5 Ways That Thrifting and Upcycling Fuels My Creativity

Through several years of trying this and that, I have come to realize in the last few years that I am most inspired by using vintage textiles, thrift shopping, and upcycling all kinds of materials in my work. While I don’t reuse materials for every project or quilt that I do, I find that I am the most pleased with things I create out of something that seems near the end of its life. Maybe this is because the first quilt I made was from Emma’s baby clothes, who knows? Whatever the reason, there are some very specific ways I get inspired by these materials and wanted to write about them.
1. Tight design parameters. Similar to the intimidating feeling a painter may feel looking at a completely blank canvas, I’m often told by students that the choosing of fabrics for a new quilt that can be the hardest step. It can feel like a big commitment to pick from the huge variety out there and commit to yards of it. What if it doesn’t all go together? What if you hate it in the end?
Picking from my collection of secondhand and thrifted fabrics, my choices are limited by default. I can only choose from what’s available. If I can’t find enough of one fabric that would work, I must pick something else that I do have enough of, or piece things together, maybe from my collection of men’s dress shirts, bedsheets, etc. Small amounts of fabric sometimes means I have to rethink my entire design. As you can guess, this process often makes a lot of my decisions for me. I love working this way. Rather than starting from zero to find the perfect fabric, I must make work what I have available, and because of this I look at it all differently. Making it work becomes my favorite design challenge. Maybe I’m making a capsule fabric stash, in lieu of a capsule wardrobe!
Lone Star Quilt by Wise Craft Handmade
An example of this is the Lone Star quilt. I pulled a secondhand floral bed sheet, along with some solid pieces, from my fabric stash. Going into the quilt design process I knew I had a limited amount of fabric available. My plan for this quilt originally was something very different than a Lone Star design, and I originally wanted the floral sheet to be the predominant fabric. As I began working, I saw heavily faded areas and flaws in the fabric, which I would need to cut around. Thankfully I discovered this early in the process. I redesigned the quilt to have more complex piecing (i.e. the star) so that I could still use the floral sheet and cut around what I didn’t want to use.
This type of thrifty use is nothing new, people have been doing it for years, but sometimes it’s easy to get excited by all the new quilting fabrics out there and overlook this kind of challenge.
2. Unexpected color palettes appear like magic! I am told I have a keen sense of color and combine unexpected colors well. I did study color theory in college and honed my ability to combine colors while working in the apparel industry, but I don’t claim to have special talents in this at all. But! I will let you in on a very special secret.
The magic happens when you only have a few choices. I am willing to experiment with making what I have work, and don’t shy away from what doesn’t go together at first glance. What may seem disparate and ugly together can actually work with a little focused play. Don’t believe me? This works so easily and so consistently that I’ve learned to just let go and allow the process to happen, to allow the color palette to develop based on what I brought home from the thrift store.
Calico Star Quilt by Wise Craft Handmade
The Calico Star quilt, above, started with two vintage calico fabrics from the 1970’s I’d been holding on to (used for the stars in the final quilt). Their colors were a little off, actually not the kind of palette that I normally get excited by at all. But I am intrigued by tiny ditzy patterns and calicos, so I decided to keep them. It wasn’t until I accidentally laid them next to some solid scraps on my work table that I realized this, this! was a really weird and wonderful color palette I had to play with. The poppy reds, mustards, corals, and deep pinks somehow worked. In fact, these colors are used in tiny amounts in the calicos themselves, I’d just overlooked it because the patterns are so tiny.
Quirky color palette, check!
3. The rescue is exhilarating! Having spent a few years working in the apparel industry, I saw plenty of waste. (There was a point when my whole wardrobe consisted of old fit and salesmen samples.) I love that the work I do now feels less disposable, and I enjoy the challenge of saving something for a trash bin. I could probably count on one hand exactly how many textiles I’ve had to throw away because they couldn’t be saved due to age, stains, etc. If you open your mind to the possibilities, you see all sorts of new potentials.
The Halloween trophy DIY pictured below was one I recently did for Creativebug. It was a fun challenge to find these loving cup trophies at the thrift store and turn them into something decorative. I love it when my projects make people differently about things.
Halloween arrangements from old trophies by Wise Craft Handmade

4. Thrift store cast-offs create rugged new pieces. Usually thrift store goods have been machine washed or drycleaned many times throughout their life. When I bring them home to use them in my work, I have several tricks and methods I use to get them completely clean and ready to use (I was a textile geek in college). Once a textile has gone through all of this, it is no doubt able to withstand any use it would see as a quilt or pillow in someone’s home. Often my clients are reassured when they are told that everything in a piece has been washed and dried, and that they can do the same without worry.
Salesman Swatch pillows by Wise Craft Handmade
The Salesman Swatch pillows I made recently are a perfect example of this. These were original swatches on swatch cards, that had been stored in salesman sample cases for many many years. They smelled and they had some kind of adhesive on the back of them. I wasn’t sure the swatches were useable, but spent an entire day tearing the swatches off the cards and putting them in lingerie bags. Then, after a soak, I washed them in my washing machine, and dried them in my dryer. My thoughts were simple. If they can’t withstand a trip through my washer and dryer (if they bleed color, disintegrate, come out smelly, etc), I’d throw them out and move on. But they didn’t! They actually came out looking a little sad initially, but a steam press to all those swatches and the results were obvious. These little swatches were totally worth the effort to use in my work! Not only that, but now they can be washed by the owner without worry. Win win!
5. The end product is completely unique! This is probably the most exciting point for me. I don’t want the things I make to look like someone else’s. I strive to be unique both in my design and my textile choices. I had someone make a comment on one of my salesman sample swatch pillows “I can sew patchwork, but I could never recreate that fabric combination, and it’s perfect for my new chair.” So, she bought it. That’s someone who gets what I do. I believe in using up my materials because I want them to be used and out in the world, plus then I can enjoy going out and getting new ones. I can’t make hundreds and hundreds of the exact same thing, because that’s not what Wise Craft is about.
Cocktails on the beach quilt by Wise Craft Handmade
Take the Cocktails on the Beach quilt, above. The low volume background is made entirely from a collection of men’s shirts I’d been gathering together for a quilt. The fabric was mostly used up in this quilt and I only have little bits left, but I don’t regret it for a minute. They were the perfect components to the design I had in mind, and using them up made me love this quilt even more.
For the new year, I have created a fun downloadable document detail my top 10 tips for successful thrift shopping. Sign up for my newsletter, and get your copy delivered directly to your inbox.
Maybe you’ll be inspired to do some rescuing too!

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