Block Printing a Thrifted Pillowcase

Let the upcycle quilting adventures begin!

I've been a longarm quilter for over four years. The entire time I've been quilting, I've also wanted to explore surface pattern design but there's been one thing holding me back: sustainability.


 

The Cotton Dilemma

It would feel amazing to develop my own designs and see them printed on fabrics and gift wrap and wallpaper. The issue for me is that most of these products, if you purchase them brand new, aren't made with sustainability in mind.


Take quilter's cotton, for example. Very little of what you can purchase in your local quilt shop or online is grown or produced sustainably. There's lots of information available online to support this. For fear of losing my busy readers, however, I'll keep the quotes and data to a minimum.


According to the website, "Sustain Your Style":

"Although it is a natural fiber, conventional cotton is far from environmentally friendly.
Cotton is mainly produced in dry and warm regions, but it needs a lot of water to grow. In some places, like India, inefficient water use means that up to 20,000 liters of water are needed to produce 1kg of cotton. In the meantime, 100 million people in India do not have access to drinking water.
99.3% of cotton is grown using fertilizers and genetically modified seeds. Cotton represents 10% of the pesticides and 25% of the insecticides used globally.
99% of the world’s cotton farmers are located in developing countries where labor, health, and safety regulations are nonexistent or not enforced most of the time. Child and forced labor are common practices.
In Uzbekistan (the 6th largest exporter of cotton in the world), until recently more than 1 million people were forced to pick cotton for little or no pay every year."

Dismal as all this sounds, it isn't the entire picture. If you'd like to learn more about topics such as the impact that the dye industry has on our environment, the Rana Plaza fire, the suicide crisis of cotton farmers in India, and much more, I recommend Rebecca Burgess's book, "Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy" or "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion" by Elizabeth Cline. There is also a great new online resource for quilters and other makers in the website, "createandsustain.org".


When I learn about traditionally farmed cotton's true cost to our environment and it's human toll, it gets a little harder for me to joke about my fabric hoard. And, knowing all this, I didn't want to become a fabric designer and work within the system as it now stands.


 

A Few Good Alternatives

I've thought about using certified organic cottons, which are better for the environment, and more eco-friendly fibers like organic and US grown linen, hemp, recycled cotton, and silk. I think all of these are great options. In most cases, however, the infrastructure to grow and produce these fabrics no longer exists, or barely exists, in the United States. Once you go overseas, it gets much harder to guarantee the fabrics you purchase are sustainably and ethically produced.


There are some helpful standards to turn to, like OEKO-TEX and GOTS Certifications. I'm still waiting, however, for the resurgence of the textile industries in the US. I think it's hard to justify the carbon emissions produced by shipping nearly all our textiles into the United States from overseas. According to the sources I've read, however, there are strong movements toward reviving America's textile industries with sustainability at the forefront.


 

My Favorite Solution of All

Near the end of 2021, I had an ingenious epiphany. I came up with an idea that will allow me to create my own fabric designs in ways that, I think, are even better than organically, locally grown cotton or linen. I'm going to start purchasing bedding and clothing and linens from thrift stores in my area and block printing my own designs onto them. I'm also going to experiment with natural dyes and inks and other natural processes like shibori and wax batik.


I love this idea because I'll because I'll be rescuing and upcycling some of the over 17-million tons of textile waste that ends up in landfills each year. (See roadrunnerwm.com, "The Environmental Crisis Caused by Textile Waste")

My plan is to experiment on fabrics for my own use for the next year or two. That way I can see what is and what isn't possible with these rescued fabrics and to get really good at working with them. After that, I'm going to see if there's a market out there for these kinds of fabrics.

 

First Experiments in Block Printing

You probably noticed the photo of my block-printed pillowcase at the beginning of this post. Last week, I went to my local Savers and bought several pillowcases and three top sheets. After I got home, I rummaged through the paints that I already have and got to work on a pillowcase.

I had already purchased some linoleum blocks and a carving tool. I decided to make stripes that would allow me to practice some of the carving techniques I have been learning.

It's pretty obvious I'm new at this. It's going to take some time for me to learn how to consistently line up my rows so that they match. I don't really mind the gaps and overlaps for now, however. This pillowcase is for me and I like it just the way it is.

I had a couple partially-used bags of milk paint that I decided to try. Milk paint seemed like a fabulous option, since it's one of the most environmentally-friendly paints. It's made of all natural ingredients. I wasn't sure how colorfast the paint would be, since I found differing opinions in my web research.


One site recommends a fabric binder, which I didn't want to buy because it would mean more cost to me, more shipping emissions, possible chemicals or acrylics in the binder (I didn't really check), and another plastic bottle. Another site said milk paint would bind well on its own, as long as you fuse it to the fabric with a hot iron.


I ironed the pillowcase and let it tumble in a hot dryer for a few minutes before I dared try wash it. Even with all that, I was pretty nervous. I did the first wash in cold and it came out looking exactly the same as it went in--no fading or bleeding!


The texture of the paint on the fabric is ever-so-slightly rough. I'm going to predict, however, that it will soften up with use and with washes.


I've got the pillowcase on my bed now. I'll be posting updates about how well the color wears and whether the paint softens over time. Stay tuned.


So what do you think? Would you use upcycled fabrics in your quilts and your other sewing projects? Would you pay for it if you like the print? Do you feel like this is a viable solution to the quilter's cotton dilemma?


Let me know in the comments. Thanks so much for reading this!


XOXO - Amy

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