Upcycling Burlap Bags: Seeing the Beauty in Every Fiber

Recently I have been upcycling burlap coffee bean bags into café curtains for my kitchen. (Get it? Café curtains?)

burlap coffee bags ready for upcycling
Burlap coffee bags ready for upcycling.

When I started out, I thought I was just going to use the main part of the bags with the cool graphics. I cut apart the first bag in order to maximize the graphic potential without a lot of thought as to how I might upcycle the rest of it. But in the process of dismantling the first bag, I realized that I could use many parts of it for other craft and sewing purposes.

For example, several of the bags were machine-sewed shut with a neon-pink or white cotton thread. I discovered that by carefully snipping one end of the thread, I could pull it out from the burlap in almost one complete piece. I could use the thread to tie on button embellishments, to make a tiny crochet element, in needle felting, embroidery, or anyplace I might use colorful thread.

Several of the bags are blanket stitched at the bottom and up the side with twine. It’s more time consuming to pull out the twine than to cut it, but the former results in a long piece of curly fiber that could be upcycled as a decorative tie or even for everyday practical purposes.

One of the real gems I discovered is the looping finished edge on the top of one style of bag. Two lines of blue stitching run parallel to the edge a few inches down. By cutting off that chunk and turning it upside down (with the looped edge now at the bottom), I have two beautiful strips of fabric with finished bottoms that could be used as valances or hemmed onto the bottom of a piece of upcycled clothing like jeans or a skirt.

upcycled burlap
I’ll stitch the top edge of one set of bags into a valance,
cuff, or hem for another upcycled project.

I even have upcycling ideas for the scraps of burlap leftover from the curtain project. I can use them to cover the tops of upcycled Mason jars, use cut-out pieces for button covers, glue them to a canvas and paint or gesso over them for a textured collage, or combine them with other fabrics to make brooches or flowers.

As I discover ways to upcycle every bit of these bags that would normally be thrown away, it makes me think of the Native Americans who used every part of the buffalo they hunted in order not to waste anything.

The process of re-using these bags creatively also reminds me of mixed-media fiber artist Cas Holmes‘ approach to upcycled art. Cas is an artist who cares deeply about the environment and has a “waste not, want not” approach to life.

In her book The Found Object in Textile Art, she talks about “destroying and remaking” collected fibers and textures like found papers, junk mail, and fabrics. Here are some of her suggestions for deconstruction and reconstruction:

  • Break down surfaces and reassemble to reveal hidden text, images, and patterns.
  • Cut up and work dry pieces back into the wet layering process.
  • Roll back, crease, scrape, and tear the surface.
  • Rework on top of the layers with print, paint, and dye.
  • Machine stitch and hand stitch sections.
  • Consider using traditional techniques such as patchwork, applique, smocking, etc.

Honestly, Cas is one of the most inventive artists I know and The Found Object in Textile Art is one of my favorite books for learning how to see the beauty and artistic possibilities in found papers and textiles. I highly recommend it.

P.S. What’s your favorite found fabric to upcycle? How do you use every bit of it? Leave a comment below.

Categories

Blog, Fabric Art, Mixed-Media Techniques

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