Back to School backpack

As I said in a previous post about school uniform, we really don’t need to buy brand new paraphernalia for our children at the start of every school year. I’m a great believer in using what’s at hand and ‘making do’.

That said, my youngest starts school this year. There is no pre-existing backpack, or pencil case, or gym bag. And looking at the things we used for nursery, I don’t feel like there’s a way we can repurpose them on this occasion. So, as I’m not going to buy anything new – as per my birthday pledge – I thought I would share the making process as I attempt a backpack.

There are so many reasons why it makes sense to craft your own items (if you have the ability to do so) and I would definitely encourage you to read many of the amazing works out there about why we should reject high-street fashion/supermarket retail if we can afford to – both Lauren Bravo’s book and Lucy Siegle‘s spring instantly to mind. Plastic fabrics, dyes, and awful work environments are just a handful of issues inherent in cheap, imported goods.* Second hand is a great middle ground if you can’t afford something ethically produced and eBay is full of high quality satchels which are no longer seeing any love.

However, as I’ve got a large fabric stash (mostly inherited) and the skills to make a basic bag, this seems like the most cost-effective, eco-friendly way for me to do this.

So, without further soap-boxing…

Step One – Select your fabric. 

I’ve touched before on the advantages of natural fibres, but I’d like to add here that you’re looking for something hard-wearing and duarble. School bags see a lot of punishment from day-to-day. Denim is an obvious choice, and most houses have an old pair of jeans or two which aren’t getting worn. If you’re going to use old clothes, selecting those with as few seams as possible gives you a lot of options as you’ll have larger areas of ‘uninterrupted’ cloth.

Step Two – Decide on your size.

In our case, school provides a book-bag, so this satchel will largely be used for a gym kit, water bottle and snack, so it doesn’t need to be huge. I think a good rule, is to think about the largest thing that will need carrying and then make your design just that little bit larger – around 2 inches on each side is usually a good shout.

Step 3 – Decide how you’re going to carry the bag

In some cases, a drawstring bag will be enough, especially for a gym kit. In which case, don’t make life more complicated than it needs to be and check out this tutorial. It does instruct you to overlock/serge the sides, but you can get around this by sewing a ‘French seam’ instead – tutorial here. For anything else, I would have said to just zig-zag over the raw fabric, or use some pinking shears, but for something that children are going to toss around at school every day, I really think that the seams need to be fray-proof for longevity. I didn’t actually do anything special for the outer layer of this particular bag, though, as it’s a plastic cloth which doesn’t fray. It was my table cloth for years so saw a lot of usage – I know how it’s going to stand up to punishment! – so I didn’t make more work for myself.

Step… I’m just going to start uploading pictures now. Wish me luck. 

To start with, I cut my fabric… I chose an old, plastic-coated tablecloth for this bag. Because longevity. And children. And I had it already.

I cut the same size of lining fabric too. This lining came from an old bed sheet – you can see it behind the garish periodic table above.

I folded the outer layer in half and sewed along the side and bottom.

Then I folded the bag in such a way that I could sew across the corners to make the base square. It’s difficult to explain it  but I hope the pictures help…

I did the same to the lining (check out those French seams!) and it might be a little clearer here…

I then inserted a zip into the top of the bag. The zip I had in my stash wasn’t quite long enough, so I added some denim scraps to either end…

I’m not sure if you can really see it in the picture above, but after I’d added the zip, I added a little strap with a popper on. If my child chooses not to fasten the strap, the bag has about another 5-6 inches of space. Not necessary just now, but hopefully this will last a while and might become relevant later…

This was actually pretty difficult to do because I’d already put the zip in, but it was possible and that’s the main thing!

I just hand stitched this big metal popper into place. It’s not glamorous as far as closures go, but it does the job.

Then I had a break for about 2 weeks while I figured out what to do with the straps. I wanted a backpack, but I’d already added the zip which made adding straps… less than ideal. I also didn’t really have the various buckles and clips to make the straps adjustable which isn’t really ‘future-proof’.

So I decided to be a bit… creative with the straps. I measured from my child’s waist to shoulder, multiplied this by two, then measured from shoulder to shoulder, and added these numbers together. I then doubled that number. This gave me the length of continuous fabric I needed for… whatever you’d call the contraption I’m rigging up.

I then sewed a second length of this strap fabric and stitched it across the back of the bag, with little gaps for the length of strap to pass through. Because I’d already sewn the zip in place, this process redefined my personal idea of hell.

For the sake of my sanity, I decided to hand-sew the rest of the bag…

Hand stitching is one of those things we’re conditioned to think of as too slow to be practical, but actually, for small and fiddly objects (like this bag!) it’s probably faster than trying to find a machine-friendly alternative. I used backstitch to make the straps really secure and always sew with a thimble – this really helps when you’re sewing heavy fabric like the plastic table-cloth. Also worth noting and contrary to what I used to think, using a thinner needle tends to be easier than a thick one on thick fabrics.

You can see from the pictures below that the straps can move between the two holes and the function of the bag can change from backpack to shoulder bag.

The shoulder strap will make is easy for me to carry when I inevitably get dumped with the bag after school, but the backpack position is perfect for small people…

All that remained was to fit the lining. Again, I chose to do this by hand for speed and ease. Sewing around the zip is just vastly easier this way.

Once I’d done that, all that was left was to turn the whole thing inside out and try it on the enthusiastic recipient…

I’m not going to lie – this does look… homemade. Our school is tiny and rural, and the children are sweet. They do pick on one another every so often but in such a small community, there are few places to hide so I’m not overly worried about my child being bullied for not having something ‘bought’. I do think, though, that this is something which you might want to consider if your children attend a bigger school or is a little older and part of a brand-conscious crowd.

There are ways to ensure that the bag looks as good as possible – all of them easy, some of them free.
– Measure everything carefully
– Press your seams as you go along
– Use the sharpest scissors you have access to
– Use a new sewing-machine needle for each project
– Use as high quality fabric as you can
– Make sure to sew in all loose threads (I think this makes the biggest difference).

I didn’t actually buy anything for this project – most of it came from my mother-in-law’s substantial stash – so it was really cheap. You could technically make it without the strap to fasten the top down, so you don’t necessarily even need the popper.

Have you tried making school supplies before? How did you get on?

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*There are, of course, arguments that we should continue to buy from these lower-priced places in order to prevent job-losses in overseas factories. I can absolutely see the reasoning behind this, and if this is where your moral compass is pointing you, then ‘you do you’ – crack on. If you do want change, though, you need to let the retail outlet you’re purchasing from know – drop them a Tweet, ask about how the garment workers are treated, and then don’t act as though the clothes you’ve bought are disposable. If enough brands are held accountable for the ethics of their products, then we might begin to see a change.

Depending on the point in time you’re reading this from, something like Lost Stock might be a good compromise. In short, due to the Covid pandemic, many UK retailers cancelled their orders leaving

Think Pink

This is a bit of a controvertial one, so I ask that you’re gentle with me. Views are my own and are only opinion, You do You etc.

But…

Before my youngest child was born, I was faced with something of a dilema – or at least, what passed for a dilema in the pre-Covid world. My older child was one sex, whilst my impending bump would be another.

At the time, there was a lot of talk about ‘gender neutral’ parenting, but the more I read, the more frustrated I became. The whole thing seemed to hinge on one entirely illogical element – the absense of pink.

If colours truly are – as every article I read regarding the subject insisted – “for everyone”, then why was it that pink seemed to be an absolute no-go, and what message was this sending?

There seemed to me to be a hypocricy in this, as though what was actually being said was, “any child can wear any colour, as long as it’s not pink because that’s for girls.” It simultaneously undermined the ‘colours are for everyone’ rhetoric, and devalued femininity.

So I made a choice – I was going to dress my boy in pink, and pass the clothes between children when they were outgrown as I would have if I’d had babies of the same sex.

The first time I dressed my boy in pink, I felt strange. The first time it was commented on, I felt ashamed – I won’t lie. My husband had a wonderful line, though, which he toted out regularly, “I’m not daft enough that I need my kids colour-coding, thanks.”

After a while, the comments stopped – the final one being, “Aren’t you afraid he’ll get into ballet or something?” I replied that I hoped so – it seemed to have been good for Jean Claude Van Damme’s action movie career.

So why am I writing about this on a blog which deals primarily with environmental issues?

The whole concept of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ garments was devised in the early 1900s as a way to sell more clothes*. The division of colour based on the sexes renders many parents ‘in need’ of new items with the arrival of a baby, and this can as much as double the environmental impact a child has.

These days, this divide in colours based on sex extrends far beyond clothes. I remember seeing requests in Facebook groups saying things like; ‘WANTED – paddling pool, suitable for a girl. As if somehow, the paddling pool would be less fun for the child were it not purple, or pink. Other discussions included; ‘I really want to use the pink sling I had for my daughter with my new baby – do you think it’s too girly for my son?’ Invariably, comments would ping back suggesting the same weave in different colours, or saying that of course she could use a pink sling because she was the one using it, not her boy.

We need to reject this idea that pink is a gendered colour. We also need to reject the notion that in order to raise children of different sexes equally, we should delete the colour pink. As soon as we do, we can return to a world where we naturally reuse the baby clothes from our first child for our second, where we see a toy for its play value, rather than its implied affliation with one sex or the other.

I won’t lie – it’s far easier to dress a girl in ‘boy’ clothes than it is to dress a boy in pink, but that’s only because people have worked hard to normalise women in trousers over the last century or so. If we’re brave now, we can ensure that our children don’t think twice about reusing the same items between siblings and cut down on huge amounts of waste.

When I first began thinking about my environmental impact (after reading Lucy Siegel’s ‘To Die For’, some ten years ago) I didn’t honestly expect it to touch so many aspects of my life. I hadn’t realised – to my shame – how huge an influence consumerism has on what we do. In order to truly reduce the harm I cause by over-consuming, I need to look increasingly at other areas of inequality in the world – in this case, feminism and gender issues.

As ever, I can only speak for myself, but I do passionately believe that if we’re dilligent and face these inequalities head-on, we can tackle climate change in the decade we’ve been given to do so. And if we look at all the causes of social inequality as we go, we’ll build a wonderful world.

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*Cordelia Fine’s work goes into great detail on this subject, as does Peggy Orenstein’s – the later being a lighter read.

Remake

I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time on Twitter since the country ground to a halt. I’m not generally a sociable human, but not seeing anyone other than my family for the last few weeks has started to take its toll and I find myself actively seeking out contact outwith my bubble.

And I’m so glad that I happened to be online when @AmyTwiggerH posted one of her incredible remade knitted garments. Her #Reknitrevolution website is absolutely stashed full of tutorials for how you can turn unloved knitwear into something you might actually get some use out of.

In my case, I’d seen an old cricket jumper in a charity shop (about a year ago now) and snaffled it up instantly because of the 100% wool fibre it was made from. I thought that even if Husband or I didn’t want to wear it, I could always felt it and either make a nappy cover for my youngest (who is due to start school this year, so that shows you how far back I’m going!) or some slippers. Fast forward and it’s been in my cupboard for about half a decade doing nothing. Time to change all that!

You can’t really tell from this picture, but parts of it are in a sorry state. There are ladders and snags, and it’s just generally an unhappy thing.

Here’s the worst ladder…

And one of many snags…

Aaaand a hole in the cuff.

But look how old! Look at that phone number! All things considered, it’s doing alright…

So, first step – repair the bits which need repairing. 

I started with the big, obvious ladder and used a crochet hook to do this. Excuse my manky nails in these pictures – I do wash, especially at the moment, but I’d just finished potting up some lettuces and apparently was lazy with the nail brush…

Anyways. What you’re seeing here is me sticking the hook through the loop closest to the body of intact knitting. Once I’ve done that, I’m going to grab the nearest ‘rung’ on the ladder and pull it through this loop….

Like so…

It’s really hard to photograph and descrbe, but if you do a quick search, you can find all sorts of better tutorials out there for how to do this.

I basically repeated these steps along every rung of the ladder until I reached the edge of the knitting.

When I got to this point, I sort of bodged it all by passing some of the cut ends through the last loop, securing them with a knot and then working the tails into the knitting.

Again, hard to describe, but this is the result.

Far from perfect, but it’s not going to unravel any time soon.

Next, I fixed the hole in the sleeve, and pulled the loop of the snag back to the inside of the sweater.

After this, I opened up the collar. It was a strip of garter stich sewn onto a strip of stocking stitch. These were joined in the centre, so I unjoined them.

Then, for ease of the cadiganising process (detailed here), I cut out the central cable. This could technically have been cut in half directly (and that’s actually what Amy recommended I did), but on trying on the sweater, it was a bit bigger than I would have liked, so with the added cardigan front it would have been even wider. This gave me the chance to get a better fit.

But here’s where I ran into difficulty. The yarn that I’d chosen to match the sweater…

… had been nibbled by moths. I bought it secondhand so I’m really hoping that the moths from it haven’t devoured any more from my stash. In any case – the yarn took a trip into the freezer to kill any residual moth eggs.

Meanwhile, I got out my good, sharp scissors and did some surgery…

In order to get a good, neat line right down the edge of the stips, I turned the sweater inside out and followed the single column of stitches between cable and stocking-stitch panel.

When the wool came out of the freezer, I started the process of picking up the stitches… This was oddly more terrifying than the cutting because it felt like the whole thing would disintegrate if I moved it around too much. Amy’s instructional videos are really reassuring, but honestly, I’ve dropped too many stitches and wrecked too many garments ot be complacent.

Anyway, onwards.

It would be entirely redundant of me to detail the next section of work as there is literally a video linked to above (where it says ‘instructional videos’) which shows you how to do the next steps.

Just to prove I did it though, here are some pictures of the cricket sweater.

Here, you can see me joining the two sides of the sandwich together and casting off at the same time with three needles…

It’s not as complicated as that makes it sound.

Anyway.

Fast forward again and you have this lovely little jacket for your cut edge. Suddenly, it’s nice and neat and tucked away inside where it can’t unravel.

On the other edge I did the same, but instead of casting off as I went along, I switched to a 3×2 rib and put in button holes. I sort of eye-balled this and sort of mathed it (‘Hey, Husband – which numbers go into 79 ish?’)

At this point, I realised I needed to make a decision about the collar. The issue I had was the fact that I’d unpicked too much of the neckline when I cut the front. I’d presumed I’d be chopping these bits off so I wasn’t careful about damaging the knit as I undid it. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

So, I sewed the blue and the garter stitch back into place. It looked like a total mess.

At this point, I was ready to cut my losses, but the sense that I couldn’t wreck this any more than I had done drove me to try and crochet along the joining edge between the blue and garter stitch.

At first, it looked crap. But again, I just kept going…

When I reached the other edge of the neckline, I still wasn’t happy with how it was looking. But again, I didn’t feel as if I could hurt this sweater any more by experimenting so I crocheted my way back along.

And it looked neat. The messy edge was nicely enclosed. I was so glad I kept working it to the end.

After that little hiccup was dealt with, I picked out some buttons from my mother-in-law’s stash. Like any box of buttons, the number of matching sets is limited so I picked out some cute little red ones.

After I’d sewn them on, I was ready to try it on.

Unfortunately, I can’t take a photo of myself wearing it, but I did snap a few shots of it on my manequin.

I don’t think it’s especially flattering in the picture, but in real life it ticks all the boxes for what I feel a squishy cardigan should look like. I really love it – really love it.

Thanks to the amazing tutorial from @AmyTwiggerH, I’ve taken an unwanted, unloved garment and turned it into something that I’ll wear almost daily. I’m super grateful for the guidance and the idea.

I think, as well, that this has changed how I’m going to knit, going forward. I’ve been working cardigans by turning the work, but this opens up the option to knit in the round – significantly quicker – and then cut the work to create the cardigan. It’s something I’ll definitely be experimenting with.

Have you tried altering knitwear? I’d love to see some examples. As ever, contact me here or on Twitter.

 

‘The 5 Rs’ – Reduce

I thought, over the next few months (or any other time I start to run low on ideas for content 😛 ) that I could look at one of the 5 Rs in more detail. This time, it’s the turn of Reduce.

I like ‘reduce’ as a concept – if I was the sort of person who picked a word as a theme for the coming year, I think ‘reduce’ would be the sort of word I’d pick. Reduce my spending, reduce my waste, reduce the time I spend online, reduce the number of things I own, reduce my worries, reduce any excess in my life… so many things I aspire to reduce. 

But realistically, what am I doing about it? I’ve written at length about reducing plastic in the bathroom and food waste in the kitchen, but not a vast amount about things like energy consumption and resource sharing.

I thought I would remedy that today.

Reducing resource use

Books are the obvious one – we get ours from the library, reducing our spending and the amount of resources we use in one fell swoop.

Clothes are another point to mention. In addition to buying second hand where possible, we use dye to make things last longer and do lots of repairing. I also try to select clothes made of natural fibres, but with school uniform, this is incredibly difficult. In future, I’ll post about the other ways in which I get the clothes which have to be new i.e. underwear.

Furniture is largely second hand, with the exception of the mattresses, pillows, and duvets for the beds.

In our room, we don’t use bedside lamps – we actually bought LED lanterns for when we go camping and use them by our bed for the rest of the year. I like items with dual purposes like this – our enamel camping plates, for example, serve as pie/crumble dishes for the rest of the year, and the solar lamps we use to highlight guide ropes to young children on toilet trips during the night double as Christmas lights in the garden. There is no sense in us having lamps by the bed in addition to the lanterns, when the lanterns can serve perfectly well.

In the bathroom, we’re down to the bare minimum of disposables. I recently wrote a long post about ways in which we’ve improved the bathroom compared to how it was in 2019, but I didn’t mention a few of the things I’m proudest of in there.

The bath mat, for example, was made from old jeans and duvet covers. I cut these up using my friend’s rotary cutter and then wove them using a peg loom. Whilst I really love this, and look forward to having another go on the loom when this rug gets too manky to use, I know that I can wait until I have the right fabric to shred by simply placing a towel on the floor. So many times, we buy things, or make things which we don’t actually need because an existing object will do.

In the photo above, you can also see an old pan-stand on which I’ve put some of my millions of spider plants. They’ve been potted in an old pyrex dish. Going forward, I really want to add some more plants with different shapes and textures so I get a lovely tower of green next to the bath… so far, though, it’s just spider plants…

In the dining room, we’ve switched to cotton napkins to reduce the amount of single-use paper towels/kitchen roll we were getting through. The napkins were made from a pack of tea-towels that we didn’t feel did their job properly. I sliced them into quarters, hemmed the raw edges and now they’ve got a new life as perfectly servicable napkins. Hooray!

I’ve spoken at some length about our kitchen before, but I think it’s worth mentioning the soap pump we use for washing-up liquid. This ensures that we’re not pouring more in than we need. The resusable brush handle, the recycled plastic brush heads and the washable knitted cotton cloths all help reduce waste here too.

Reducing energy consumption 

In order to reduce our impact throughout the house in general, we’ve done the obvious – fitted energy saving light bulbs, backed the radiators with foil and switched to a green energy supplier.

These are small acts to reduce our expenditure – both financial and carbon – but they are paying off slowly. One day, I would very much like to be able to reduce our fuel usage further by installing a different heating system, but for now, this will have to do.

In addition to the obvious things – cooking multiple things when the oven is on, hanging washing out to dry and turning off all the lights obsessively – we’ve tried a few other things to cut our electricity use. The camping/bedside lamps I mentioned above help to reduce our power usage as they run on rechargable batteries and each charge lasts for months so that’s great, but the biggest energy saving we’ve made has come from switching our NAS server for a smaller one.

When we set up our home business, we did the obvious thing and got a small-business sized NAS server as a way of backing up our data. It soon became clear, though, that this was total overkill. We were never going to fill 6 drives, doing what we do. We made the switch back to a domestic sized NAS and not only is our living room so much quieter (the ‘new’ NAS isn’t actively cooled), but we’re saving a LOT of electricity. I mean, evident-on-our-bills sort of a lot. Selling on the huge NAS earned us back a significant sum – far exceeding the cost of the ‘new’ (to us) NAS – so we’ve come out of the change more ‘cash rich’ too. It’s absolutely worth looking at your technology and its energy usage to see what you’re able to swap out. It’s just a case of gettinng the right tool for the job.

One of the more controversial swaps I’ve made, has been to do away with my smart phone. It had come to the end of its useful life (due to software updates rather than hardware issues, much to my chagrin) and as I’d deleted my facebook account, have a wonderful camera (which I clearly never use for this blog…) and a GPS for the car, I didn’t see any reason to spend horrendous quantities of money on a new one. Instead, I bought the 2017 remake of the Nokia 3310.

I absolutely loved the original Nokia and spent many a Higher Maths class playing Snake under the table. The bonus of the remake is that battery technology has improved so much since the year 2000 that I can now go seven days or more without needing to charge my phone! Whilst I haven’t seen the obvious change in my electricity bill that I saw with the NAS server, I’m sure that in a small way, this is making a difference. Going forward, I’d like to look into getting a solar-powered charger that would work with my Nokia, but for now, I’ll content myself with not having to plug in every 24 hours.

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As I said last time, it feels as if my efforts to cut fuel consumption have reached something of a plateau, but I will continue to try. Hopefully making all of the above changes (which are either free, or save us money long term) will help us to save up for the larger ‘upgrades’ we need to make in order to be more efficient.

Do you try and reduce your fuel consumption? I woud love to hear any tips you have, either here or on Twitter. 🙂

Extending garment life with natural dye.

When I first started writing this blog, I never thought I would end up flashing my underwear online, but fast-forward and here we are – a post, solely about my smalls.

Before we go any further, I should probably explain.

Generally, when something of mine wears out, I replace the item with its second-hand equivalent. Generally. There are, of course, some exceptions. One of these is definitely underwear. So, that being the case, when I do buy underwear, I buy it with longevity in mind. For me, that means 100% cotton, bright white (the reasons to be explained below) and with replacable elastic. I can’t honestly remember where the current set came from, but they’re ingenious – the waist band has what appear to be button-holes sewn in, but they’re actually there so that if the elastic snaps, it’s a really simply job to replace it.

Above, I mentioned that I like to buy bright white underwear – that’s because I used to bleach them to extend the time they looked new. Then I realised that bleach probably wasn’t environmentally brilliant so I took to dying them when they started to look a bit grey. This worked far better in terms of longevity – begin with a pale shade and then go darker until eventually you dye them black. Winning. Only, until now, I’d been using the machine-dye packets which are probably even worse than the bleach for my septic tank.

Then I watched this video, and decided to try some of the natural dye techniques it suggests. In this case, I made dye using red onion skins and turmeric.

I won’t show you the horrible, grey ‘before’ shots of my old pants. No one wants to see those… but here are some pictures as things got underway.

I started by mixing water with some of the non-brewed condiment I bought a few months ago – a ratio of around 2 parts water to 1 part condiment. Then I added the cotton and the onion skins and boiled for half an hour. I allowed this to cool in the pan and then tossed them in the washing machine drum.

Then onto the turmeric. Again, I added a 2-1 combination of water and non-brewed condiment, then around 3tbsp of turmeric powder.

Again, I boiled this for around 30 minutes and allowed it to cool. Then I tossed the cotton in the washing machine drum with the onion-dyed garments.

I washed both at 30 with my regular powder (at this point, Asda Non-Bio), then dried them.

The results were far better than I had expected. The vibrancy of the yellow doesn’t really translate to the screen very well, but it’s like sunshine in real life.

What I didn’t realise, as I threw the turmeric underwear into the machine drum, however, was that there was already a pile of napkins in there. The napkins were, from the residual turmeric, turned a very pale lemon colour. Fine – thought I – I can use some laundry bleach on them to bring them back to white. Not ideal, sure, but at least it’s laundry bleach and not actual bleach bleach.

Well… here’s the thing. When you add an alkali to turmeric, it goes red. So there I am, stirring laundry bleach round my slightly yellow napkins and they’re turning slightly pink and it occurs to me that a lot of this ‘bleach’ is probably bicarbonate of soda. My next experiment is absolutely to see what sort of red turmeric and bicarb make.

I’m not sure how these will wear, or if the colour will rub off on other clothes, but underwear seems like a fairly safe starting point – if it does transfer to other clothes, it will be on the inside.

Like I said above, dye is a really great way to extend the life of clothing. I tend to buy ‘new’ things (i,e, in charity shops) in as pale a shade as possible so when they start to look grubby, I can hide all the stains with a new colour. I love the process too – you never know what you’re going to get at the end of it. Some of my all-time-favourite garments have come about this way.

Is there anything you do to make your clothes last longer than they would otherwise? I’d really love to hear about any methods you use.