There’s an old green trailer on our farm, reworked by some creative soul from the back end of an old pickup truck. It hangs out next to the garage, out of the way of the snowplow. A few years ago, we had the idea to load it up with the various pieces of scrap metal from the farm, to take it in for recycling—bits of tin, an old nesting box, mangled fence wire, etc.
Then the pandemic hit, and plenty of other issue rose well above hauling the trailer’s contents to the scrap yard. So, there it sat as we slowly piled more bits and pieces on top. And then, we’d be in the middle of a fix-it project, and Kara would go, “You know, I could really use a…wait a minute…” and off she’d go to the trailer and pull out this or that, cut it to size, and carry on with her project. The supposed scrap heap in the trailer was no longer that—it had transformed into a potential repurposing collection.
I shouldn’t be surprised—finding new uses for old items is a honed skill on the homestead. Puppy collars become makeshift gate hinges, pallets become pig winter housing, cardboard boxes become chick brooders, and so much more.
In an era where waste has become an epic problem on our planet, and planned obsolescence of products and equipment encourages us to throw away instead of fix things is pushing our planet’s tolerance for our irresponsible behavior as a species. Mom remembers a moment from when she was a kid growing up in Platteville, Wisconsin, how she had gone with her dad (Grandpa) to the town dump. The eccentric fellow who worked there had pointed to all the piles and debris, saying, “They’re gonna come back and mine this someday.”
Well, you can mine yours right now, before having the go to the dump! So many items that might typically be thrown out can be reclaimed and reworked into something different that is useful, even beautiful. Upcycling is even trendy in some regions.
We like to joke on our farm that once fabrics become a “rag,” they never die. They just keep showing up for different purposes. When we first started our market gardens, we would use old sheet to cover sensitive crops during a frost. As the gardens grew, so did the need for more old sheets and blankets! We raided the rag closets, we raided the thrift stores, we asked for donations. We had boxes and boxes of sheets and blankets! When they were out hanging to dry after a frost, it looked like we had a laundry.
And then, we discovered the product Agribon, which comes in 100-foot rolls, dries quicker, stores easier, and is actually better suited to insulating plants from frost than sheets. The rags had been demoted, but we didn’t throw them away. Instead, over the years, they’ve found a host of uses—draft shields draped over the jug pens during lambing season, woven rag rugs, padding when moving precious cargo. Some eventually disintegrated, aged by the sun and worn through with use, while others have remained surprisingly rugged.
The other interesting aspect of being a repurposer is that when folks learn that you reuse the stuff they were going to throw away, suddenly lots more of it comes your way! A family member is moving? Here comes boxes of all the textiles they no longer want. You used old rubber mats for pig house doors? Here, have some more!
Most recently, I’ve been experimenting with some interesting new crochet stitches and landed on a technique that worked quite well to make a sturdy little bowl or basket out of yarn. Curious, I wondered if I could scale up the experiment with something much thicker. Using the strip-making technique I utilize for my rag rugs, flannel sheets from the old stash were rip-rip-ripped into long pieces, and I had my enormous size Q crochet hook at the ready. Within a couple of evenings, the pile of torn discarded sheets was transformed into a sturdy laundry basket.
From that first laundry basket have sprung others in different sizes, medium-sized bowls, and more. I’ll be offering this as a class, as well as a photo essay pattern for digital download, so you can try it too!
What equips one well for repurposing? Mostly, it’s the ability to imagine what something could become even if it’s nothing like the object’s current use or appearance. This divergent thought process is essential to creativity and ingenuity. A coat hanger is reworked into a Christmas wreath base, a plastic jug has its top and bottom removed and the ring in the middle is used to protect seedings from voracious cutworms, or old sheets become a basket. All three are uses of common objects the original manufacturer certainly did not have in mind.
How might you find creative ways to repurpose items you aren’t using or were planning to throw away? Spend some time this week creatively exploring the possibilities. In the process, you might even transform the mundane into something useful and beautiful.