Upcycling a Reading Chair

Patinaed wooden chair with gold patterned turquoise cushions.

Allow me to set the scene: Your belly is pleasantly full of diner eggs and toast. You’ve consumed just the right level of your morning drink of choice (I’m on team tea!) and have made a productive home depot run. While driving home, you remark to your partner/fiancé/friend/husband/wife/sibling/parent/child that you should take the long way so that you can enjoy a short hike before the weather warms up. Stopping at the thrift store just before the trailhead wasn’t really part of that plan, but the parking lot’s almost never so empty and you can’t help it. After wandering around for about five minutes, you find a solid wood chair with gross cushions on it. The price is right. There’s room in the boot (trunk). It would be perfect in the family room and you’re semi confident that you can make new cushions. Would you go for it? We did, went for our hike and then threw the cushions out as soon as we got home.

The chair in question has caused a lot of inspiration and discussion in our household. Do we sand and re-stain it? What about throwing on some chalk paint? How on earth does one sew a cushion? What kind of fabric should I use and how much do I need? Joann’s down the hill sells large amounts of foam… right?

We ended up purchasing 4 yards of denim fabric from Spoonflower and 2 yards of 5 inch foam from Joann’s. Then came the google searching, has anyone done this before? In case you’re curious, the answer is yes! There are a lot of tutorials out there, but when it comes to drafting a pattern for your custom cushion Online Fabric Store had the most straightforward tutorial. Another pro tip we discovered is that a bread knife will work just as good as one of those expensive electric cutters!

Both cushions were sewn up in an evening, the hardest part was the little bit of Frankensteining that I did in order to create the bottom cushion’s t-shape (both sides have a hand sewing piece in order to make the curve). Honestly, it would have looked smoother if I had used matching thread, but you can’t really see it anyway. This is one of the few projects I’ve sewn where the “fit” of the final object would make or break it. Sure, I’ve made dresses before, but you can sort of fix those after the fact.

I’m super proud of the way the two cushions came out, even if the only piece of the original chair that remains is the frame. To the original cushion’s credit, the plan had started out as keeping them and putting new covers on. Even with fabric and foam cost taken into account, we could not have gotten a better chair for our space within that price range. My partner has already fallen asleep in it twice, I think it’s safe to say that this one is not style of substance.

Geranium Dress(s?)

I still remember the first time that I sat down at a sew machine (7th grade home economics if anyone is curious) and have made a couple of things over the last couple of years (a dice dress, a dog bed, some catnip toys, a pillow, a gnome bag and a chili peppers dress to name a few), but the last couple of months I’ve been revisiting sewing as a way to learn new things and hone existing skills. Some of this may be because I finally caved and bought my own sewing machine after working on a vintage one and a hand-me-down for so long. It’s fun to sew on a machine with settings and features that you’ve purposely selected for yourself.

During our winter break, I found myself taking a break from knitting to make an everyday bag out of some purposefully selected gnome fabric. Working with leather and rivets for the first time, I realized that sewing has the ability to provide me with something that knitting doesn’t anymore: feeling like a beginner.

It’s fun to be a beginner at something because you get the thrill of completing something while also needing to patiently work through mistakes and mishaps. You get to smile at your imperfection as opposed to thinking: I’ve been doing this so long it should be better. I’m more patient with myself as a beginner, something that feels good as we reach the final stretch of this pandemic.

When my coworker mentioned a local fabric store was offering virtual classes, the timing felt right. It was time to learn the whys around things and maybe be pushed into trying a few skills I didn’t think I was ready for. So I signed up for “Sewing for Baby” and ordered fabric to make a bib, burp cloth and a little dress.

Let me just start by saying, I think baby clothes are the perfect way to learn new skills if I haven’t said that on this blog before. The projects are small enough that you’re finished quickly, while being complex enough that you can learn some new skills. The burp cloth and bib force me to practice smooth (and tight!) round edges, while also diving into the land of hammer in snaps (which I’m still not 100% sure I’ve secured properly). I’m currently waiting on 3 fat quarters to make 3 more of each because practice practice practice. These simple projects have helped me get to know my machine and have shown me that slow is all well and good, but some speed can actually give you more control.

The baby dress, however, has been so fun to make that I want to make like eight more. Geranium, by Made By Rae, is considered an intermediate sewing pattern and is the cutest little dress. This pattern is so beginner friendly, while also having different options so that you’re not making the same thing over and over. Between the detailed instructions and Mary Margaret from Notion’s videos, I learned so many things while making my niece a little dress for her birthday. Sleeve ruffles, finishing seams, making button holes with my machine, sewing on buttons with my machine, correctly gathering a skirt — so many new skills leading to so many new what about this questions.

Isn’t that the best part about learning a new skill though? Discovering what you can do and learning all the things you didn’t know you didn’t know? I’ve signed up for a dress making class via notion that starts later this month and am looking forward to learning more about what I don’t know. I’m also already plotting my next Geranium dress, it’s safe to say that this “sewing thing” is going to start competing with my “knitting thing”!

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On that time I sewed a dog bed from pillows

The first moment where I felt like a homeowner was not putting the key in the front door. Nor was it having to call a plumber due to a leaking pipe. Painting didn’t do it, paying the mortgage didn’t do it. No, my first moment feeling like a homeowner comes from buying curtains and hanging a curtain rod.  More specifically, agonizing over choosing the correct curtains and hoping they matched everything else that I had decorated my living room with.

The same feeling emerged a few weekends ago when I purchased new pillows for my bed. This time, I laughed at the feeling because I’ve been purchasing pillows every few years for the last 10 years or so. This was not a new event, but man was I proud when I laid down on my new pillows and drifted off into a deep sleep.

There was nothing wrong with the pillows I had replaced — other than having gone a little flat for my side sleeping habits — which is probably what lead to the “I’m a homeowner” feeling. In other words, I don’t think it was purchasing the new pillows. I think it was the desire to repurpose the old ones.

Two pillows sewn together using mattress stitch.Enter my dog Loche. Due to various reasons, he found himself in need of a new bed (probably the number one reason is he’s spoiled and needs multiple beds around the house). Between the old pillows and the fleece fabric sale at Joann’s, it was destiny.

The first thing I did was spray the pillows with Vet’s Best Flea and Tick Home Spray (I don’t have fleas, just thought it was a good idea and I like the smell). Afterwards, I broke out my hand sewing skills to sew the two pillows together using mattress stitch. In my mind, this would allow the two pillows to stay connected as Loche situates himself on the bed. Knowing that Loche prefers to nuzzle between pillows, I sewed the indents facing inwards and the fluffier bits facing outwards.

A zipper being attached to fabric using a sewing machineThen I took my fabric (~2 yards of fleece) and folded it into a square. The first thing  I attached was the zipper, which I stuck on the shortest side so that I didn’t have to invest in a giant zipper. Then I sewed the other two edges closed and added the pillows. I ended up with just a little bit of extra fabric, which I put on top of the bed so that Loche could nuzzle into it.

The result? A cute little dog bed for <$20! Does he even use it? He kept trying to climb into it while I was “trying on” the pillow cover — and then he napped on it all afternoon. I think it’s safe to say this project was a success.

Loche on his new dog bed -- a navy bed with smores on it.

Dyeing Experience with Smooth Rock Tripe

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It finally happened, I caught the natural dye bug. As I hike through the woods, I find myself wondering what color different things would bring to my yarn. Spending hours thumbing through beautifully illustrated natural dying books (Wild Color, The Modern Natural Dyer, and Harvesting Color, to name a few) piqued my interest, but it was not until my coworker started showing off her hand-dyed yarn that I started to become invested.

Fast forward almost a year, my coworker created a bath of Smooth Rock Tripe that she picked up while in Rhode Island and soaked for three months. The resulting dye bath looked very similar to grape juice, a dark rich purple, a color that our yarn sucked up happily and willingly.

This time around, I dyed three skeins: two of 100% wool (worsted weight) and one that began as a golden yellow. The color of the yarn post-bath and rinse is different from the dye color and the color of the yarn while in the bath. The smooth rock tripe created a cooper color when mixed with the golden yellow and a matte purple when allowed to sit on the 100% wool skeins — a very different color from the initial bath and my expectations. In other words, not exactly the look I was going for on the worsted yarn, but I’m still happy with the results.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of the cooper yarn. It will have to be used as an accent color or in a very small project. 440 yards of worsted weight is a good amount, however, I foresee at matching hat/mitten set in my future (or perhaps a wide woven scarf).

My coworker left behind some cooper water, which should create a green dye bath, and some dahlia water, which should create a yellow-orange color. I’m leaning towards dying over the worsted yarn to see if I can create a warmer color, or perhaps something with a bit of variegation. (If I end up dyeing over the worsted weight yarn, I’ll make sure to document what it looks like.)

All in all, I still feel the same way about dyeing (and spinning, when I think about it); I don’t have enough control of what I’m doing to provide me with the results I thought I was going to get. While this isn’t a bad thing and experimentation is fun, it would be nice to be in a place where I do have control and can plan out my projects.

On habitats: Part 2 — Synthetic Plant Fibers

Last week I started the “On habitats” series to take a moment and reflect on where the fiber in our yarn comes from. Part One of this series looked at Natural Plant Fibers, which brings us to part two: Synthetic Plant Fibers. These include tencel, bamboo, corn, soy, rayon, and modal. In the interest of keeping these posts readable, I’m going to focus on tencel, bamboo, and corn this week.

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https://pixabay.com/photos/wood-tree-trunks-hardwood-logging-647597/

Tencel (Lyocell): Tencel is derived from the cellulose of hardwood trees. The trees are logged and trucked to a mill where they are cut, debarked and fed to a chipper. The hardwood chips are then turned into a pulp through the assistance of chemical digesters, which is then washed (and sometimes bleached). After the pulp is washed, it’s layed out in a large sheet and left to dry. Once dry, the sheets are rolled onto a large spool.

Next, spools are unrolled and broken into one-inch squares so that they can be loaded into a heated pressurized vessel filled with amine oxide. After a short time in this solvent, the cellulose dissolves into a clear solution and is pumped through a filter to ensure that all of the chips have been dissolved. From here, fibers are pumped through a spinneret, which leads to the creation of long strands of fiber. These strands of fiber are then immersed in a diluted solution of amine oxide (this sets the strands) and washed in demineralized water. Fibers are then lubricated (detangled), allowed to dry, run through a crimper and then carded. Once carded, they are ready to be spun.

The amine oxide solvent is non-toxic and is almost completely recycled during manufacturing, so it is not released into the environment. Additionally, the principal ingredient in this yarn is obtained by managed tree farms (no deforestation), the process uses less water and energy when compared to other manmade fibers and tencel (lyocell) is naturally biodegradable.

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https://pixabay.com/photos/bamboo-forest-nature-green-plant-828703/

Bamboo: There are two methods that can be used to get bamboo fiber: mechanical and chemical. The mechanical method involves crushing the plants into a mush and using natural enzymes to break it down before spinning it into yarn. This method is labor-intensive (expensive) and the fiber produced is not very soft.

The chemical method, a “chemical cocktail”,  contains primarily sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide — both are known to be bad for human health and are harmful to aquatic life when released into the water supply — which produces a very soft fiber (ie the fiber used to make bamboo underwear). While companies claim this a minute part of the process, a factory producing a lot of bamboo fiber/fabric will expose their workers and the environment.

Although Bamboo itself is a sustainable resource, there is a lack of transparency and true sustainability — the soil association has not certified bamboo at this time. In addition to the process of turning bamboo into a fiber, there are concerns around it becoming a mono-crop grown only in China. This is leading to a decrease in biodiversity and an increase in pests (more pesticide needs to be used).

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https://pixabay.com/photos/corn-cornfield-corn-on-the-cob-4457379/

Corn: Corn is grown worldwide and used for food and fuel, leaving behind the husks as farm waste. These husks contain a fiber called lignocellulose which is soft and strong. Lignocellulose is separated from the husk via a patented biochemical process. This biochemical process contains common non-toxic chemicals (acetic acid, sodium chloride, sodium hydroxide, surfactants, and softeners) and is combined with water in a rotator for about a half-hour. The clumps of coarse fibers are then washed (with water) and dried before another biochemical treatment is applied to reduce the diameter of the fiber strands. Finally, the fibers are bleached, dyed and spun into yarn.

The downside? A lot of corn is genetically modified, which unfortunately means that something in the pollen is interfering with the monarch butterfly’s breeding cycle. Interesting. Essentially, while the corn fiber itself is not terrible for the environment, there are a lot of aspects (mono crop, etc) of the farming process that is.

Main Takeaways: I poked around and there isn’t a lot of corn yarn on the market yet, it looks like this could be a growing trend if the demand for the fiber increases. In terms of tencel; I don’t mind it in blends, but have not worked with a pure tencel fiber before. That being said, it’s nice to know that even though the fiber is manmade from a tree (which is a little mind-blowing) the process is both sustainable and eco-friendly. As for bamboo… I think I’m going to have to pay attention to what happens in the industry and abstain from using bamboo yarns for a little while. While I enjoy the way bamboo takes dye, I find it hard to support an industry that doesn’t have a problem exposing their employees to harsh conditions.

Stay tuned for synthetic plant fibers part two (soy, rayon, modal, and ramie), coming next week!