A Handmade Artist on the Importance of Repurposing

It probably comes to you as no surprise that Martin and I are crazy about handmade.  It’s getting harder and harder for us to comfortably shop at places using a lot of unnecessary natural resources or using cheap, unhealthy labor forces to save money.  So when Lisa and I started exchanging emails, I was beyond compelled to learn more about what she’s doing and why.

I think you might really like some of her ideas.  She has some great thoughts on using the stuff we have (which is perfect for The Declutter Project!).  Make sure you check out the free gift she’s offering right from her Etsy shop at the end of this interview.  So – welcome Lisa!

* * * * * * * *

1.  Tell us a little about yourself.  I understand you love to craft and create a simpler lifestyle.

I’m Lisa Hsia, I’m just under 30, and I’ve lived in California my entire life. My husband and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and we have two cats and a little container garden in our back yard. :)

I’ve always been “crafty” and artistic, but for years I let that side of me go neglected because I didn’t think it was practical. After college, I went to grad school, but it didn’t feel right. I kept wanting to make a change but I was too afraid of the unknown. Then one day it hit me just how uncertain life is. We don’t know how much time we’ve got… I realized then that my life would be wasted if I never made a serious attempt at writing books or making art.

After that, I left school and started pursuing my creative interests full-time.  I really feel like I’m living a different life now.

2.  What inspired you to start a shop with repurposed goods?

Actually, it’s the repurposed goods that inspired the shop!   I discovered FabMo, a wonderful Bay Area organization that rescues designer samples (mostly fabrics, but also wallpaper, tiles, and other materials) and makes them available for free to local artists and organizations.

I went to one of their distribution events, came away with bags full of beautiful fabrics and wallpapers, and thought, “I have to make something with all of this.”

This rug is one of the first things I made.  I got the idea from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book.

3.  Can you please tell us how we can get away from the “must buy new” crafting mentality?  You seem so gifted at finding lovely and used all in one.

I’ve always been eco-conscious.  Once I knew there were such high-quality used materials out there, and once I’d looked through thrift stores and estate sales and seen what treasures they hold, it just felt impossible to turn my back on all these things for the sake of the convenience of buying new.

Especially after seeing the incredible creations of the other artists at the FabMo show… I looked around that spacious room and it was filled with so much beauty and craft, and all of those materials would have been sitting in landfill if it hadn’t been for FabMo.

You can get a little of the same experience when you look through some of the items in my shop. Take this pouch, for example:

Everything that went into making that pouch came from FabMo, except for the ribbons and the thread. Those ribbons were in a drawer in my mom’s house; she’d bought them years ago when we were little. And the thread probably came from an estate sale; that’s where I source a lot of my sewing notions.

There’s a lot you can make without having to buy new stuff at the store, and your creations have more character and history this way too.

4.  How do you find creativity when it seems like there’s so much pressure about newness?

Creativity is not some gift reserved for the chosen few. To be creative is just to look at things differently than everyone else, which is something we all do every day — since no one else in the world, now or ever, can replicate exactly who we are and how we think! In other words, we’re all intrinsically original!

But it can take some practice to learn how to tap into our uniqueness. A good way to do it is by getting really comfortable with what makes us different, weird, and special. At the beginning this might mean stepping a toe out of our comfort zones; later, it can mean practically living there.  It’s all about learning to see the world with new eyes, and then to keep seeing it with new eyes, again and again.

If you have trouble with this, I recommend a number of wonderful books on the Inspirations page of my website.

5.  So how about simplicity?  Can you expand on how you implement simplicity into your day-to-day life?

The search for simplicity is a constant battle! I seem to have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be; my husband’s the one who truly understands simplicity. If he had his way we would be rid of probably 90% of our possessions, and a good portion of our social obligations too!

But simplicity means different things to different people. For me, it’s remembering what’s most important to me, and trying to bring my life more in line with those values.

A lot of what we think of as convenient or necessary actually makes our lives more complicated. Email and cell phones, for example — when we were in Hong Kong, I had no cell access, and I was only able to check my email every couple of days (and that was on a tiny handheld with a slow connection, so I couldn’t even look at photos).

Instead of feeling disconnected, I felt more richly connected to the world around me in a way I can’t tap into when I’m tied to electronic devices! So I try to constantly evaluate my surroundings and my habits, paring them down to only what’s essential. It’s a tall order.

6.  Tell us about your etsy shop.  What’s your favorite item?  (And can we see pictures?)

It’s an ever-evolving project. I began my shop in late October 2009 with mostly sewn items made from FabMo fabrics.  But the more I delve into my creativity, the more channels it wants to go into!

I think my current favorite items are probably my brooches and hair fripperies (my own name for them!). Here’s one I particularly love:

7.  I noticed that you have a unique approach to clothing.  Tell us what you think on the subject.

I’m still not skilled enough to make my own clothes, but sewing has wholly changed the way I view shopping and clothes. For starters, soon after I learned to sew, I stopped wanting to buy anything I could make myself. There’s no sense in paying $75 for a bag when I can make my own, or for a cardigan that I could easily embellish with similar ribbons and embroidery! Moreover, doing so much sewing has really shown me how much work goes into everything we wear.

When I look at clothes now, I don’t see price tags; I see hours of labor.

I have the luxury of being my own boss and of setting my own prices on my creations, but most of the people who work every day to make our clothes, shoes, and accessories don’t have this status. This perspective has made me completely uninterested in cheap, mass-produced clothing.

If I’m going to wear the products of someone else’s labor, I want that person to have been paid fairly, and I want them to have been involved with what they made in some way — not just churning out piece after piece in a factory.

8.  What is a constant challenge for you on this journey?

Balance, always balance! Creativity is rarely a problem; I have more ideas than I’ll ever be able to use. I think I’m finally learning to trust myself and move forward with confidence. But finding balance is a daily test, whether it’s maintaining a healthy work-life relationship; trying to juggle my writing, drawing, and crafting; or even just eating right and getting enough exercise.

9. What advice would you give to those who have just started to repurpose and create from materials that used to have a different life?  And why should people be motivated to try to turn to these resources?

First, I’d say congratulations on taking this step!

Second, I’d refer crafters to this thread I started in the Etsy forums.  Fellow eco-crafters have lots of great ideas and experience on how to use repurposed materials, and many of them share these thoughts on this thread.

My main advice is: just go for it. The more you seek out and work with these materials, the better you’ll get at it. You’ll be able to look at things with new eyes, and you’ll keep coming up with more and more ways to reuse something! Your creations will be 100% unique, you’re diverting material from landfill and giving it new life, you can feel better about your consumption habits, and you get to exercise your creativity. You get to look at your work with the satisfaction of someone who’s confronted a problem (“what do I make from this??”) and figured out a solution!

* * * * * * * *

A big thank you to Lisa for some wonderful thoughts.  Now she’s kindly offered to share one of her newest handmade creations with a lucky reader.  I love how she’s repurposed old papers into these beautiful notebook dividers.  I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the paper section of The Declutter Project, I could really use a few of these.

THE PRIZE: One winner will receive a set of Lisa’s repurposed page dividers.

SHIPPING:   She’ll happily ship from the US to you anywhere you live.  Yeah!  Note: these dividers are made with standard US/Canada dimensions.  It’s a little shorter and fatter than A4 paper like the rest of the world uses.

HOW TO ENTER:   Leave a comment below to tell us about a favorite handmade item in your house.  The catch?  Can you think of an item that was not made by an immediate member of your family?

DEADLINE:   Entries must be received by Monday, May 24 at midnight in San Francisco where Lisa lives.  The winner will be announced Tuesday.