About ten years ago, I sewed a bunch of really ugly produce bags:
I wrote a painfully long-winded post about these bags shortly after I started this blog, in which I explained that one day I didn’t see plastic produce bags, and the next day I did.
So: I searched my fabric box and chose the most lightweight material I could find—a length of hideous curtain lace that my mother-in-law had probably bought on clearance and kept for a dozen years, before de-stashing and re-homing with her too-kind-to-say-no daughter-in-law, who—probably five years later—did the merciful thing (because fabric wants to be useful) and whipped up some reusable produce bags.
My children—especially my daughter—were horrified.
Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so weird, and NO, I am NOT going to take one of these bags and put apples into it, thankyouverymuch, because we are in PUBLIC (!) and who knows WHO might see us here, and . . .
(Ah, such happy memories . . .)
Ten-ish years later—ten-ish years during which I wore my children down and they willingly participated in my madness and I saved approximately 2000 plastic produce bags and my daughter got her own set of reusable produce bags (non-hideous ones which I bought for her stocking two Christmases ago)—my daughter goes shopping in a new zero-waste bulk store in the city in which she lives, and she texts me this photo:
Oh my. I think I will. (And I think I have to email the woman behind allthingspreserved.ca, so I can learn the story behind her produce bags.)
This post is a positive offering for the Ten Year challenges that are swirling around on Facebook and Instagram. So many of the pictures are so disheartening, but there are also so many positive things happening, especially in the zero-waste movement.
Zero-waste stores seem to be popping up everywhere—we even now have a tiny store, in the very small and not especially forward-thinking city in which we’re currently planted, a place where I can get bulk dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, and toothpaste. And while I know (I know!) that 2000 plastic produce bags saved—or two shampoo bottles, or three dish soap containers—won’t save the world, I can’t help but see all these little things as gateways: little things that can lead to other little things that can lead to bigger things, that can lead us from simple addition all the way to multiplication. Ripples to waves, in other words.
In other ten-year news, it’s ten-ish years since my daughter pushed her pork chop away and declared herself a vegetarian.
My children—especially my daughter—were horrified. Her parents—especially her mother—were horrified.
Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so weird, and NO, I am NOT going to take one of these bags and put apples into it, thankyouverymuch, because we are in PUBLIC (!) and who knows WHO might see us here, and . . . Why—WHY?!—do you have to be so difficult, and NO, I am NOT going to be cooking separate meals for you, thankyouverymuch, because that is doubling my work in the kitchen, and . . .
Just to be clear: There’s is no connection whatsoever between my daughter becoming vegetarian and Health Canada releasing its new food guide.
There’s only this: Ten years will pass no matter what. And when we come upon new ideas or are faced with new realities, we have two choices: We can flat-out refuse to go or be pulled along protestingly, or, we can open our hearts and minds to new ways of doing and seeing. And if we open our hearts and minds, we might just be very surprised—and grateful—to see where we end up ten years later.
I met my friend K just over 20 years ago. We were both still relatively new mums, our now 20-year-old daughters a mere six months into their lives.
I was early (of course) for the meetup at the YMCA.
I had bundled my daughter up against the prairie cold of February, driven down unfamiliar roads and made my way to a downtown I didn’t yet know. I had located the correct building and parked, carried my daughter inside, and searched for the room which a Somewhat Concerned public health nurse had recommended I find.
At six months, my daughter was smiling, sitting, crawling, exploring, babbling, sleeping through the night.
She was thriving.
I, on the other hand, was not.
I was teetering on the edge of something I don’t like to remember.
We had had *quite* the six months, my husband and I and our baby. There was the jolt of new parenthood: colic and nursing and diapers and sleepless nights. But there was also the move to a new province a mere eight days after she was born. There was the leaving behind of friends, family, career. There was two months of bout after bout after bout of shivering and painful mastitis. There was a house in disarray with boxes to unpack. There was my husband’s new job and his travelling schedule. There was crushing loneliness and a creeping and pervasive certainty that parenting wasn’t actually something I was built for, that I was incapable, that I would ruin this beautiful child.
When I found the room, there were a few mums already there, chatting and laughing and sitting in pairs or threes, in what was beginning to look suspiciously like a circle.
Heart pounding, I took a place by myself on the floor, setting my daughter in front of my crossed legs where she faced the centre of the circle. I kissed her on her temple as I did so often when I read to her at home; she had a smile on her face and I tried to breathe in her untarnished confidence, willing my skittering nerves to calm as I waited for the room to fill.
K, if I’m remembering correctly, raced in right-on-time, and took the only empty spot remaining, the one to the right of me, the new girl.
When I realised what the group did, I nearly panicked. What may sound simple to some — introduce yourself and tell the group how your week is going — strikes terror in those of us with anxiety. And when my short speech had to follow on the heels of a mum whose infant son had just lost an eye to cancer —
Can you imagine? In hindsight, that mum’s pain should have magicked away my loneliness and my overwhelm; why ANY of us had anything to say after that bleak report I now simply can’t fathom.
And yet, I tried—
Hello, my name is Marian, and we moved here six months ago, and I’m…just…so—
And then, with a silent score of strangers to witness, I slid ashamedly into tears.
I can still hear K’s Oh dear!
And after a moment, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to go on, while I fumbled through pockets in search of kleenex, she repeated her Oh dear, and said, Should I just take my turn?
I’ve often reflected that K saved my life that day.
Which is (of course) hyperbole for what she *actually* did: she extended a hand, she pulled me out, she propped me up, she stopped the sinking.
(Never underestimate the power of friendship.)
I like to imagine I’ve returned the favour. I do know I’ve received it right back again with interest, on more occasions than I can count, despite the fact that we moved away from that prairie city seventeen years ago, and that K and I haven’t met face to face since the September day we left.
This is the sweater I’m knitting for her first granddaughter:
This is what I know: when a dear friend is expecting a baby (or a grandchild), one simply must knit a sweater … or crochet a blanket … or stitch a name onto a Christmas ornament … or sew a romper … or cook a lasagna.
For me, this welcoming simply must be handmade. And that’s because, for me, making is not merely about raw materials and a product: it’s not just yarn drawn around needles, loops engaged, fabric created; it’s the route by which hope and love and fervent good wishes are somehow made solid.
Although it’s my hope that the recipient will be able to discern this — that there will be a shot of something hormonal in this realisation, something that more-than-compensates for the lack of a Gap label — it’s perfectly okay if they merely see a sweater.
And that’s because the act of making has already served half its purpose.
It’s been meditation. It’s been coping. It’s been necessary action.
This — the knowledge that making things is both a comfort and a necessity — might just be the sum total of what I know about life.
It might even be the only thing I have ever known:
When scared witless, cross-stitch. When in love, crochet an afghan. When grieving, brew tea, sew clothing, keep stitching. When pregnant after a miscarriage, sew a quilt. When overwhelmed, crochet snowflakes. When patience is stretched, knit mittens. When the fact that you exist infuriates the very people for whom you would throw yourself in front of a bus, bake cinnamon buns. When worry threatens to swamp you, make a garden, make soup. When daughter grows up and goes off to university, knit socks. When you are helpless to help her, knit more socks. When 17-year-old son is too young two days away from leaving for university, sew him a housecoat, offer to sew a pencil case, hide inordinate pleasure when he accepts. When said son is having a worrying amount of fun at university, knit him a hat. When words are insufficient, knit socks for husband of 26 years. When grown children come home to visit, cook curries and bake bagels, mend clothes and sew buttons and darn socks, reinforce their belongings with thread and imagine it’s not a metaphor — imagine it’s literal, that it’s strength you’re weaving into the very fibre of their beings — and then send them off again with containers of love cookies and muffins.
This making has been my solace, my crutch, my raison d’être — I make, therefore I am — my entire life.
And now — especially now — when the world is too much and too wrong and too ugly — when my chest has tightened and I can barely breathe for considering a new life entering upon it — this is the only way I know to stave it all off, and to keep going:
Make something beautiful, do something useful, solidify hope, turn love into a tangible thing.
My mother had a copy of the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Needlework sitting on our living room bookshelf, and when I was young I would sit quietly and pore through its pages imagining all the things I could one day make.
(Oh, yes, weirdness epitomised … )
One of the sections in the book deals with various ways-and-means of rug-making, and I remember that this subject held particular fascination for me. Although I was well-acquainted with the process of hooking a rug (because hello, it was the 70s) I didn’t know that one could make a rug by braiding strips of fabric together:
I’ve always loved textiles, a propensity that seems to walk hand-in-hand with my half-Dutch sensibilities. To my eye, rooms are immediately made cosier when hard surfaces are softened by textiles. A kitchen table, for example, looks homier when covered by a cheery tablecloth; a simple linen runner on a sideboard can be transformative; a small rug set before a sink adds colour and comfort. And for me — a person who grew up drooling over a needlework book, a person whose hands were always supposed to be busy — the idea of having handmade textiles … ? Well, that was all the better …
Growing up, I was taught — and dabbled in — nearly every imaginable craft: embroidery, cross-stitch, knitting, crochet, sewing, darning, macramé, rug-hooking … and of course, that other seemingly ubiquitous craft-of-the-70s: spool knitting.
(Does anyone else out there have fond — or otherwise, as will soon be revealed — memories of spool knitting?)
I confess I once-upon-a-time imagined, that like Sister Bear (in the Berenstain Bears Too Much TV) —
— I could produce a rug of the sort pictured in my mother’s book, not by braiding, but by spool knitting. But sadly, however much staying-power I exhibited for other crafts, spool knitting utterly defeated me.
Excruciatingly slow —
(And here I simply must interrupt this post to say two things. Firstly: Stan and Jan Berenstain — shame on you for perpetuating the spool knitting myth; there is NO WAY IN HELL that Sister Bear could make that kind of progress in one afternoon! And secondly: Sister Bear — I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are, in all likelihood, on a fool’s errand; your illustrator is clueless, and you will be lucky to emerge from the ordeal with a pot holder.)
— I remember sitting there, spool and stick in hand, wondering if I would EVER see the fruits of my labour emerging from the bottom of the spool. And when — finally! — those first-wrought stitches DID peep out, it was nothing short of a eureka! moment … only to be quickly replaced by the painful realisation that it would likely take YEARS to produce sufficient length in order to make a rug!
(I swear, spool knitting is THE craft to give a child if you want to torture them school them into developing the patience of a saint.)
When I got married, my mother gave me my own copy of the Reader’s Digest Needlework book, and although it’s come in very handy over the years (I used it to re-teach myself knitting, for example, when I was pregnant with our first baby and suddenly craved some tiny-sweater knitting), it’s also sat there, tauntingly, with all those “one day” projects — most notably the braided rugs — whispering quietly to me.
Fast forward to this house, and to the (first-world) problem of finding an area rug of a suitable size/shape/colour/material for my daughter’s newly hardwooded room. I searched high and low* and bought several** (only to return them all) and then suddenly thought, WHY NOT MAKE ONE?
Hand-stitching a braided rug still seemed like a crazy thing-to-do, but thankfully it was no longer the 70s, and I had access to a little thing called the internet.
I ended up using a slightly modified*** version of this tutorial to make this rug for my daughter’s room:
I ended up so in love with both the process and the results that I’ve since made several more. Six altogether, to be exact, although I won’t bore you with photos of all of them:
So … I admit I may be slightly obsessed with making these! The reasons these rugs make me happy are severalfold:
They’re great for stash-busting — they provide a good use for leftover lengths of fabric as well as fabric bought with Good Intentions or Just Because.
They can be made using clothing or linens that are too worn to be donated to charity, and which would otherwise only be useful for rags or would be destined for the landfill.
They’re fully customizable with regards to shape and size.
They provide a means of incorporating sentimental textile items back into daily use.
They’re useful, providing warmth and cosiness to a room.
They’re a (mostly) mindless project, which means they make one feel productive and less guilt-ridden about Netflix binges.
They come along surprisingly fast (take THAT, spool knitting!).
*Not really; I hate shopping.
**Two equals “several”, right?
***I made my strips of fabric thicker (about 4 cm) as the suggested 2.5 cm (1-inch) width seemed too narrow.
I am — once again — reading the Harry Potter series aloud to my youngest son.
This is his second read-aloud, and although I’m thinking this must be my fourth complete-series read-aloud, I may be mistaken; my older son claims I did not actually read the entire series aloud to him. Said older son is, in fact, extremely irritated with the fact that I am STILL reading books aloud to his 11 year-old brother: WHY are you reading to him?! He can read on his own! He’s like TWENTY!
Um … because my 11 year-old asked? Because I LOVE Harry Potter and am more than happy to re-visit the story?
I think the thing I love most about Harry Potter is the richness of the story. I’m one of those easily fascinated people, someone who positively craves details, and — curmudgeonly irritation over comma splices aside — Rowling’s vividly imagined and deeply nuanced world absolutely bewitched me 😉 when I first read Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone* years ago, before my kids were old enough for the books. As a knitter, one of the details which utterly charms me is the role knitting plays in the series: Hagrid knitting a large yellow something; Mrs. Weasley presenting knit jumpers* for Christmas; Fred and George fighting off hand-knit mittens; Hermione knitting hats for house-elves; Dumbledore wanting — above all else — thick woollen socks, and confessing a fascination with Muggle knitting patterns.
On the subject of knitting (and coincidentally continuing with the Harry Potter theme), I’m knitting yet another set of Hermione’s Everyday Socks (in what is not quite, but hints at, Gryffindor scarlet).
In January, I had set a goal of one pair of socks per month, and although swimming lessons and soccer practices have afforded me some extra knitting time this summer, and although I continue to slot in knitting whenever I’m able (in between pancake flips, for example) I’m still finding that goal to be a bit too ambitious. I am continually torn: how best to spend my free evening hours, when my youngest has gone to bed. Although I’d like to be reading more (I’m almost halfway through Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca), the fact is, I love making things. I cannot imagine a life in which I am NOT making things.
On the subject of making things, my sewing continues, albeit very slowly now that the kids are out of school. My 17 year-old son has cleared his schoolwork out of the dining room and I’ve moved my sewing machine and serger to the window end of the table and set up the ironing board in front of the window. The light is MUCH better and I love looking out, snatching glimpses of green and growing things as I work at sewing or ironing or mending.
And lastly, I deliberately used the term work in my last sentence, even though the flow would have been better had I just said, “…as I sew or iron or mend.” I’ve just hit a how-the-heck-did-this-happen anniversary: twenty years ago, mid-July 1996, I went on maternity leave from my job as a pharmacist. The very day I started my maternity leave was the day my husband told me he had gotten the position he had been hoping for — the one in another province which would necessitate a move; the one he had assured his pregnant wife he would *never* get — setting in motion a chain of events which resulted in me not returning to my career. Twenty years of stay-at-home-motherhood is a long time to ponder the meaning of work, and — cough*whatasurprise*cough — I have a LOT of thoughts on this subject. I could do a whole (meandering, semantical, over-thinking) post on work … you know, if I were actually brave enough to wade into this quagmire on the internet …
*Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone and sweaters (and a myriad of other changes) in the U.S. editions… The Americanization of these stories so got my detail-loving-goat that — even though we were living in the U.S. at the time — I bought our books on trips back to Canada.
About a year and a half ago, my then-seventeen year-old daughter requested something that made me inordinately happy:
She asked me to (once again) teach her how to crochet.
Have I caused you to roll your eyes and say, Oh, puh-leaze!?
If so, you might want to stop reading.
For anyone who’s not rolling their eyes, here’s the backstory:
I’ve been crafting *forever*. My Dutch mother put a threaded tapestry needle into my hand at a very young age, and started me off with running stitches on scraps of linen. Rows of cross stitches soon followed, which were then translated into pictures on printed canvas, which quickly morphed into charted (counted) projects, all at a very young age. I can still remember — forty-some years on — the extreme embarrassment my mother caused when she brought my needlework to my pre-school (yes, to my PRE-school!) so she could show my teacher what an accomplished little stitcher I already was.
Although my mother schooled me in nearly every other imaginable fibre-craft as I was growing up — crochet, knitting, rug-hooking, macrame, weaving, sewing — it was cross-stitch that held sway with me. Growing up in a turbulent household, those Xs became what I now recognize as a bit of a lifeline: stitching away in my bedroom, concentration on the pattern perforce blocked out at least some of what was happening outside, and it became a bit of a compulsion, or — shoving questionable mental health under the rug — at the very least, a hobby relentlessly pursued, one project held just threads away from completion while I started the next, the rather whacky un-spoken feeling hanging over me that my universe might just implode if I didn’t have a project on the go at all times.
While all this stitching did absolutely nothing to forward the childhood feeling that I was destined to be a novelist (and in fact, can largely be blamed for a rather dismal resumé of books read), it did result in this:
Here’s a close-up:
And then there’s this, the first and second vignette in another bell pull, this one a montage of Dutch nursery rhymes and songs:
And a sampler, one of many:
How many samplers does one need? It’s a good thing my husband is comfortable with his masculinity and isn’t opposed to needlework adorning the walls.
So it should be pretty clear that while I didn’t have a clue how to write a novel, I did know how to produce home decor. I think I must have reasoned that until such time as I could figure out how to write that novel, I might as well keep stitching. This plan — I now know — will never produce a novel. But it did fit in well with my early life lessons: my mother’s admonitions that (female) hands must always be busy, and my German father’s strict work ethic (Be Productive!), the result being a copious output of completed needlework projects.
This past-time continued, unabated, until at the age of 29, pregnant with our first child, I was overcome with a sudden urge to knit a sweater for the small person kicking around inside me.
Out came my trusty Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Needlework (given to me by my mother upon my marriage, because what else does a woman with Dutch blood need when embarking upon married life?), and tucking long needles under my arms, I re-taught myself to knit, and very soon was clacking off a sweater.
Our baby arrived (a girl!), and while she grew and the boys came along, my spare hours were spent sewing and knitting (cross-stitching left off as suddenly and irrevocably as Forrest Gump stopping his running in the middle of the desert), my knitting expertise growing as the years went by. Pieced sweaters on the long, held-under-your-arms needles were left off when I discovered neck-down seamless patterns which could be fashioned on much more comfortable circular needles. I taught myself how to use double pointed needles and knit items I had always viewed as nearing rocket-science: socks and mittens. And because this level of obsession was something that was just begging to be shared, I had cozy visions of teaching my growing daughter to stitch or knit or crochet — anything, really, just so long as she had her *thing*.
And oh, how I tried!
Over the years, I taught her cross-stitch, latch-hooking, crochet, knitting, and sewing. My mother was in on the scheme as well, bringing back stitchery and spool knitting kits which she had gleaned from trips home to The Netherlands.
But nothing took. Truthfully, our next-in-line — our first son — showed more interest in stitching than she did! And although my daughter was creative in a myriad of other ways as she was growing up — painting, drawing, card-making, modelling with clay, and imaginative play galore — there was no fibre arts craft that I felt she could take into adulthood with her, something she could work on while watching tv, something tangible that could flow from her hands to mark that her quiet hours were well-spent.
And then, in my daughter’s grade twelve year, she came home from school one day and said, “Melissa crocheted herself this really cool infinity scarf!”
I waited for her to ask me to make her one, but instead, this was what she said:
“I was thinking I’d like to make one too. Can you show me how to crochet again?”
Three scarves later (the third finished while watching The Walking Dead on Netflix), she’s still at it.
Successfully shushing my minimalist self who kindasorta wanted to ask, How many scarves do you need? Should you perhaps branch out…?, we bought yarn for her fourth scarf when she was home for the Christmas holidays, and while we were looking around, the owner, an über-helpful woman (as all yarn shop owners seem to be), came up to us, and in her chatty way, informed us that knitting is good for warding off dementia.
“Crochet too, I’m sure!” I quickly put in, glancing at my daughter. (I needn’t have worried: at eighteen, she’s not worried one iota about dementia).
Although I will allow for the fact that the woman, as the owner of a shop, might have some self-interest in promulgating the notion that knitting is the miracle cure for dementia, this was welcome news to me. I’ve had some alarming slips over the past few years — gas burners left on low; names of people I know I know, dammit!, completely forgotten; my embarrassing problem withdisappearing nouns (not safe for work or with children around, but a hilarious must-watch) — all causing me to wonder whether this was just “normal” aging, or if my neurons were beginning to fail me.
And this is where I finally (!) — Phew!, you’re saying — tie back in to the title of this post: in the interest of exercising our brains, do we all need a hobby? Some sort of occupation for the snatches of quiet in our evenings during which we could be doing something — anything! — beyond binging on Netflix? (Or — ahem — while binging on Netflix?)
There’s reading, of course. A resounding yes to reading! But unfortunately, reading isn’t so easy to do while binging on Netflix.
And writing. If you’ve ever dreamed of being a writer, of course you have to write! /whistles uncomfortably/
But it’s exceedingly hard to write while watching Netflix.
There’s crossword puzzles and sudoku, jigsaw puzzles and stamp collecting — all of which can be done fairly well while glued to Netflix.
And then there’s woodworking, but of course it’s not quite so easy to watch, let alone hear, Netflix with a table saw running (to say nothing of the danger involved in such an endeavour).
Gosh Marian, you might be saying at this point. What the hell is it with you and Netflix?
I think maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to talk about Netflix.
Here’s the thing: Why (she asks plaintively) does there have to be such good stuff on Netflix? Because if our brains have a better chance of thriving into our old age when we challenge them with novel and difficult tasks, AND if a little escapism is good (because there’s only so much sitting quietly and pondering Earth going to hell-in-a-handbasket one can do) then how in the world can I expect myself to knit something as complex as these Queen Street mitts for my daughter:
when I have to catch all the gorgeous nuance in Downton Abbey? It’s one thing to treat an episode of Friends or Mad About You or Star Trek like a radio program, but to attempt that while watching Call the Midwife?
Yes! Success! I’ve mentioned Call the Midwife, which was part of my diabolical plan all along 😉 . Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I can tell you that I can no longer hear or think the word Gosh (as in the Gosh, Marian, above)without it coming through in the deepish tone employed by Miranda Hart aka “Chummy” whose character drops a husky Gosh every chance she gets. And, best of all, now I can finally ask the question that’s been burning in the back of my brain for weeks: was anyone else out there in Netflix-land slightly disappointed about the slip-up in the third season afghan episode?
For those of you who haven’t watched Call the Midwife, I’ll explain:
Call the Midwife is a period piece set in London in the 50s, and in this particular episode the nuns and midwives are tasked with making an afghan for charity. They’re all shown busily knitting away, making squares for what eventually becomes a granny square afghan.
But wait a second … hello? … you can’t knit a granny square. It’s crocheted!
I know. I’m being totally nit-picky and pedantic. And I probably should do something about getting a life. But there you have it. As much as I loved loved loved watching this series, I have to express my disappointment that seemingly not one member of the cast or crew of Call the Midwife picked up that obvious slip.
Yes, well …
Rather than leaving this post hanging by a thread of what could perhaps be construed as a blatantly anti-feminist statement —
(Am I actually saying that I expect all females everywhere to simply know — as though the knowledge is encrypted within the nucleotides of our second X chromosome — the difference between knitting and crocheting?! — Well, no … /hums nervously while looking at shoes/)
— I think I’ll end by showing you this:
This is the bench my sixteen year-old son made for his sister two Christmases ago. You see, I have crafty dreams for my boys as well 🙂 .
(Hmmm … I’m not sure an item made from wood by a male child (wielding power tools) lets me off the hook. I think I’d better add that I recognize — and fully support — the fact that men knit too).
(Disclaimer: No Netflix was watched during the manufacture of the aforementioned bench).
Stores have had their holiday displays up for weeks, but until the snow fell this past week, I wasn’t quite prepared to think about it.
While I LOVE winter (I know … it’s a weird and unpopular thing to say) I find the holiday season to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to spend time with family and friends; on the other hand, there’s the stress of obligatory and thoughtless spending (and the effort of trying not to feel like a Scrooge if you choose to opt out of the obligatory and thoughtless spending). There’s the trips back and forth to the mall to mull over over-packaged crap. And then there’s the sheer waste that accompanies the wrapping of all these gifts.
I often think that life would be so much easier if I weren’t cursed with a mind that extrapolates. Because I don’t just see one store’s worth of wrapping paper … my mind’s eye imagines reams and reams of the stuff, stocked in stores everywhere. I picture it being manufactured in factories — some overseas — shipped in containers over the ocean, trucked across North America. I think about the energy and raw materials that go into each step of the process. And then the end-result: I see my neighbours setting out small mountains of garbage the first pick-up day after Christmas, a scene I imagine to be happening on streets all across our nation. And if our landfills could talk, they’d probably be saying, “Thanks, but you really shouldn’t have…”
The City of Vancouver — forward-thinking like so many west-coast cities seem to be — has had some phenomenal advertising campaigns which urge people to think about the waste that gets generated during the holiday season, like this one in which garbage bags — bulging with discarded wrapping and packaging — are decked out with bows and gift labels which say:
TO: The Landfill
FROM: Residents of Metro Vancouver
So there’s something very satisfying to simply saying, No, thank you to the plastic-encased packages of wrapping paper that are gracing shop shelves everywhere.
Here’s my alternative to buying rolls of gift wrap:
My mother taught me to sew when I was young, but the hobby hit new levels when my husband bought me a serger for my birthday when I was pregnant with our first child, over 18 years ago. I spent many happy hours sewing adorable dresses and rompers for her — squeezing as much creativity out of her nap-times as humanly possible. I also spent a fair amount of time at the fabric store, drooling over texture and pattern, my imagination running wild. And that first autumn of motherhood, when the store brought in their holiday-themed fabrics, a light bulb turned on. What better way to be festive and creative and to take care of the environment than by sewing reusable gift bags?
These bags are very simple: a basic pouch with a wide upper hem and a gap in the side seam to leave room for a cinching cord. That first year, I made them as I brought purchases home, making the bags just slightly bigger than necessary. Over the years, as our family grew, I added to the collection, making some small enough to hold a gift card, some big enough to hold a large LEGO set. I also left some lengths of fabric un-sewn: very large items can either be draped with fabric, or wrapped using exactly the same folds one would use with paper. Instead of tape, these packages are tied with a length of yarn, similar to the way paper gets bundled for recycling, or the way we used to tie packages being sent in the mail. Gift tags are small bits of red or green card stock, hole-punched and strung on the cording or yarn.
And of course, this means that the aftermath of Christmas-morning present-opening is incredibly easy at our house. There’s no hemming and hawing over which wrapping paper is recyclable and which is not, and there’s nothing to bag and set out onto the street for the garbage truck. The fabric bags and lengths of fabric are simply folded up, the yarn re-wound into neat bundles, and everything gets put back into the storage bin for next year.
Of course, one doesn’t have to be a seamstress to wrap gifts in an environmentally-friendly way. Besides the tried-and-true newspaper comic or shoebox approach, a rummage through the linen closet can give you everything you need to wrap gifts: there’s napkins, tea towels, pillowcases, sheets, tablecloths, those curtains you should’ve dropped at Goodwill months ago … any of that, plus a ball of yarn, and you’re good to go! Presents can also be hidden in plain view: my husband once “wrapped” my birthday present (a houseplant guidebook) by shelving it, and giving me a note instructing me as to where I should look. A game of hide-and-seek and a present!
I know my mother-in-law some people enjoy making a pretty package; for them, gifts just aren’t gifts unless they’re wrapped in festive paper and tied with a curly ribbon. To these people I offer this thought: take the dietary maxim, a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips, and give it a twist …
A moment in the hand, a lifetime on the land.
Is it really right that our ten seconds of anticipatory pleasure results in the creation of garbage that will likely never, ever disappear from the landfill?
I alluded to my curtain lace produce bags in my inaugural post, Green, and I thought I’d give them a post of their own. After all, anything this eccentric deserves to have a huge spotlight shone on it 😉
I don’t remember exactly when I made these produce bags, but hazarding a guess, I would say it was about eight years ago. I had been bringing reusable grocery bags to the supermarket for many years prior, ever since the early 90s when The Real Canadian Superstore, the grocery store I frequented, removed the plastic bags from the ends of the checkout lanes and began charging customers 5 cents per bag. Because I’m a bit of a numbers geek and like to add things up to assess impact, I’ll do the math: 24 years X 52 weeks X approximately 8 bags per week equals nearly 10,000 plastic grocery bags I’ve saved.
So I had the reusable shopping bags well in hand when I started thinking about the ubiquitous produce bag. I was quite certain supermarkets were going through reams of them, and unlike plastic grocery bags which can have other uses such as lining garbage bins, the produce bag, although useful for keeping salad greens and the like fresh in the fridge, was something I would usually throw away once produce such as apples, pears, and oranges were unpacked.
A sewer, I searched my stash and found a length of curtain lace which had been given to me at one point by my mother-in-law who was trying to reduce her stash. Because the elaborate pattern was decidedly not my style, I knew I wouldn’t ever use the fabric to make anything else, and as it was more lightweight than plain cotton (I weighed a length of both), I decided the curtain lace was the best option. Sheer curtain fabric would have worked just as well, but I didn’t have any, and as other sewers can probably relate, I was determined to make use of fabric I already had.
I made six of varying sizes, each a basic pillowcase-shaped pouch measuring between 9 and 11 inches wide and 12 to 13 inches tall. Because I didn’t want to end up paying more for my produce, I didn’t add drawstrings or other methods of closure which would add unnecessary weight to the bags. I threw them into the bag of bags I take to the grocery store and off I went.
Now, I’m not a confident person. I would much rather blend in than stand out, observe rather than be observed, so these curtain lace produce bags — slightly fussy and somewhat eccentric — were a bit of a stretch for me. Unfortunately, my very first experience using them felt somewhat like a cosmic joke: slightly nervous about using these oddball bags, I walked into the produce section, and what was the sight that greeted me? A bin filled to the brim with individually-wrapped sweet peppers. To say I was deflated would be an understatement: I nearly cried over the futility of it all, and nearly gave up without even beginning.
Truthfully, futility remains the key word in this endeavour: eight years on, I continue to be buffeted by waves of pointlessness as I look around the supermarket and mark the ocean of plastic packaging my lace bags are up against. I often stand there thinking why am I bothering? as I observe individuals bagging things that don’t need to be bagged; I often feel annoyed that I’m forced to leave my lace bags unused, as the produce I need to buy is already — unnecessarily —- pre-packaged at some produce distribution centre. I know, without the slightest doubt, that my bags are a drop in the ocean, but at this stage of the game I simply keep going. I give a sigh of resignation and then — as though I’m running a marathon and counting the miles — I say to myself, one more. In other words, I mentally chalk up another bag, and I continue on. For the record, I don’t actually have a running tally, but I’ll do the calculation now: 8 years X 52 weeks X approximately 3 bags per week equals about 1200 produce bags I’ve not used.
While 1200 bags may sound like a lot, it really isn’t. In the grand scheme of things it’s nothing more than an inconsequential drop of a drop of a drop in the ocean. So if these 1200 bags do matter (to me), it isn’t because of their impact. It’s because of the principle. The axiom take care of the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves is a good way to think of these bags. In other words, something small and insignificant can rapidly grow to something large and significant if you continue long enough, or if others join you. As ‘Becca from The Earthlings Handbook said to me in a comment, they set a good example. Of course, she said this before seeing what they actually looked like 😉 . I wonder sometimes if I would be setting a better example if there wasn’t an air of the ridiculous hovering around them. I admit that even after eight years, I still find myself pulling these bags out somewhat self-consciously, almost surreptitiously. As much as I would like to say I don’t care what others think, I do sometimes worry that someone will laugh at my oddball ways. No one has though, and quite a number of cashiers — usually women, and of a certain age — have commented favourably on them. They ask if I made them, they say they’re lovely, and that it’s a great idea to save bags. And no, there’s no sarcasm in their voices; they sound completely sincere.
My children, however, have been another story. If I’m slightly embarrassed (still) by these produce bags, that’s nothing to how they felt when I first whipped them up. They were completely aghast at what their crazy-lady mother was proposing to do at the grocery store, the very place they might run into a classmate or a teacher. They would stand by the cart, mortified, as I put pears into a bag. If I asked them to get oranges, and tried to hand them a bag, they flat-out refused. They wouldn’t even put them on the conveyor belt when it came time to check out. Undaunted, I would silently remind myself — somewhat churlishly — that I was doing my part to save the earth for them, and simply continue on, adding 2, or 3, or 4 to my non-existent mental tally.
It’s a testament to my oftentimes stubborn frugality that I have passed up sales on non-embarrassing, non-eccentric, non-curtain-lace produce bags. Our grocery store used to sell them. They were plain, a fine mesh, with strings at the top, and although I haven’t seen them recently, there are many versions available for purchase on amazon.com. I’ve looked at them, considered them, and then dismissed them. After all, why should I buy produce bags when I already have produce bags? And as time has marched on, my kids have come to accept them as well:
One day, about a year ago, my daughter pointed to a check-out display of plain, unobtrusive produce bags marked down to clearance price.
I shrugged and said, “I already have produce bags…”
And as she put the apples — in all their lace-dressed glory — onto the conveyer belt, she replied, “Yeah, that’s true.”