Salvaging Memories: Recycling in Canadian Textile and Fibre Art, Then and Now

From the beginning of the history of textiles, the recycling of materials has always been a prominent practice. Canada’s place within this history is not exceptional. In the past, the system of reusing fabric has been put into place for many practical reasons.  It was ideal for many working class families to recycle fabric because it was important to find new ways of being resourceful in times of scarcity.  As well, it was done as a frugal precaution to keep expenses at a minimum.  But there is another element to fabric that cannot be denied- it has the ability to bear sentimental and nostalgic memories like no other heirloom or possession can. Now, more than ever, there is a growing demand in Canada and worldwide, for the hand-made, the loved, and the worn.

The demand for one-of-a-kind products has long been a driving force in the craft world. This nostalgia we yearn for has recently become even more potent as our world becomes more globalized and mass-production more prominent.  The industrial effects of ‘supply and demand’ that have been driven by mass production have motivated many Canadian artists to use recycled materials over new.

Clothing, and fabric in general, is one of the biggest mass-produced sectors of the industrial world.  The world of fashion serves an ongoing consumer appetite that is always changing and evolving.  Along with the undying need to create these one-of-a-kind products come moral issues such as sweatshop labor, and environmental concerns.  These issues are now at the forefront for many fibre artists.

Coming back to the previously mentioned practice of re-using fabric, there is another benefit to recycling. Vintage fabric holds a very special character- a sort of worn appeal that has come to be considered beautiful.  The early history of recycling materials in North America, and Canada specifically has had a diverse, rich, and often arduous journey.   In earlier years, the need to recycle was not for aesthetic reasons, as we do today, but for practical and economic purposes.  As the New World was developing in Canada, Manitoban pioneers had to make due with what they had, as cloth was hard to come by in the colonies.  When their clothes became worn, tattered, and unwearable, the women would deconstruct their garments and salvage the pieces that were still sufficient.

Pieces of salvaged garments were sewn together and some of the very first crazy quilts were formed.[1]  These colorful and intricate quilts were beautiful, and yet, were created out of the pure resourcefulness of the settlers.  These people did not have the luxury to buy new fabrics to make their comforters. In the Antebellum south, where slaves were at a disadvantage, another enterprising example of a quilt movement was born. New fabrics were often being purchased at the request of their master.  Many female slaves were very skilled and thus they were commissioned to create pieces for the family they worked for.  When it came to creating pieces for themselves, more often than not, a slave woman would have to resort to using recycled fabrics.   Gladys-Marie Fry, in her book Stitched from the Soul: slave quilts from the Antebellum, reveals the talent the women possessed at being able to improvise with the fabric they had on hand:

The ingenuity with which the slaves used “throw away” or discarded goods is astonishing.  For example, a Georgia slave said: “Grandma brought her feather bed wid her from Virginny, and she used the piece up a heap of quilts outen our ole clo’es and any kind of scraps she could get a holt of.”  Louise J. Evans, an ex-slave from South Carolina, remembers using another type of discarded goods: “I used to wait on the girl who did the weavin’.  When she took the cloth off the loom she done give me the ‘thrums [ends of thread of loom]” For the middle layer, or filling, slaves used clothes that could no longer be mended, leftover threads from the loom, pieces of raw cotton, and bits and pieces of wool.  …Slaves also found a way to use gunny feed, flour, tobacco and sugar sacks.[2]

This use of raw cotton and burlap sacks taken from previous products such as feed and flour, was a popular and convenient way to salvage material.  This tradition would not end here.

In working-class rural Canada and other regions during the depression and war years, the recycling of feedbags- or of sacks used for raw goods to make household articles such as clothes, tablecloths, and pillowcases, was at an all time high.  Companies realized the rate at which frugal farming families and working class Canadians were using the bags and eventually catered to them by printing fringes, borders, and patterns on the fabric, making them more pleasant for domestic to use.  In some cases, on the side of such bags there were also patterns for children’s clothes, bibs and handkerchiefs.  Five Roses flour even had a pattern for a Ragdoll.  In newspapers and magazines like the Toronto Daily Star, Chatelaine and the Globe and Mail, columnists wrote about patterns using feedbag material.[3]  The use of feedbags was truly marketable in times of economic instability and war.  In the words of Nina Stahlschmidt about the popularity of printing on the feedbag, she describes such circumstances.

Richard Peel, an employee of the Percy Kent Co. (U.S.A.), is credited with creating the first colored print bag.  Perhaps he realized that it was the rural housewife’s job to feed the chickens, so why not present her with the opportunity of shopping for fabrics while practicing frugality and buying chicken feed at the same time?  The housewife, ever the frugal multi-tasker, could choose a colorful chicken feed bag and simultaneously find the fabric for her next dress, apron, or set of curtains.  All she had to do is recycle the feedbag![4]

Not all of the fabrics that Canadians used had the pleasantry of pattern on them.  It was quite common to see undergarments and other articles with names and logos of companies, such as Redpath Sugar, printed across them. One woman remembers, “When I was perhaps 6 or 7 years old, a friend and I were playing. My friend bent over and to my surprise her underwear said “SWEETN IT”.  We still remain friends.  I was part of a drill at school and we were all to wear white skirts.  Mother bleached some sugar bags and made me a skirt.  You know, I wore that skirt for many years.”[5]  Another woman recalls the poverty that she lived in during her childhood:

I remember stuffing pieces of sacking in a pair of my brother’s shoes so I had something to wear on my feet to go to school that day.  We had to share sometimes.  As a child I didn’t realize we were poor, everyone seemed to have enough food to feed our family of 6, plus the odd person that needed a meal at the door.  One year for Christmas, I received a ‘ball & jacks’ and Mother made me a ‘pinnie’ from yellow print sack.  How lucky I was! Mother also made undies and personal pads for me from bleached sugar bags so I would not be contaminated.  Nothing was wasted.[6]

Indeed, it was a time when recycling was practiced purely out of pure necessity.  These large families, often living in small towns during either the depression or the war effort, had to be resourceful.

In contemporary times, people are recycling fabrics for very different reasons, but the memory of the days of creating out of practicality still linger in the minds of contemporary Canadian fibre artists.  In a journal from Saint John, New Brunswick, Jennifer Beckly, a new-age quilter, who incorporates second-hand clothing from local thrift stores into her pieces, speaks about her relationship to the recycling of the past:

Quilt making has been a lowly women’s art that embodies the wabi-sabi [Japanese] aesthetic of beauty as unperfected, impermanent and incomplete.  Quilt making and patchwork began as a way for women to make useful and beautiful things for their families out of recycled materials.  They used what they hand on hand – old clothing, bedding, flour sacks, and so forth.  Crazy quilts are a way to make something really beautiful and terrific from the smallest scraps of fabric.[7]

Fibre artists, especially working in the medium of quilting have realized that they are part of a long tradition of reclaiming old fabric, so the element of recycling comes easily to many.  Yet, there appears to be even more incentive in present day to recycle clothes.  These incentives were far from existing in the minds of women during the colonial period, the Great Depression, or the war effort.

Today we face many ethical and moral questions when dealing with art materials.  Though many artists would like to use whatever materials accommodate their vision, (and some do), many feel a very strong obligation to recycle materials in the face of mass consumerism, globalization and environmental damage.  When it comes to fabric, specifically, fibre and textile artists seem to be particularly sensitive towards such issues.

In regards to textiles and the fashion industry, the connotations of fabric and clothing can be very romantic, yet they also allow people to embody their mass consumer habits.  With ever-changing fashion trends people tend to treat clothing and fabric as disposable.  These ways both contribute to the accelerated filling of landfills, and higher demands for sweatshop labor.  Canada, contributes significantly to first world consumerism,  and its artists are conscious of the impending consequences .  Subsequently, It’s  craft artists have taken on the responsibility to make eco-friendly works. Tom Mcfall, executive director of the Alberta Craft Council, curated a show, Going Green, hosting environmentally and socially friendly works made by Canadian craft artists.  In speaking of the artists, he observed,

They’re asking how to be more innovative in their work so that they can be more resourceful than consumptive.  You could visit some of their studios and see natural light instead of electricity, passive solar heating, safety techniques and ways of working so they don’t generate as much waste.  There are a lot of people who have strong attraction to being sensitive to environmental issues, and ask whether their work is exploitive in what it says or how it’s made…  They want to remain intimately involved in the production of the work and object to the idea of mass production and sweatshop labor; it degrades the preciousness of their work and costs energy to ship it from around the world.  All of these people would not want their work done somewhere else by someone else.  It would be an attack on their values.[8]

One artist who has toyed directly with the idea of the mass-consumption of clothing is Mindy Yan Miller.  Her experience with the production of material partially originates from a small textile company she previously ran.  Miller became extremely aware of the labor process and the exhaustion it created on employees.[9] In two of her works I Fell Asleep and Attic, the repetition and sheer volume of the stacked clothing alludes to mass-production and consumerism.  The exhibition catalogue (The Underside of Clothing, by Danielle Lord)displaying the works previously mentioned, describes Yan-Miller’s purposeful use of clothing and how they possess a unique visual language:

They [the artworks] have a social significance that is diametrically opposed to the clothing codes prevalent in today’s society.  Yan Miller uses second-hand clothing she buys from the Salvation Army and other used clothing stores, clothing that no longer meets the needs of its owners of that once belonged to a person now deceased.  The clothing has not reached the end of its life cycle, but it’s because it has been discarded, it bears witness to the excess production common to our society… Her works are a statement on our consumer society, on the mass labour used to produce such clothing…[10]

Yan-Miller also addresses another interesting aspect of clothing in her work: the effect that something old – something that holds the testament of time and memory, and what it can do to the viewer.  Lord also describes this element of the work; “She shows how it reflects history, the history of the people who made it, and the history of the people who wore it.”[11]  This kind of aesthetic has become very popular in fibre art, whether the artist has been motivated by environmental and social concerns, or just yearns more for the sensitive appeal of the worn and aged.

The “vintage” look has become a common and beautiful aesthetic, both in the fine arts world and even in more mainstream realms.  The aesthetic appeal of recycling is undeniable.  Although it is essentially a reaction towards the mass-produced, it has gained a kind of allure and attractiveness that has gone far beyond any social message.  Many fibre artists today, choose to use vintage and recycled materials for their specific aesthetic charm first and foremost, and their ability to uncover the passage of time and memory. Montreal-based artist, Andréa Vander Kooij, through her works delivers this very aesthetic and message.   Her mix of whimsical references to old cartoons with vintage bed sheets creates a nostalgic and strangely pleasant mood.  Vander Kooij’s work in quilting and needlework make direct reference to the women’s domestic craft of eras past, and to the history of recycling quilts in general.  In Vander Kooij’s artist’s statement for her show, I Want to Tell You Everything, she explains her passion for second-hand materials:

Using reclaimed materials is very important to me because I enjoy the sense of collaboration and the evidence of someone else’s presence in my work. It also brings a sense of randomness and serendipity to the pieces by removing some of the control and decision making from my hands. Oftentimes, the material I use is of an intimate domestic nature, such as sheets and pillowcases, or blankets. Strangers have slept there, leaving the marks of their history both literally and figuratively. The fact that these items are stained and discolored or heavily worn is something that I like to make use of in the work. Nostalgia also plays an important part in my practice. By using materials that viewers recognize, such as popular floral patterns, striped flannel sheets, and the animated characters found on children’s bed linens, I give them a point of entry in order to engage with the work.[12]

Siren Song displays her marked use of old floral tablecloths.  Her domestic flare possesses a kind of ironic twist when the viewer soon realizes that the embroidered designs below are not following suit in any floral design, but are the strange imagery of expressive hands emerging out of the bodies of Disney mermaids.Rivalry provides another example of Vander Kooij’s aesthetic.  Here, she takes gender specific bed sheets depicting old cartoons, and merges them together in an all out war of the sexes, with the words, “BOYS AGAINST GIRLS” sewn into the batting.  Rivalry does not make reference to the distant past, so much as to our recent memories of childhood.  The characters in the bed sheets, (Mr. T and the Care Bears), remind many viewers of the products of their past and the popular culture they or their parents bought into when they were young.  This is the waste of a recent generation, and so it drives some viewers to wonder what might have happened to all the manufactured nostalgia of their youth.  It is both a pleasurable and disconcerting feeling, for it brings many of us back to a more carefree time, but also reminds us of all the products we have encountered in our lives that have gone to waste.

Similarly, Nina Stahlschmidt utilizes the waste of our past to fashion her creations, however, she looks further back in time for inspiration. Her book Canadian Feed Bags – Recycled Then and Now, not only features the history of the feedbag in Canada, but also incorporates her own quilts.  As an avid collector of feedbags from across Canada, she has learned to salvage the bits she finds, which are usually in bad condition, to create original quilts.  Her knowledge of the extensive history of recycling feedbags, aids her in her own recycling of material in her work.  For the same reasons as Vander Kooij, Stahlschmidt does not want fabric to go to waist, and the appeal of old material provides a certain worn down charm.  Stahlschmidt says in her book,

The bags that we cut up for our quilts are, in most cases, are duplicates from our collections.[13]  They are 100% cotton and have stains, holes, are dirty and are often beyond any other use!  Therefore, we feel we are justified in recycling what we can salvage from the bags.  With the remnants, we make useful and beautiful quilt to be enjoyed by all!  Surely this is preferable to leaving the bags in basements and barns to be forgotten or to disintegrate.[14]

Similar to Vander Kooij and Stahlschmidt, another artist uses the medium of quilting as a way to incorporate recycled materials.  Roushell Goldstein, an up and coming Toronto-based artist, uses virtually all second-hand clothing as a source for inspiration.  Her talent lies in her juxtaposition of color, contrast and pattern, and literally taking rags of fabric, to riches.  This ‘shabby chic’ appeal is evident in her work, as the presence of old fabrics contribute to its one-of-a-kind nature.  When asked why she chooses to recycle instead of purely buying new, she eloquently states,

There is SO MUCH out there! And when you are looking at, and touching used clothing, you are experiencing a kind of history of fabric at your fingertips.  From old upholstery material to beaded wedding dresses, from Art Deco florals, to exquisite Japanese patterns, from plaids and lines to paisleys and solids – I could go on… and the variations of juxtaposing the materials together is infinite, and therefore very challenging.  Therein lies the Art, I believe.[15]

An attraction to old fabric and clothing is a very common and powerful theme in fibre art in Canada and, in the world at large.  It has come to be a prominent aesthetic in the works of many artists.  Yet, the driving force behind the preference for old material goes deeper than just an artist’s belief that it is beautiful.  Unlike the past, where the recycling of materials was out of financial necessity and resourcefulness, we are now compelled by new motivation to reuse fabric.  A movement has formed where there is a yearning for something more.  We are surrounded by mass-production and cold, emotionless implements on a daily basis.  This corporately dominated world does not always provide us with a sense of history or meaning.  Our culture of the commodity, disposable goods, and globalization is leading us down a path of environmental and social disaster.  It is now the responsibility of social role models, like artists, to make a difference.  Many Canadian fibre artists have taken up this responsibility, however small or largely conscious they are of their actions, and employ the use of recycled material in their work.  Their work provides a more personal and intimate quality to our lives, as well as helping us work towards being more socially and environmentally aware.

LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

Images copyright and courtesy of Roushell Goldstein.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carlson, Daryl-Lynn. “Eco-friendly can be stylish”  National Post (2008): Pg. FP.5. Canadian Newsstand Proquest.  Concordia University Libraries. 9 Nov. 2008 http://www.proquest.com

Cox, Andrea. “Designers go green with fabrics; Following haute couture’s lead, home fashions taking cover in organic cloth”  Colonist Times (2007): Pg. E.8. Canadian Newsstand Proquest.  Concordia University Libraries. 9 Nov. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com>

Deveau, Sarah. “Hand-me-down handbags”  Calgary Herald (2004): Pg. D.5. Canadian NewsstandProquest.  Concordia University Libraries. 9 Nov. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com>

Finan-Eshelman, Benares.  “Transformations East: Recycled Materials Made Beautiful and Thought-Provoking”  Fiberarts (2005)  Journal 32 no. 2 Pg. 62 Art Full Text Wilson Web. Concordia University Libraries. 9 Nov. 2008 <http://vnweb.hwwilson.com>

Fry, Gladys-Marie. Stitched from the Soul: slave quilts from the Antebellum South. USA: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Geurts, Jane.  “Fabricated at Frenchys; Made from find from used clothing bins, Jennifer Beckley’s quilts are imperfect, impermanent and incomplete –  a perfect embodiment of the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic” Telegraph Journal(2008): Pg G. 3. Canadian Newsstand Proquest.  Concordia University Libraries. 9 Nov. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com>

Goldstein, Roushell. Interview by Author, 3 Dec, 2008, Toronto, Ont. Written Notes

Lord, Danielle.  The Underside of Clothing. Quebec: Musée Marcil Publishing, 2002.

Winnipeg Art Gallery.  Manitoba Quilts and Ceramics Winnipeg:  Crafts Guild of Manitoba, 1972.

Sasano, Mari.  “Alberta craft artists show off their green side” Edmonton Journal (2006): Pg. G. 8.Canadian Newsstand Proquest.  Concordia University Libraries. 9 Nov. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com>

Stabb, Jo Ann. “Transformations: Trash to art”  Surface Design Journal (2002): Journal 26 no. 2. Pg 14-19.  Art Full Text Wilson Web. Concordia University Libraries. 9 Nov. 2008 <http://vnweb.hwwilson.com>

Stahlschmidt, Nina. Canadian Feed Bags- Recycled Then and Now:  Their stories and their quilts.  Jordan, Ontario: Qwiltr, 2006.

Vander Kooij, Andréa.  Artist’s Statement.  Show: I Want to Tell You Everything.  Gallery Diagonale, Montreal.  Nov. 1st to 29th, 2008.

 

Endnotes

[1] No Author, Winnipeg Art Gallery.  Manitoba Quilts and Ceramics Winnipeg:  Crafts Guild of Manitoba, 1972. Pg. 5.

[2] Gladys-Marie Fry. Stitched from the Soul: slave quilts from the Antebellum South. USA: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pg. 43

[3]Nina Stahlschmidt,. Canadian Feed Bags- Recycled Then and Now:  Their stories and their quilts.  Jordan, Ontario: Qwiltr, 2006. Pg. 22

[4] Stahlschmidt, 22

[5] Stahlschmidt, 62

[6] Stahlschmidt, 65

[7] Jane  Geurts.  “Fabricated at Frenchys; Made from find from used clothing bins, Jennifer Beckley’s quilts are imperfect, impermanent and incomplete –  a perfect embodiment of the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic” Canadian Newsstand  (2008): Pg G. 3. Proquest.  Concordia University Libraries. 9 Nov. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com>

[8] Mari Sasano.  “Alberta craft artists show off their green side” Edmonton Journal (2006): Pg. G. 8. Canadian NewsstandProquest.  Concordia University Libraries. 9 Nov. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com>

[9] Danielle Lord The Underside of Clothing. Quebec: Musée Marcil Publishing, 2002 Pg. 30

[10] Lord Pg. 31.

[11] Lord Pg. 31.

[12] Andréa Vander Kooij.  Artist’s Statement.  Show: I Want to Tell You Everything.  Gallery Diagonale, Montreal.  Nov. 1stto 29th, 2008.

[13] “We” refers to her and a close friend and contributor Marion Holman who also is an avid feedbag collector and quilts similarly.

[14] Stahlschmidt, 33

[15] Roushell Goldstein Interview by Author, 3 Dec, 2008, Toronto, Ont. Written Note