Making the new from old

(Edmonton) Quilts are comfy, warm, and most often, associated with busy grannies in rocking chairs. But as a societal fabric, patchwork holds a place of honour, representing skill, thrift and recycling, a value that has become prevalent with time.

Now, Lauren MacDonald, a fourth-year U of A student of human ecology has stitched together four couture garments from recycled bits and pieces. The quilted creations are at the heart of a new exhibit that showcases the craft of quilting, examines the relationships between textile reuse of the Great Depression and textile reuse today and, through MacDonald’s work, the place quilting has in contemporary society.

“Waste Not Want Not: Creating Through Recycling,” which also features quilts from the U of A’s Rosenberg Collection, looks at relationships between the reuse of textiles and larger social views on recycling and reuse of materials, and examines how perspectives have changed in the past 80 years. 

“During the Great Depression in the ’30s, recycling of material was a way of life,” MacDonald said. “There was far less to waste, even in affluent households. A lot of rural areas were still in a subsistence economy, so people traded things�you traded with a neighbour for scraps you wanted.”

Those scraps, gleaned from old garments, provided useful and beautiful goods for little cost. “Textiles were expensive, so quilts could often be constructed for much less than the price of a blanket,” said Vlada Blinova, manager of the University of Alberta’s clothing and textiles museum collection.Today, perspectives on recycling have shifted. People recycle for many reasons�because they care about the environment, because there is financial benefit, or because it is convenient.

“It is no longer a necessity for most people to wring the last bit of use from old clothing and other household textiles, so the focus of recycling has changed, and this exhibit explores that phenomenon,” Blinova said.  

The exhibit’s Depression-era quilts fashioned from reused fragments provide a contrast to the women’s edgy jacket and skirt sets crafted by MacDonald, who is pursuing a bachelor of science degree majoring in clothing and textiles, with a minor in design and product development.

MacDonald, fortified by a visit to a thrift store and donations of castoffs from friends and family, used old bed sheets, curtains, swatches from discarded fabric books and even a man’s pair of trousers to stitch together two sassy, classy outfits. True to the art of quilting, she did some patching and embroidery, along with a bit of dyeing, but the result doesn’t look like grandma’s quilt.

“That’s been done. I do think traditional quilts are beautiful, but for my garments I wanted something different, to show that quilting can be used in innovative ways.”

That said, MacDonald gained a new appreciation for the intricate art of quilting as she pieced her creations together. “It requires meticulous, careful sewing. There is a lot of layering, a lot of bulk.”

Her outfits are set off by a backdrop of quilts from the Rosenberg collection, chosen for the materials that were used in their making: recycled scraps of feed sacks, blankets, table linens, even wedding dresses and ties.

The extensive collection of 677 vintage and antique quilts was donated to the U of A in 2006 by Alvin and Gloria Rosenberg, and reflects varied patterns and forms.

MacDonald hopes the exhibit will give a fresh view on an old tradition. “This allows us to view quilting as an art or a fashion, rather than as a traditional link to the home.”

“Waste Not Want Not: Creating Through Recycling” is on display until March 12, 2012, in the gallery of the main foyer in the Human Ecology Building on campus. Exhibit hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

An opening reception and garage sale in honour of the exhibit theme will be held Oct. 6 in the foyer, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., with everyone welcome.