The Frugal Art

Drawer Pull by E.S.M.As an artist I am always eager for the creative challenges provided by frugal living and the quest for unconventional solutions. I view limited means and materials as a criteria or assignment and constantly ponder over the possible uses and adaptations of old, broken, or left-over items. My sister and I have always viewed saving money as winning at a game and making something useful out of something unwanted is the same as getting it for free, which is quite a victory.

Even while growing up in very comfortable circumstances, I had a fascination with the potential of objects to be used as they were not intended. This interest may have begun with finding furniture for a doll house from household objects and making clothes for my dolls and cats from old clothing and yarns.

The Borrowers by Mary NortonMy pursuit of improvisation in furniture and clothes was furthered by literature such as novels by Charles Dickens which portray extreme poverty with infinite charm. There is also a children’s series by Mary Norton describing the lives of resourceful little people called Borrowers who see caviar tins as bathtubs and postage stamps as wall art. In one instance of borrower-like behavior, I used for a drawer pull the steam control knob from a clothes iron which had suffered a fall. Close examination will reveal that the knob bears the words “Max”, “Low”, and “Off”. The other embellishments used on this drawer were 2 pieces of star anise and untidy swirls of hot glue under a coat of paint.

A few years ago, while reading about Commedia dell’Arte, I learned that the colorful look of Harlequin costume originated from the practice of medieval jesters and fools, who were poorly treated and probably poorer paid, to fashion clothing from found scraps of fabric for the simple luxury of keeping warm. The romance of the pathetic significantly increased my fondness for patches and deliberate mismatching. The result is that some of my favorite clothes and household items are made entirely of materials left over from other projects.

The project I would like to describe in this post is after the example of jesters an fools. I have a favorite dress for wearing about the house because it is short enough to stay out of my way and has no sleeves to get wet when I clean. Over the years my favorite dress has been worn very thin and full of holes. The original green color became drab with accents of bright orange where it had met with bleach. There were also splashes of paint in attractive colors and not attractive colors. In recent years, I referred to it as “my favorite rag” and acknowledged that a sensible person would consign this former garment to the trash as it was not even fit for donation. However, I could not part with such an old favorite and so resorted to plans for resuscitation.

The first priority was to deal with the hideous color. Since the problem was uneven bleaching, I decided to bleach it until the whole was uniform. It took several days for the green to become orange and the orange to become pale pink—a pleasant surprise. And now came the unpleasant surprise. I laundered the pale pink thing . . . twice . . . possibly thrice . . . and it still smelled horribly of bleach which rendered it unbearably unwearable. After leaving the fuming rag in a heap for some time, I recalled once reading that UV rays in sunlight could break down toxic chemicals trapped in carpet. My toxic dress was then successfully rehabilitated after lying before a sunny window for about a month.

The next step was the fun part. I selected fabrics of various colors and textures from the leftovers of many sewing projects. These scraps were trimmed into squares, triangles, and whimsical shapes and sewn over the holes in the old dress. Scraps of leftover lace joined together covered the fraying hem and neckline. The spaghetti straps which were in the process of disintegration were reinforced by a satin ribbon which came to me wrapped around a Christmas present from my cousin and happened to be the exact length for this purpose.

The resulting garment is whimsical and wearable, and if unfit for promenading downtown, is quite sufficient for lazing and working at home or running to the mailbox. As more tears develop, I expect to continue adding patches until the original dress exists only as a lining. My favorite dress will, however, last forever.Brother Sewing Machine

I hope this account might encourage a few people to mend or renovate clothing. Sewing machines are very affordable nowadays (as little as $90 for a basic model) and sewing by hand is not unpleasant or very difficult.

In the near future, I will relate how my sister and I made use of our Christmas tree rather than throwing it away after the holiday and how this traditional annual botanical experience can leave you with a yearly asset instead of a waste disposal dilemma.

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