Recycling in textile art
Are you looking to work more sustainably? Environmental awareness is becoming evermore commonplace, and something we see often in the news and on social media.
Have you been thinking about recycling discarded and unconventional materials in your work? Maybe you’d like to use your art to help draw attention to environmental concerns. Or perhaps you are drawn to historical fabrics and you want to incorporate their hidden stories and vintage charm into your work, by re-purposing those beautiful pre-loved textiles?
There are so many ways you can use discarded fabrics or found objects in your work. In this article, you’ll discover the work of five fabulous textile artists who recycle materials. Read on for inspiration from textile artists Vanessa Barragão, Julie Peppito, Ruth Singer, Elnaz Yazdani and Zwia Lipkin.
Our featured artists use all sorts of pre-loved items, waste textiles and unusual materials to create a diverse variety of work. From vintage fabrics embroidered with a delicate touch, to stitched household materials, to work made using discarded fabrics and found objects, wall hangings woven with industrial waste wool, and art quilts made using recycled furnishing fabric scraps; all of these textile artists make their work with love and respect for their source materials.
Find out what drives and inspires these artists and get some great ideas and tips for recycling materials in your own artwork.
California-based textile artist Zwia Lipkin grew up in Israel, attended a high school for the arts and received a BA in art history and East Asian studies, specialising in Chinese history. Following this she took a long break from art, first to pursue a PhD at Stanford, and then to raise a family. When she finally returned to art practice she chose textiles as her main medium, taking a handful of quilting classes and teaching herself through experimentation and practice.
Drawn to materials with history
Zwia has always been drawn to the old and weathered, to surfaces and items that had a story and a past. At high school, she created assemblages with found objects, and wrote her senior thesis about the use of trash in modern art. As a historian, she tried to shed light on, and give a voice to, the underclasses and people discarded by society. When she returned to making art, it was only natural for her to pick up where she left off, by using upcycled materials.
She lives near an amazing non-profit organisation called FabMo, which saves upholstery showroom samples and makes them available to the public. She fell in love with these home decor textiles and started working with them. The more she learned about the textile industry and the general waste problem facing our planet, the more committed she became to using only upcycled fabrics in her work.
Collect and upcycle
Zwia’s artwork inspiration comes from the world around her; nature, travel, world events. The rescued home decor textiles that she uses are luscious and tactile, so sometimes the fabrics themselves dictate the outcome. At other times she has an idea first, then selects suitable fabrics to create it with.
She enjoys making abstract work, but also incorporates figurative elements. The relationship between different colours and textures is an important part of her work. Her textiles are thick, so she raw-edge appliqués them directly onto batting. She uses a sewing machine, combined with touches of hand stitching in a Sashiko style.
Her materials mostly come from FabMo, but she has also amassed a large stack of fabrics from her relatives, with which some of her most personally meaningful work was made. Every now and then, friends and neighbours give her textiles they no longer want so Zwia is able to use upcycled fabrics exclusively. Her bulging scrap boxes are an endless source of inspiration.
Looking to the future…
Zwia is committed to using recycled materials in her work, including textiles and perhaps other materials in the future, too. She hopes to not only use recycled materials as a statement, but also to make art that more directly touches on environmental issues.
“I encourage other people to reduce their consumption and to upcycle, as I will continue to do so. Every little effort counts! Our planet is currently facing great challenges, mostly a result of human short-sightedness and an insatiable greed for things and resources. The problems of waste and plastic pollution are significant, and contribute to the existential issue of global warming.”
Tips for sustainbility
If you’re looking for materials to upcycle instead of buying new fabrics, Zwia suggests you start by searching out used and unwanted textiles. Sort through your old clothes, ask your family, friends and neighbours for their unwanted textiles, or visit thrift/charity shops. Anything you can make out of new fabric you can make out of recycled cloth too!
Upcycled materials inspire Zwia in a way that no new material can. She recommends that you go and find some gorgeous pre-loved fabrics that excite you, and see what you can do with them. The possibilities are endless! The best inspiration often comes from playing around with scraps.
Ruth Singer is a textile artist based in Leicester UK. Her exhibition ‘Criminal Quilts’, touring the UK in 2021, explores the stories of women held in Stafford Prison 1877-1916. Her exhibition is accompanied by an online exhibition, film and a book. Ruth is also the author of Fabric Manipulation: 150 Creative Sewing Techniques and other books. She works on community projects, residencies and commissions, is a mentor for artists and she regularly runs online workshops.
Recently she completed ‘Textiles in Lockdown’ for Gawthorpe Textiles Collection, gathering stories of making during lockdown for an ebook and podcast. Ruth is also the Chairperson of the Leicester Society of Artists.
Textiles with history
Ruth has a strong passion for old textiles, that she has carried through life since she was a child. Her first career working in museums gave her an enduring passion for historic textiles. When she began to develop her own work she started by using vintage fabrics, adding in eco textiles to make repeatable products. From there she moved to making one-off pieces using old textiles with a story, and where the marks, darns, stains and tears can become part of the narrative of her work.
Research and meanings
In order to create textile artworks that share stories and have complex meanings behind them, Ruth’s work tends to grow out of extensive research. It can take a while to match up the concept she wants to explore with the cloth in her stash.
“My work is usually very subtle and delicate, with little interventions into the cloth itself, so it can sometimes be mistaken for a museum piece”.
Her studio is full of old textiles, some old and so precious that she will never cut them up. Ruth uses a lot of 1930s linens from her grandparents, as well as damaged and decaying Victorian clothing, quilts and church textiles. She hunts out supplies from specialist antique textile dealers, buying things that catch her eye even though she might not find a use for it until much later.
Re-inventing fragile cloth
With such a long-lasting love of old cloth, complete with holes, repairs and stains, Ruth says she will always use these textiles for her work.
“This kind of fragile cloth is integral to my work, and although I use other materials for certain projects, old cloth will always be my first choice. I also have a lot to use up!”
Bring some added depth and meaning into your own work
Ruth advocates the use of old textiles as the best way to bring instant meaning and depth to your work, and it’s a great way to be more sustainable in your use of materials, too.
She suggests using scraps of old quilts as a base for appliqué and embroidery, a popular and beautiful option. She loves how soft and easy it is to stitch old domestic textiles such as tea towels or dusters. Using fabrics from your own family is so meaningful and powerful, or you can source beautiful things on eBay or at antique fairs, too.
Elnaz Yazdani is an artist known for her obsession with using alternative materials in conjunction with traditional embroidery techniques. She creates art alongside her work teaching embroidery locally and online. Elnaz is inspired by industrial, upcycled materials and the ways in which she can embellish, connect or transform these items through stitch.
In 2020 Elnaz was commended in The Embroiderers’ Guild Beryl Dean Award for Teaching Excellence in Embroidery and Design, and she was selected as the 18-30 Years Embroidery Scholar under the Embroiderers’ Guild. She is based in Leeds, UK and holds a BA (Hons) Textiles In Practice degree from Manchester School of Art.
Transformation of found objects
Elnaz first began using found objects and unusual materials during her degree course. She was given a brief called “The alchemy of cloth” and became fascinated with alchemists and the transformation of materials. Turning the mundane into the magnificent through stitch grew into an obsession. She often finds inspiration and beauty in a range of unconventional materials, and loves to use them in her embroidery projects.
Whether working on large-scale works or pieces of contemporary jewellery, Elnaz likes to encompass stitch in her work. She spends a large amount of time developing embroidery-teaching samples for her costume, fashion and textile students.
The common theme linking all of her work is the use of unconventional materials. Each project stems from the materials she chooses to collect; the colour and shape of these materials influences the outcome and creative process. She collects materials from a range of places and is always looking for new and alternative supplies, sourcing waste offcuts from local factories and manufacturing companies.
She has developed a good relationship with a company that supplies parts to car manufacturers, collecting waste items that are too small to do anything with, and would otherwise end up in landfill. She also makes good use of her local scrap store, Scrap Stuff.
“My visits to Scrap Stuff are inspiring; you can let your imagination run wild with all the unusual material and repurposed items they have for sale. Sometimes I find it helpful to take a sketchbook along for inspiration.”
Using alternative materials guides Elnaz, too. She often has to rethink how she teaches traditional embroidery skills with these materials. Along with a passion for teaching traditional Goldwork embroidery, she delivers popular classes on ‘Alternative Goldwork’ or ‘Contemporary Goldwork’. For these she takes the traditional skill of Goldwork and flips it on its head, by introducing obscure or unconventional materials.
Alternative embroidery and mental health
As Elnaz learns new embroidery skills her work evolves, often in an unpredictable way, which also influences her teaching. The unconventional materials she collects changes over time, too, depending on the waste that is available.
In lockdown during the pandemic, her obsession with found and unusual materials grew. Elnaz found she had more time to explore ideas and sort through items collected over time. Lockdown also encouraged her to look around her and repurpose household waste materials she found, such as old stationary, game parts or broken wires.
She uses her work as a form of escapism, which benefits her mental health. Through the creation of captivating embroidered worlds of re-purposed materials, she is able to lose herself in stitch after a long day of teaching online. This work has become an on-going project that she hopes to exhibit when things get back to normal.
What is a bead?
Elnaz often asks her students to challenge the notion of a bead in embroidery. Reflect on the nature of beads and where they can be sourced from. Could you make your own beads? Would you choose something hollow, cut something up, or break something down?
“Making your own beads is a great way to start; it will help you to see the potential of unusual objects. Once you have something to work with, grab some fabric, a hoop, needle and thread and have a go at some alternative embroidery!”
Known for her stunning and tactile wool installations and a love of traiditional techinques including weaving, crochet and latch hook, Vanessa Barragão is based in a studio in Albufeira, Portugal. Fully committed to the sustainability movement, she works with the Portuguese textile industry to make use of waste material from factories, using it to create magnificent botanical and coral-inspired works. In 2019 her huge and colourful 6 x 2m world map “Botanical Tapestry” was unveiled at Heathrow airport in the UK.
Waste from the textile industry
During her time at university studying fashion design, Vanessa discovered the huge amount of ‘trash’ that was being produced by the textile industry and how harmful it is for the environment, and at that point, she decided she should start recycling and repurposing textiles.
The work of the artisan
Vanessa’s techniques are based on traditional artisanal textile practices including latch hook, crochet, felt, weaving, embroidery, and macramé. Working hard to establish agreements with local Portugese textile factories has allowed her to collect most of their waste.
Once the textiles arrive at the workshop, she selects and washes her chosen material. After this she sorts and catalogues them by colour. Vanessa admits it’s a long process and the materials take up a lot of space in her studio, but she finds it very rewarding to see all these materials being repurposed when otherwise they would just be thrown away.
Exploring alternative materials
Always on the look-out for new factories to source waste materials from steers Vanessa to experiment and learn new techniques that will allow her to incorporate those new materials into her work. On her last tapestry work ‘Nostalgia’ she used pleita, strips of esparto grass braided in several branches. This grass is traditionally used for basketry, but works well in her tapestries, too.
If you are looking for ways to recycle, Vanessa says you should spend some time determining what is really ‘trash’ and what can be repurposed into something new.
“We have a saying in Portuguese that goes, ‘What is trash for some, is luxury for others’. As creatives, that’s where we need to direct ourselves.”
Artist and activist Julie Peppito has exhibited in numerous solo and group shows in the US and her commissions include artwork installations in three Brooklyn playgrounds. Julie holds a Masters in Fine Arts and Bachelors of Fine Art. She grew up in Oklahoma and lives and works in New York.
Her work is exemplified by a concoction of old toys, litter and other found objects, all embedded wildly into mixed media textiles, drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations. She uses stitching, wrapping, imagery, lines and patterns to create conjoined works symbolic of our worldly interconnections. Most recently she has showed her work at the The Long Island Children’s Museum in her exhibition “After Nature: The Art of Julie Peppito”.
Creating connections from discarded objects
When Julie was a teenager she shopped at Salvation Army and other thrift stores, both out of need and because it was fashionable at the time. While looking at shelves and aisles of discarded toys, clothes and furniture she wondered what makes something valuable. And what makes it ‘out of fashion’? Why do clothes get thrown away if they get hole or a stain?
Ever since then she has been experimenting with ways to make herself and others look at old things again, to re-appreciate them.
She loves the way every old object has a history and a story. She loves to smash and sew them all together, weaving narratives about where they are from, what they were used for, who made them, where they are going and which consumers were being targeted for their use. She uses her work to show connections and her pieces become characters in a highly textured, colourful and often playful visual opera about the objects’ own demise and the tragedy of the destruction they leave behind.
The trash collector
Julie has been collecting objects and textiles for years. She used to buy them in thrift shops or find them on the street, but now they tend to just come to her! People know what she does and they like to give her things.
Sometimes she just sweeps up piles of trash off the floor and glues it onto a canvas along with finely embroidered imagery, sewing together toy cars, cutlery, hand painted patterns and life drawing. Julie started with bins of objects containing items loosely organised by size and kind, although now they are more often all mixed up!
“In a random John Cage ‘philosophy of chance’ kind of a way I dump them out and challenge myself to use what’s there.”
Sometimes Julie sews objects to old carpets or canvases. Sometimes she wraps them all together with yard, wire or old electrical cords. To work out the composition, she pins them up next to each other to figure out if the story feels right. Then she stitches them together, adding beads, dots of puffy paint, or life-like drawings and paintings.
“I love to combine brute force and energy with fine decorative details!”
Fearless construction on a grand scale
Looking to the future, Julie wants to integrate her tapestries, sculptures, large scale drawings and protest art in a less precious and more bold way.
One idea she has is to make large people, trees, flowers and animals out of bound-together found objects, then draw and sew details onto them.
How to start recycling
Julie recommends looking through your materials. See if you can replace any of the store-bought new materials you use with recycled ones. Begin by viewing old things in terms of colour, shape, and form. How much stuff have you bought that you don’t need?
“What are the things that no-one else would ever want. Challenge yourself to use those things in your work. Make them desirable again.”
Taking steps towards sustainability
We’ve dipped into the work of five amazing textile artists and shown you a variety of different styles of artwork. All of these artists re-purpose and recycle found, collected and discarded source materials into stunning, meaningful and innovative artwork.
The opportunities for recycling are endless so don’t throw old fabrics and interesting objects away, collect them and use them to make art. Next time you are gathering materials to work with, why not take a look around you and find some unwanted and unloved items. See if you can make them into something beautiful.
You might like handling old fabrics and discovering their hidden stories, or perhaps you want to reduce waste and use up what you’ve already got in stock. Either way, don’t hold back. Be inventive. Give recycling a go!
What are your favourite items to recycle into your textile art? Leave us a comment below.