the new life of old things

What exactly is it about the upcycle that tickles at the brainstem? Is it the packrat dumpster diver in me — the product of Chinese immigrants who snatched copious amounts of wet wipes and ketchup packets from every fast food joint we walked into — getting a high off of insane thrift store deals? Maybe it’s the cloth-diapering mama, clutching things back from the brink of landfill. Or just my Etsy fixation finding new ways to eat my spare time.

But I think it’s the wistful girl in me, the one who could never bear to reach the end of a novel for fear of leaving behind its characters, the one who felt bad for the paint colors no one seemed to use. I love the idea of rescuing something from the realm of the forgotten, of grafting new meaning onto a thing’s old meaning.

I find that a lot of my writing features makers. In my manuscript And All Its Dark Places, one of my characters deals with her grief over the loss of her boyfriend by ripping apart his clothes and fashioning the scraps into a quilt. This is both an act of remembrance and of desperation to make new meaning. And while few of my upcycles are quite so fraught, the impulse is similar: I want to imbue the new thing with the thing that was; I want to give a new life to the old thing.

imageThis is a backpack I recently made for a four-year-old boy’s birthday. First of all, rockets are awesome. But also, I think this backpack is special because it is giving new memories to materials with their own histories. The outer fabric is baby bedding from my friend Georgia, the pocket and lining fabric come from a dress I made for a friend’s baby daughter, the straps used to be my jeans, and the flames fabric came from the free bin at the fabric store, which I have also used to make a cape for my nephew.

Below is not exactly a tute, but a loose idea of my process. I made the pattern myself, and relied a fair amount on The Ribbon Retreat for construction instructions.

imageTo make the pattern, I simply drew the shape I wanted for the main body. It helped to have a different kid backpack on hand to get a sense of the appropriate size. I added 5/8″ all around for seam allowance, and cut out one of the outer fabric, two of the lining. For the backside of the outer fabric, I cut the pattern horizontally about a fifth of the way down from the top. I then added 5/8″ to each piece for seam allowance. You’re basically adding a seam in the back to attach the straps. Cut one of each out of the outer fabric. When sewn together, these two pieces should be the same shape as the others.

I also added a front pocket, whose pattern I drafted using the advanced technique of tracing a salad plate. Just remember that whatever size you choose, you add the 5/8″ seam allowance all around. Cut two of these out of your accent/lining fabric.

To get the measurements for the side pieces, I first determined how deep I wanted the backpack to be. I chose 3.5″.

Now, you may notice that this (and many) backpacks have sides with two sections: the top section, which contains the zipper, and the other section, which comprises the bottom and partway up the sides.

I measured the total perimeter length of the front panel, then determined the length of each section. For mine, the total perimeter was 47.5″. The bottom/side panel I decided would be 25″, and the zipper panel was the remaining 22.5″.

So, from the outer fabric, I cut:

bottom/side panel:

length = 25″+5/8″+5/8″ (seam allowances!) = 26.25″

width = 3.5″ (the depth I chose) + 5/8″ +5/8″ (seam allowances!) = 4.75″


two pieces for the zipper panel:

length = 22.5″ + 5/8″ + 5/8″ (you guessed it!) = 23.75″

width = 1.75″ (half the depth) + 5/8″ + 5/8″ = 3″

Now, you might be tempted to cut the same from the lining fabric, but stop right there! See, your zipper isn’t going to take up the whole zipper panel. Mine, for example, was 14″, centered on the panel. You want the bottom/side panel of the lining to extend all the way to the zipper.

So, for my project, my bottom/side lining section looked like this:

length = 33.5″ (this is the total perimeter – length of zipper) + 5/8″ + 5/8″ = 34.75″

width = 4.75″ (same as the outer bottom/side section)

Then, for the lining’s zipper panel pieces. You actually want to make these a bit narrower than the outer panel, so they don’t get in the way of the zipper. Here’s what mine looked like:

two pieces for the lining’s zipper panel:

length = 14″ (zipper length) + 5/8″ + 5/8″ = 15.25″

width = 1.75″ (half the depth) + 5/8″ + 3/8″ = 2.75″

I just freehanded the fins and the flames. Remember, of course, to add 5/8″ seam allowance all around your fins, and remember to place them at least 5/8″ up from the bottom of your front outer panel when you’re sewing it to the side panel, or else it’ll get caught in the corner. For the flames, be sure to add 5/8″ to the top edge (the one that will be attached to the front panel’s bottom edge) for seam allowance. Use the same length as the front panel’s bottom edge, but subtract 5/8″ from each short side in order to avoid getting caught in the corner. I used a fabric that wouldn’t fray.

For the straps, I just went with the instructions on The Ribbon Retreat!

Most of all, have fun with it, get creative, and don’t be afraid to screw up. As I like to say, walk wildly, and carry a sharp seam ripper.

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