Every Fabric Deserves a Second Chance

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Using Recycled Fabric in Quilts

Sourcing and using recycled fabric in my quilts is what I love to do. There’s the thrill of the hunt, helping out good causes, and creating unique and beautiful quilts–what’s not to love?

I mainly use simple improv blocks for my quilts, but you can use all of the fabrics I mention below in any type of quilt. Scrappy quilts in particular look great with a mix of recycled, vintage, and new fabrics. The best thing to do is to experiment with a sample block to see how the fabrics look together. In my opinion, the broader the mix of fabrics in these types of quilts, the better they look.


Half-square triangle quilt made from recycled fabric. Photo by Bailey English.


My top tips and thoughts on sourcing and using recycled fabric:

Sourcing fabric

Hunting for interesting and unique fabrics is absolutely part of the fun of using recycled fabric. I have always loved thrifting and finding stuff at flea markets so it made a lot of sense to expand this into finding fabric. My main hunting grounds are:

1. Charity and Goodwill shops are usually my first port of call. I start by looking through the men's shirts. I love a good plaid and can usually find a good mix of plaids and stripes. Men’s shirts are great, the quality of the cotton is amazing and since they are created to be worn next to skin, most are very high quality. I tend to wear much more second-hand clothing nowadays so I will also look for shirts that I can wear before they eventually become a quilt. This lets me try different looks without having to worry if I only wear it once! On shirts look for wear and tear on collars and cuffs, if the fabric there is worn through then just cut around it. There are plenty of tutorials for deconstructing shirts online.

Keep an eye out for larger sizes as they offer a better value–you can get a lot of fabric from an XL shirt.

I’ll then head to the women’s section and look for big floral patterns which I love using. Summer dresses and tops are perfect for using in quilts.

Finally, I’ll check the homeware section, where I often find the best treasures. I’ve found bags of fabric scraps, yardage, and orphan blocks, which I love. Items like tablecloths, old curtains, and bedding are perfect for including in quilts. You can get some amazingly beautiful fabric for very good value.

I have even occasionally found incomplete quilt tops or damaged quilts. I absolutely believe it to be my duty to rescue these quilts from a bad ending. The first time I bought an unfinished top I was unsure how I should use it, should I finish it in the way the original maker would have wanted? I have since decided that by including them in my own work I am honouring the original maker, but at the same time adding my own stamp to it. I see this as a kind of collaboration with someone I don’t know across time and distance, and I’m happy that the unfinished top will end up in a quilt that’ll get used.


Huddersfield flea market fabric stall. Photo by Bailey English.

 

2. Car boot sales and flea markets are amazing resources for finding all sorts of fabric. I love getting up nice and early to wander around a flea market. I find it really interesting and super inspirational to look at what people are selling. I will sometimes even find another person’s unused stash or old “new fabric.”

3. eBay remains a great source for interesting fabric finds. Although not as cheap as the above sources, you can still find wonderful fabric and my favourite–orphan quilt blocks. I love including these in my quilts, collaborating with an unknown maker.

4. Vintage fabric can be found either online or at more established antique fairs. I occasionally buy beautiful pieces of vintage toile de Jouy and homespun plaid cotton fabrics. These can be expensive, but they are stunning and look fantastic included in a quilt. Negotiating is fine here as the sellers are often dealers and won’t be offended, they know what they need to sell something for to make a profit. I have a couple of people who I buy from on a regular basis, and they now know what I’m interested in and that I quilt. They know any pieces they get that are damaged and not good for collectors will probably be ok for me and will let me know about them.

5. New fabric is something I do buy, but I try to do so in a way that I sew it with recycled fabric. I love new fabric as much as the next person and also recognise that designers need to make a living. Therefore, do buy new fabric, but only when it’s something I really really love and know that I’ll use it.


One patch quilt at Greenhead Park in Huddersfield. All photos by Bailey English. 

A note about negotiation

I don’t negotiate on the price in charity or goodwill shops. I personally think I should pay the price to support the charity. I have built up relationships with some of the local shops and they know to put aside any fabric they get in for me, I’ve even had orphan quilt blocks saved for me.

At the car boot sale or flea market, I do try and negotiate a bit of cash off the asking price. However, I’m not going to let a pound or two stop me from getting a great piece of fabric. I find the classic ‘bundle’ technique works–asking for a bulk discount or if they’ll throw in a piece for free. At car boots and flea markets, a haggle is almost always expected, as long as you’re polite then it’s all good. I like to mention to them that the fabric is going into a quilt. I’ve had loads of super interesting conversations start this way. People often love to look at pictures of quilts, especially if they aren’t too busy. Often the fabric they are selling was bought for a craft project and they are pleased to hear it’s going to be used in that way, a bit of rapport can certainly help you get a discount. The worst someone can say is “get the (insert your own curse or swear word here) away from my stall you British cheapskate.” At which point I’ll bid them good morning and depart. Their loss. Ultimately if you don’t ask, you don’t get.


A quilt made using an old gold curtain with hand stitching. 


Fabric types and definitions

I wash all my recycled fabrics before using them just so I know I’m working with clean fabric. Most recycled fabric has been washed a lot and is unlikely to shrink or have the colour to run. I also wash new, but old yardage because it often has a musty smell.

Where possible I try to balance the weights of the fabric I’m using. However, I’ve never had any problems combining different weights of fabric myself. You might not want to put a super lightweight cotton with a piece of thick velvet, at least to start with. Once you get more experienced using various recycled fabrics, you’ll soon develop a sense of what’ll work and what won’t.


Improv quilt featuring orphan blocks and toile fabric. 


Definitions

These are pretty fast and loose and definitely overlap.

  • Recycled – fabric from something that was previously a garment or something else.
  • Vintage – this could be new old-stock or deadstock (deadstock is old fabric in new condition. It might be that the first time round it just didn't sell and the retailer had loads left, or it could have been bought and then never used, so remains in pristine unused condition. This applies to any fabric that’s up to 100 years old.
  • Antique – any fabric older than 100 years old

Close up of a denim and old curtain quilt with hand quilting. 


Fabric Types

If you aren’t sure what it is, have a go at using it!

  • Cotton – This is perfect for quilting and I do try to get cotton, but if there’s a print or pattern that isn’t cotton, that won’t stop me from buying and using it.
  • Denim – I love using denim in my quilts. I think the faded colours are great and you get a particularly warm and heavy winter quilt when using denim.
  • Corduroy – I also love using corduroy in my quilts, the texture creates extra visual interest. It’s a bit harder to sew if it’s a jumbo cord, but needlepoint and lightweight corduroy are fine.
  • Polyester – is a man-made material that is super hard-wearing and holds colour well so it shouldn't run or bleed when used in your quilts.
  • Polycotton – I use poly cotton and have never had any problems with it. It is as the name suggests a mix of polyester and cotton, and perfect for quilting with.
  • Nylon – I don't use nylon, it's a bit too lightweight and in my mind not a very attractive fabric. Who knew that it's called Nylon (at least in this one theory) since the company that invented it had offices in both New York and London.
  • Jersey and Stretch – these are trickier to use, especially anything super stretchy. If it has just a bit of stretch then that’s fine and I’ll use it.
  • Silk – I have not used silk much, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t include silk in a quilt.
  • Stabilising Fabric – the only time I've used a stabilising fabric is when I've used t-shirts in my quilts. I find that it helps when piecing. I use a lightweight iron-on type of stabiliser.

Nine patch quilt made from old overalls. 


Final thoughts

  • By using recycled fabric you will be keeping fabric from ending up in a landfill which is a good thing for the environment.
  • By creating a beautiful and practical quilt you can put an extra layer on your bed, and keep the heating turned down in the winter.
  • By using recycled fabric you’ll likely be creating a fantastic and unique quilt.
  • Experiment with different fabric types, especially if you like the print. Remember this is your quilt and these are your fabric decisions, have faith in your choices.
  • Above all else I’d recommend having a go at using some recycled fabric.

A new quilt in progress using recycled material. 

 

Chris is a quilt maker based in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire UK. He makes modern improv quilts from primarily recycled fabric and loves nothing more than rummaging around at flea markets and charity shops looking for exciting fabric to add to his quilts. Chris studied textile design at uni and has always loved art, design, pattern, and print, his work is influenced by art, fashion, street art, and travel.

Chris is a regular exhibitor and teacher at the Festival of Quilts in the UK and his work has appeared in multiple books and magazines. Chris has also just released his first thread collection with Aurifil based on his love of Street Art.