upcycling: plastic mittens

Small kids lose stuff. It’s a fact of parental life. Oh, you can put a label on it, and that might help; but if you have a small child, things–sometimes necessary things–will inevitably be lost.

Thanks to the retail cycle, if you lose winter gear during the winter you will only be able to replace it with a swimsuit because the stores stop stocking winter items right around the time we all start to wear them. Frances has so far this winter managed to lose a hat, a scarf and her warm waterproof mittens. It’s an astounding feat, really. And if you’re going to try to inculcate a love of nature and the outdoors in your own small child in a northern climate–then you need a hat, scarf and mittens. Or an intimate knowledge of frostbite treatments. Which I don’t have.

Which led to Monday’s Bright Idea: I know! I’ll make them!

Now, I do have a sewing machine and I have been known to use it once or twice but I am not by any means an expert. Don’t ask me to pleat, in other words. But I enjoy sewing, and what’s more I enjoy shopping for fabric, especially in the ends bins–those places where the last remnants of a bolt of cloth go to either die or be bought at a deep, deep discount. Accordingly I have a lovely deep stack of fluffy fleece ends in various colours picked up at $4/metre or less. Consider that the fleece shirt you wear whenever it’s very cold outside uses probably on the order of 1.5-2 metres–that’s cheap.

I recently added 2.5m of a lovely thick deep pink, super soft on both sides. Exactly the right sort of thing for making mittens, in fact, especially when the internet provides fleece mitten patterns for free (though note: if you’re going to use this, add a quarter- to a half-inch to the top of the palm pattern and the bottom of the thumb pattern for a seam allowance, then cut the fabric close to the stitches when you’re done). And thanks to the pile of ends I had white fleece scraps and a bit of yellow felt for appliquing a bird to the backs.

Altogether I estimate the mittens cost me $0.25 in materials, and made from something that was essentially waste.* I used the rest of the 25cm strip of fleece sliced off for the mittens to make a scarf with a matching bird ($0.75) and have plenty left over for a nightgown and jogging pants for her. Not to mention a couple of tiny pink scarves cut out of the scraps for a few of Frances’s dolls. (They are now very warm dolls.)

These days, sewing clothes for yourself tends to cost more than buying new, which tells you something about the screwy modern economics of cheap oil and sweatshop labour. And there’s something to be said for the economies of scale in producing clothing en masse–it can use fabric, energy, patterns and other resources more efficiently. But methinks this is an unsustainable situation: as wages rise in developing countries and as the era of cheap oil comes to an end, the days of $10 t-shirts made in China are likewise numbered.

And fleece is a great place to start. The ends don’t fray; it’s easy to sew; the stretch makes the occasional lapse in fit more tolerable; it’s cheap, and it’s versatile. You can make hats, mittens, scarves, gloves, jackets, shirts, and pants out of it. Scraps can be sewn together for blankets or pillow covers. Small pieces can be turned into stuffed toys. It’s washable, it doesn’t need ironing. It’s an unintimidating place to learn a bunch of transferable skills, in other words, and kids love it. Also, you will never be caught off-guard by a mid-winter mitten loss incident.

Fleece is essentially plastic and is therefore made out of the same declining oil reserves that are otherwise causing such problems, so it’s not perfect–but not only is it possible to buy fleece made out of recycled pop bottles (recycled-content Polartec, for instance, is available at Mill Direct Textiles; according to their customer service department if the 3rd digit of the style number is an 8, the fabric contains recycled plastics), it is also possible to recycle fleece itself. In the United States, Patagonia will accept any Polartec fleece clothing for recycling whether they made it or not.  At the moment it appears that there are no similar programs locally (MEC used to have one but cancelled it), but the Canadian Textile Recycling Directory lists companies that accept polyester textiles for recycling in Ontario. (Or see this list for general clothing recycling.) It’s unfortunate that this extra leg-work is required; hopefully the MOE’s current review of the Waste Diversion Act will give us more options.

The important thing is that the mittens fit perfectly, look adorable, are comfy and warm, and were ready in time for skating that afternoon. By the time they’re worn out and unwearable, maybe I can put them in the blue bin.


*See this page for hints on sewing with fleece, which thanks to the stretch and pile can be hard to sew evenly. I found that reducing the tension and lengthening the stitch worked nicely for this project.

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