Working with upcycled materials

My project

I think by now that I have a fair bit of experience with using second-hand fabrics in making quilts. If you are unfamiliar with my "upcycled" project where I try to finish at least 5 quilts a year using only upcycled materials - excluding thread and batting - feel free to browse here

Using the labels can add a fun point of interest on quilt.

Using the labels can add a fun point of interest on quilt.

Recently I made quilt tops “Radio Waves” and “Diffusion”. I'm also working on one I'm calling my "HI" quilt - all from basically the same set of fabrics.

I know there are plenty of tips and tricks about working with second-hand fabrics, but let me give you a few of my own.

Need some Second-Hand items?

Maybe you don’t have any second hand items and want to try it. Maybe all you have is a Goodwill and their clothing is over $3.00 for one piece! That’s crazy, folks- don’t waste your money buying $3-5 shirts just to cut up unless it is somehow exactly what you want.

1.  Start by checking out your own closet for things you don’t wear anymore – also ask around.

2. Spread the word among your relatives and close friends that you are looking for shirts, curtains, bedding, and other cotton items, etc.

3. Also learn when your local church-related or charity related non chain thrift store has a “stuff a bag for $1 (or $5) day – or a $.99/cent day. You can often get over 10 items in a plastic style grocery bag – I think I’ve gotten over 15—if you roll them carefully.

Tips and Pointers 

1.      Look for all cotton, but you actually don't need to restrict yourself to that as long as you are aware of what you are working with

You really CAN use that poly cotton mix! Or a linen cotton blend.  Obviously, 100% cotton has a lot of characteristics that make it easy to use, but don’t be afraid to try other materials if it is just what you are looking for.

Just be aware when you iron what you are working with.

And don’t tell the quilt police!

There’s no point in arguing with someone who is fully convinced that you have to use 100% cotton. Just do what you want to do and ignore the nay-sayers. T

2.      Don’t be afraid to go ahead and prepare your second-hand items once you get them home. (Actually I prefer to do a lot of this kind of stuff when I'm sitting in the passenger's seat of the car - if I'm on a longer drive.)

Pockets used on a memory quilt top

Pockets used on a memory quilt top

I don’t usually wash them unless they smell bad or was are afraid of bedbugs or other such awful things.  I always wash my quilts once I make them, so I don’t (usually) feel the need to wash these items first. But many people do. My most common source for these items are a couple of local second-hand shops here in Poland that must get their stuff from freshly washed stuff—at least it all smells clean anyway!

I go ahead and cut off the buttons and take the shirt apart – but I don’t rip the pockets off as some do. I like the pocket section as well as the label on the yoke so I save those. So far I’ve made 3 quilts/tops with the pockets of shirts and have incorporated labels into several as well.

"Checkered Past " uses a pocket in each block.

"Checkered Past" uses a pocket in each block.

Because I have gone through literally hundreds of shirts/blouses. clothing items, I no longer save the collars and cuffs or front plackets.  I simply wasn’t getting enough fabric from them to make it worth the work to get to it. If you like it, then by all means, use every single square inch/centimeter!

3.      Sort your fabrics.

Decide on a system that works for you, but I go by color.

Once I get my items cut up into pieces that are usable – I do not go so far as to remove all seams such as the hems or darts, since I can do that when I cut them up. I mostly just tear them apart at the seams or cut them if they don't want to tear. I tend to leave one seam along one side if I'm tearing or cutting. However, I'm not a perfectionist. I've seen people recommend cutting all seams off first.

I fold them (sort of, but it’s more like I toss them) and put them in plastic containers by color. I have plastic containers for BLUES, GREENS, REDS, YELLOWS, etc. For this current set of quilt tops I’m making, I opened the orange, red, yellow and green containers to look for fabric I considered appropriate.

For bigger pieces such as sheets, curtains or duvet covers, or yardage I manage to find second-hand in thrift stores, I actually fold them and put them on shelves – apart from my regular “new” fabrics.  I do that because I like to be able to see quickly what I have when I want to make an upcycled quilt. I do use things from this set of shelves often when quilting – esp. for backings.

4.      Go for it!  After all, it's JUST fabric. Just think of it as fabric from a non typical source!


I know that some people make “upcycled quilts” as an ECO thing – an effort to save the environment and reduce waste and textiles from going to the dump.  This isn’t my main motivation, but it is a plus nonetheless.

My purpose in making these is to show that it is possible to make interesting quilts even without expensive quilt shop fabric  - either due to cost or lack of availability in your country.  I like it that I’m “rescuing” textiles from the trash, of course!

I’ve heard one person say that they felt guilty for taking these items from the store for cheap – when they could be clothing a needy person (say, a person who fills a bag for $1).  I say, “Don’t worry about it.”  I’ve never seen a person go naked in public because they didn’t have any clothes to wear. Anyone who is that poor probably isn’t even at the thrift store looking to buy clothes – they would probably be GIVEN clothes. So, buy as many as you want and help out your local charity/second-hand shop! It's a win/win situation - you are helping your charity shop and exercising your creative talents at the same time!




Becky PetersenComment