value. This sort of fabric repurposing might seem a bit frugal and extreme, but rather than being quaint and outdated, my daughter and I are just doing what most human beings have done throughout our history of making and using textiles—using every last thread.
Why was fabric repurposing so important throughout much of human history? Because every thread was made by hand, from the weaving to the dyeing to the sewing. Take a moment and consider all the textiles around you—the clothes you wear, the backpack you carry, the towel you used to dry your hands, the apron you donned to cook a meal, the curtains at your windows—all of these textiles would have required an elaborate process of growing (cotton or flax) or gathering (wool or silk) the raw fiber, cleaning the fiber, dyeing the fiber (this could add tremendous value to the finished fabric depending on the costliness of the dyestuff), spinning the fiber (it is estimated that 1.5 million women worked as spinners in the late 1700s England alone), weaving the fiber on complicated looms, and then finally sewing the fabric into the desired finished product. It was an arduous, time-consuming, and elaborate process which meant cloth was tremendously expensive and therefore, highly valued. Imagine if the next time you bought sheets for your queen-size bed, the spinning labor alone was $8100 (600 hours at minimum wage), not to mention the cost of the raw fiber or the dyeing and weaving!
With fabric this exorbitantly expensive, every last thread was precious and so fabric repurposing was seen as just plain common sense. Mechanization of textile production over the last few hundred years has made our modern clothing virtually cost-free by historical standards and it’s hard for us to truly comprehend the vast amount of time and resources devoted to fabric production for most of human history. Equally vast is the amazing resourcefulness and creativity of people in repurposing fabric so that every thread was used.
In ancient Rome and Byzantium there was a beautiful and unique form of repurposing fabric: at this time, tunics were the common daily garment, worn in various styles by both men and women. Tunics were plain, however, and so elaborately woven tapestry banding could be sewn to the hem (and sometimes, the sleeves and chest area) to add intricate patterning and vibrant color to an otherwise plain garment. When the tunic eventually wore out, these tapestry bands would be carefully removed and re-sewn to a new tunic. This process could go on for years with the banding being moved from new garment to new garment, and several of these tunics are preserved in museum collections around the world.
You can see echoes of this decorative tapestry banding in the folk costumes of many nations: look for the highly elaborate borders sewn to sleeves, hems, and the chest area and it’s not hard to see how this custom became more and more embellished through the centuries. In fact, small borders are everywhere in traditional folk embroidery, worked with all manner of motifs, such as diamonds, crosses, chevrons, and checkerboard, and various colors from monochromatic reds to dichromatic red-and-black to polychromatic palettes with intense reds, warm blues, fresh greens, and rich golds.
These lovely borders are a feast for the eyes and one of my favorite aspects of folk embroidery, and I wanted to create a project that would feature both the traditional craft of folk embroidery along with the historical custom of repurposing fabric, so I designed the Ionian Apron project to have pockets with embroidered tops: when the apron wears out, simply remove the pockets and resew them to a new apron or bag or skirt.
When my daughters were young, one of their favorite books was “Joseph had a little Overcoat” (by Simms Taback), a charming story of a tailor that turns his worn overcoat into a jacket and then continues to remake it into various articles of clothing until only a tiny scrap of the fabric is left. As a textile artist myself, I loved how this book taught them to value fabric and see new ways to reuse and repurpose fabric.
Nowadays, I’m discovering all sorts of new ways to use fabric from my closet, turning beloved linens, wools, and cottons into new household items and garments, passing along great fabric to others who can envision new uses, and delighting in seeing some of my favorite fabrics in daily use. My tiny closet, one viewed as a disadvantage of my new life, has instead become a portal to a new way of living, a way more in tune with the intentional use of precious resources, connecting me not just to the past, but to the future.