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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - Shwopping, upcycling, being thrifty and creative

Updated on September 8, 2013

Looking for some ideas to make unique gifts and crafts, but don't want to spend too much on tools and materials?

Learn how to make colourful rag rugs from scraps of wool and fabric. My aunt showed me how to hook and prod and prog the rug with a wooden dolly peg for hanging out the washing, that she snapped one side off to make a simple hook. She would use an old potato sack and gather her huge bag of textile scraps that she had cut into small strips and we would choose the colours and patterns for the new rug. She told me stories of how she had done this as a girl and how during the war all the textiles were drab colours and somehow she had managed to find some red cloth and how everyone had admired her rug with its vibrant red.

I remember when I was three years old and my parents were buying the house that I grew up in. We viewed the house several times and I would sit with the owner of the house who was a blind man and I watched him make his rag rugs in the same way that my aunt did, but he couldn't see the rug taking shape.

This traditional craft has a long cultural history among the working classes. Talk to people of a certain generation and you'll find they often have a nostalgic story to tell about rag rugs. It is not just the rug that is interesting, it's the whole philosophy and lifestyle that previous generations had that was carried out as a necessity, the lack of money and resources that made people value what they had and reuse whatever they could. My own parents would often knit clothes for me and as they became too small, they would unravel them and use the wool to knit things in a bigger size. My father still has the knitted blanket that they knitted into patchwork squares when I finally outgrew all the garments they had made over the years.

The rag rugs came about after clothes were handed down and down until they became threadbare. They were stitched and darned until they disintegrated. Trousers were handed down and down until the knees were threadbare, and then they would become shorts and eventually the tattered clothes were thrown onto the scrap pile. Then they were cut into shreds and turned into the next rug project. The whole recycling process would begin again as first the new rug would be used on the bed for extra warmth and it would gradually make its way to the floor as it became more used. I love the idea that the pair of trousers has so much use, passed down to younger siblings and neighbours, becoming shorts, then a quilt, then a rug. It reminds me of my friend's children who would make the distinction between "new to me" or "brand new" to determine whether they were getting hand-me-downs or something completely new.

The generation of people who learned how to make do and mend seemed to have a way of life that we try to aspire to in this age of mass-production and manufacturing. We can set ourselves little challenges that become quite tough, such as a no-spend day where you're not allowed to spend any money. My friends have competitions to see if they can do a one bag of rubbish limit in a week. We fill our cupboards and fridges with huge amounts of things we can't use, simply because it's "buy one, get one free". The short shelf life of many foods, which has been force-grown, with fertilisers and pesticides, mean that we regularly just throw things out because we're afraid it's out of date and might harm us.

My elderly relatives live very differently. They have allotments and grow their own vegetables. They swap seeds, plants and finally they swap the vegetables themselves. One will have a abundance of beans, another will have too many tomatoes, and they start the great swap. Their vegetables are dirty and mis-shapen, wrinkly and wobbly - they taste and smell delicious and they last for a long time, nothing like the bright plastic-looking bland food that I buy. Then my aunt collects all her jars and starts the process of making jams, jellies, pickles and chutneys and preserving all the vegetables. Then the great swap of jams and preserves starts to take place. Their houses are little hives of industry as they dig and plant and harvest, then wash and peel and boil. It's a delight to visit as they open their cupboards and tell me to fill my bags. The whole process fosters a real sense of community; it's so different to my way of living as I walk in a solitary trance through the soul-less out-of-town supermarket aisles, filling up my trolley with cellophane wrapped processed foods, buying more than I need just because it's on offer.

The difference between us is not only our upbringing but a lack of time. I jump in my car after the office, go to the supermarket and then dash to the schools to collect the children. I would like to make time to grow my own food, to have time to walk more and not use the car, to be able to wash the dishes and clothes by hand and to make my own clothes and crafts. I wonder how much progress we've really made with our splendid machines that whizz us through life doing everything so much faster and mass-producing things for us. Now we can buy clothes at prices that make them almost disposable. It probably costs more to run the washing machine and use the detergents and fabric conditioners than to buy the cheap T-shirt.

I took three bags of children's books to the charity shop yesterday and remembered the way all of my children had listened to the stories, and then learned to read themselves.The books were bought from the charity shop in the first place at a very low cost and I took some satisfaction in wondering how many generations of children had enjoyed these stories and each time the books were donated and re-sold the money being used for a good cause.

Take time to look at the things you have. Next time you're shopping ask yourself if you really need to buy what you're holding, or are you buying because it's a bargain. There is a UK initiative at the moment called shwopping where you take some old clothes for donation to Oxfam when you go to Marks and Spencers and you can receive money-off vouchers on your new purchases. Resist the bargains and see how much money you are actually saving by buying nothing at all. Donate old clothes and books to good causes and see how much more storage room you have in your house. Give gifts that are really special by making them yourself. If you shop to relieve boredom, why not try growing your own food, or do something creative - we made some fabulous jewellery from old sweet wrappers, or you can make any number of things from an old pair of jeans - bags, purses, pencil cases. Try making sock monkeys or look at some of the packaging around you and give it a coat of paint and varnish to make a pen holder, jewellery box or just an ornamental gift. There are more and more people today who are turning their hands to crafting skills and enjoying it so much that they can stop their full time work and set up their own online store or sell on etsy or other handmade sites, promoting their businesses through facebook and twitter, selling their sewing creations, making their own soap, candles, bathbombs, jewellery or any other number of handmade creations.

Think about our throw-away society compared to the make do and mend generation and re-assess your lifestyle habits.

Rag Rug Making

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    • favouriteperfume profile image
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      favouriteperfume 5 years ago from Malvern, UK

      Hi Robie 2 - thank you for your kind comments. I wonder if the global recession will affect future generations, together with their awareness of ecological problems that we were largely unaware of in our youth? I think it's why traditional crafts are undergoing a revival at the moment.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Lovely and very useful hub. I remember watching an elderly neighbor make rag rugs when I was a child and in our house there was always a rag bag where clothes and sheets that could not be mended were used for household cleaning and polishing. ( My mother was not much into rag rugs or quilting or any handwork) but the rag rugs gave me a nostalgic twinge.

      Every generation is born into and grows up in a totally different world and the generation that went through the great depression and WWII grew up knowing how to make do. My generation grew up with post WWII abundance and I wonder what Gens X,Y, and beyond are going to experience. thanks for a good read and for all those wonderful videos too.