Save Those T-Shirts!

First off, congratulations to the winner of the groovy folders in last week’s give-away: Dana, of dmsburrell. Congratulations! Send me a note, please: ricefz at gmail, and I’ll get these in the mail to you asap!


And now on to our regularly-scheduled post~~


As mixed media artists, most of us are thrilled to find things others have discarded: rusty stuff, worn stuff, dented and faded and frayed stuff. If only we had a use for everything that nobody else wanted, it would be amazing. The planet would love it. Sadly, this isn’t nearly the case, and our landfills are full of stuff for which most people have no use, especially no creative use. But there’s hope! Oh, sure: maybe not for banana peels and used tissues, but for other stuff? Indeed.


If conditions are optimal, a t-shirt can decompose in a landfill in about five months: with water and sunlight and little bugs of various kinds, most cotton clothing doesn’t last all that long once it’s been thrown away. But: that’s if things are optimal for decomposition, and landfills are not designed to provide that. They’re designed, instead, to keep water out, and they’re designed for stuff to be piled on top of other stuff—layers and layers of other stuff—so that, in reality, cotton clothing can take much longer to break down. (And we’re not even going to talk about polyester: we’d be talking decades, at the very least.)


Ideally, our wardrobes would be composed of organic, sustainable, renewable materials, and we would maintain the clothing and mend it and keep it for years, maybe forever: we’d wear and mend a garment and then recycle it into another garment, maybe pass it down to someone else, and eventually the ragged pieces would be made into a quilt, made sturdy by hundreds of tiny stitches made with thread we’d woven ourselves on our hand loom—OK, wait. That’s probably not going to happen, ever, not even for those of us who love making the stuff we use and, theoretically at least, have the time to learn the skills required.


For the rest of us, though, there are ways to keep from adding our clothing to already-over-burdened landfills, and the process can be really rewarding. If we wear our natural-fiber clothing as long as possible and then figure out a way to recycle it, we’re making steps in the right direction. Maybe not huge steps, but even baby steps are good here.


In the last couple of years, I’ve become just the teeniest bit obsessed with ways to use old t-shirts. I found a bunch of soft, worn, faded, 100% cotton t-shirts at the local Goodwill, where Sunday is half-price day and you can get a shirt for less than $1. If you find an XL, or even an XXXL, that’s a *lot* of cotton fabric for $1, and I can’t ignore a challenge like that.

Freeman-Zachery t-shirts 4

Freeman-Zachery t-shirts 5

I’m a huge fan of Natalie Chanin’s three books: Alabama Stitch Book, Alabama Studio Style, and Alabama Sewing + Design. If I had to pick just one, it would be the 3rd one, which has some of my favorite projects ever. It was Chanin who got me thinking about t-shirts in the first place, and I love her suggestions for putting every part of them to use. She recommends creating “pulls”—strips of t-shirt that you pull from each end so that they stretch and curl on themselves, forming long, sturdy ropes of cotton jersey. You can use these for everything from weaving a chair seat to tying up plants in the garden.

Freeman-Zachery t-shirts 2 upcycle

We made huge long ropes of these to wrap around the trunk of a dead tree:

Freeman-Zachery t-shirts 1 upcycle


Sadly, the sun faded it quickly, but for a while, it was fabulous, and it still looks better than just a bare, sad, dead tree.


In addition to cutting strips of fabric for making into ropes, you can deconstruct old t-shirts to make into new garments, and on Wednesday I’ll show you how my adventures with those have been going. Then, on Friday, I’ll show my current favorite use for the scraps left over from those projects. In the meantime, just don’t throw any shirts away!
Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.

Z2888 CraftCycle CM1.inddFor more recycling and upcycling ideas, try Craftcycle by Heidi Boyd.








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