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.

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.

On deciding to crank out a few hand-made gifts after all

An in progress photo of a baby sweater with both sleeves set aside on stitch markers. The body of the sweater is just about ready to be bound off.
Harvest, knit in Rohrspatz & Wollmeise Pure held double

A couple weeks ago, my sister announced that she was pregnant with her first child. As I eagerly await the gender reveal*, and hope that they don’t change their mind on learning the sex of the baby, I realized there was no reason I couldn’t cast something on my needles to add to their Christmas gift. They’re excited, I’m excited, I have some yarn that looks like a rain forest, new born sweaters don’t take very long…. so it looks like I’m taking back what I said about not knitting for anyone. (Remember that post I wrote about it’s ok to change your mind?)

Naturally, as soon as I said that the flood gates opened and I started to think about whether or not there was anyone else I should be knitting for for the Holiday season. I’ve had my loomed warped for a month or so with a table runner I’ve been working on for my mom, it now has an end of December deadline on it. I found this interesting/simple sewing pattern for handmade hand warmers and have a handful of friends that spend their time ice fishing or generally suffer from cold hands. In other words, I made it less than a week before caving and creating a spreadsheet of projects to complete before the end of the holiday season.

I can’t help it! The desire to keep people warm is in my DNA, as is the desire to create. So on that note, I have some last minute gifts to crank out. Here’s to my sanity!

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Completed Harvest with matching Barely hat

*I’ve read a few articles discussing how gender reveal parties are inconsiderate to future transgender children. I will love this baby no matter what, but will also enthusiastically knit little tutus if it’s a baby girl (unless she’s anything like me, then she’ll stop wearing them in favor of outfits more equip for climbing trees). I can’t help it, they’re so stinking cute. To be fair, I would also knit them for a little boy, without judgement, if he wanted them.

On habitats: Part 3 Synthetic Plant Fibers Continued

The “On habitats” series is designed to help me (us) take a moment and reflect on where the fiber in our yarn comes from. Part One of this series looked at Natural Plant Fibers, Part two: Synthetic Plant Fibers took a look at tencel, bamboo and corn. We’ll finish off synthetic plant fibers this week with soy, rayon, and modal.

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https://pixabay.com/photos/soya-beans-soy-bean-legume-green-83087/

Soy: According to Interweave, the first time soy was used as a textile was in the 1930s, when Henry Ford produced car-seat upholstery by blending soybean and sheep’s wool. Soybeans have a high protein content and are currently being produced in large quantities by the United States and China.

There are five main steps to creating soybean fiber, the first being the extraction of oil. Soybeans are cleaned, cracked, decorticated and dehulled before being conditioned and steeped in hexane. The hexane solution collects the oil, which can be extracted and reused. The soybean is then passed through a steam pipe to be rinsed of the solvent.

Next, the soybean is soaked in a 1% sodium sulfite solution for around an hour then filtered. This results in a creamy-white powder that is then dissolved into an alkaline solution. This solution is then allowed to age until it develops the proper consistency for spinning. The fiber is then formed by wet spinning or forcing the spinning solution through a spinneret.

Finally, the fibers are treated to baths that help it develop stretching and hardening properties. From here, the fiber can be blended and dyed.

This process doesn’t appear too bad, until you begin to look into the beans themselves. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the soybean industry is causing widespread deforestation and displacement. Many are calling for transparent land use and an increase in proper safeguards, but until those come to pass this may not be the best yarn for an environmentally focused individual.

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https://pixabay.com/photos/texture-tree-annual-rings-2119287/

Rayon: Rayon has an interesting history as an alternative to silk starting in the 1860s when the French silk industry was threatened by a disease affecting the silkworm. In 1885, Count Hilaire de Chardonnet patented the first successful process of creating a silk-like fiber from cellulose and is considered the father of rayon (despite more cost-effective ways of being created nowadays).

The major sources of the cellulose used for creating rayon include pine, spruce, hemlock, and cotton linters (residue fibers which clung to cotton seeds after the ginning process).  Regardless of whether wood pulp or cotton linters are used, the materials must be processed to extract/purify the cellulose. This results in sheets that are steeped in sodium hydroxide, dried, shredded into crumbs and aged in metal containers for 2-3 days.

Next, the crumbs are combined and churned with liquid carbon disulfide and then bathed in sodium hydroxide again. The honey-like solution (look and feel) then has any dyes or delusterants added before being filtered and stored to age (4-5 days).

After aging, the solution is forced through a spinneret and into an acid bath. Once bathed in acid, the fiber can be spun into yarn.

Unfortunately, the chemical by-products of rayon have received a lot of attention as they generate a lot of water and air emissions (the worst being zinc and hydrogen sulfide). Producers are currently trying different techniques to reduce pollution, and as the demand for rayon grows so does the demand for new technologies that make rayon better and cheaper.

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https://pixabay.com/photos/beech-tree-forest-late-summer-472095/

Modal: Modal comes from pure beech tree chips and is more or less a variety of rayon. The main difference between modal and rayon is that rayon can be made of variety or materials, while modal is only made from beech trees.

In other words, modal is made using the same process as rayon and has the same concerns. That being said, like rayon steps are being taken to make the process better and cleaner.

Main Takeaways: I think the main thing I’ve taken away from my readings on synthetic fibers is that there is no way to make them perfect. Even if the process to make the fiber is sustainable, the farming technique often isn’t (although the same can be said about cotton, which is not synthetic). All in all, I’m not sure there are many changes that I will make to my knitting — as I work mostly with animal fibers — but the curiosity around using bamboo yarn is no longer there. As this project continues, it will be interesting to learn about how chemicals are sneaking their way into my knitting. I may end up breaking my spinning wheel back out and going straight to the sheep! Or at least upping my yarn snobbery to organic yarns, depending on what I learn about man-made synthetics and animal fibers.

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!