Take A Seat – how to re-upholster a dining chair, for complete beginners

So your dining chairs are looking a little tatty. Perhaps the seat fabrics are stained, marked, torn, threadbare, or just looking rather dated and no longer suit your decor. Time to throw them out and start saving up for some new ones, perhaps? Don’t be silly! For a start, chairs are really expensive (I mean, easily £100 each for nice ones!). If the chair frame is still sound, then DIY re-upholstery or re-covering of the chair pads is a job which should be within the grasp of anyone with a few basic craft and DIY skills.

Before and after

In order to do this job properly, you will require –

  • A chair or chairs in need of restoration
  • Staple-removing tool or tools
  • Heavy-duty staple gun suitable for upholstery tasks, and staples
  • Replacement covering fabric, of the mid to heavyweight upholstery type
  • New bottoming fabric (non-woven synthetic material)
  • Replacement seat foam (optional, see later)
  • Basic everyday tools such as scissors, screwdrivers, iron and ironing board
  • Adhesive spray and stain-repellant spray may also be useful

The right tools for staple-removingIt is possible to cut corners on the equipment list, of course – you can remove staples using a flat-headed screw driver (not one you’re particularly fond of, as it will never be the same again!) and a reasonably heavy-duty desk stapler could be pressed into service instead of a staple gun, but having the right tools will make the job an awful lot easier and quicker, not to mention safer for you! A staple gun and hinged-type staple remover should set you back about £10 between them, so won’t break the bank.

I would definitely replace the seat foam if the chair is imported, or is older than the 1988 UK fire safety regulations, as upholstery foams before this date (and some of those still in use overseas) can be incredibly flammable. If you know your chairs are more recent than this, and the seat foam is in good condition, not stained or breaking down, then it’s reasonable to re-use what you have. This is what I’ve done in this tutorial, as I know the chairs are at most six or seven years old and were originally manufactured here in the UK. Obviously this is a DIY job for my own use, the chairs won’t be labelled as complying with the regulations after re-covering, and consequently will not be suitable for sale or for use in a furnished rented property.

I want these chairs to last me many more years, so I’m doing this properly – yes, you could just wrap an extra layer of fabric over what’s there already and staple it down, it’s a quick-and-dirty approach which will save you a lot of time and effort, but you will inevitably add bulk, particularly at the corners and underneath, and the seat pads may very well not sit properly afterwards. Stripping the seat pads down is pretty hard work and takes time, but for me it’s worth it in terms of the quality of the eventual finish.

Right, to work!

Chair in need of re-upholsteryThese are the chairs I’m re-upholstering. I bought them from eBay to match four I already have, but they are very stained and all my stain removal efforts have failed. If you turn your chair over, it’s very likely that you will find the seat pad held on by four screws through the base, one at each corner. Remove these and set the screws aside, you’ll need them again later.

Seat pad - bottomRemove the seat pad and turn it over. The view that greets you will probably be a bit like this one, a sheet of bottoming cloth held on with staples all the way around. This is light non-woven fabric, generally, and while it’s tempting just to rip it off, you’re going to want to remove all the staples anyway, so you might as well get started. Leaving staples in situ is a tempting effort-saving decision (trust me, it will once you’ve taken a few out!) but will interfere with neat tidy fitting of the new fabrics later on, and may affect the way the seat pad fits back into the chair.

Personally I find having one of the wooden-handled, curved, pointy staple removing tools a real benefit, even though they’re quite expensive (expect to pay about £15 for a new one – but it will last you a lifetime) – I use it on the staples first, just to ‘break’ the back of them and make a little space in the centre. Then I use the jointed plastic handled tool, which grips the staples to pull them out evenly. You could save a little money and buy just one or the other – they will do the job on their own but the curved tool struggles sometimes when one side of the staple comes free first, and you’ll need pliers to pull out the other end. The plastic tool has a chunkier tip and is much less easy to squeeze under the tight staple to start with.

The wrong tools for removing staplesI mentioned you could use a screwdriver – well, you can, but it’s not the right tool for the job, you’ll damage the corners using it for leverage, and will require a lot more force to use, too. All of which means it’s a lot more likely to slip, and damage parts of the chair you want to keep. Or, you know, your fingers. Obviously you should keep all your fingers *behind* any tool you’re using like this (be it a screwdriver or a proper staple removing tool). Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

Once the bottoming fabric has been removed, you’ll find even more staples holding on the top fabric. You’ve guessed it, these all need to go too. In all, it’s quite likely there will be well over 100 staples in each seat. It’s a long old job and until you get the knack of it can easily take over an hour for each chair. But it’s worth it for the quality of the eventual result.

Finally, you’ll have all the fabric off the seats. Probably, what you’re left with will be a wooden (plywood or chipboard usually) board and a foam pad, which may or may not be glued together. If they’re not glued down, or you’re replacing the foam pad, then it may be worth turning the board the other way up before re-fitting, particularly if it’s chipboard and crumbling a little where the old staples have been. If you’re replacing the foam, it’s easiest to take one of the existing pads to a foam supplier and ask them to cut replacements the same size and shape for you – most will be happy to do this though they may charge you something to do it. I’m keeping the foam pads, because they’re relatively new and in good condition still.

Cut out fabric and mark wrong sideYou’ve probably chosen your replacement fabric already, and really anything could work, so let your imagination run wild! The fabric I have used is actually salvaged from a pair of heavy cotton curtains we found in the house when we got here. I’d taken them down and washed them as I didn’t like them where they were, but the subtle neutral check pattern makes a great seat and goes really well with the natural oak of the chair frames. And also, you know, it’s free, which is awesome!

If you’re buying fabrics to use, a thrifty option could be to have a look at the second hand curtains for sale in local charity shops, where you may find a real vintage bargain! Try to choose a fabric of a similar weight to the one that you’ve removed, as this should make the seat pad fit back into position best, without unexpected gaps or excessive thickness. If you’re buying new, don’t feel you need to restrict yourself to upholstery fabrics – for a little job like this, clothing fabrics like denim or a heavyweight woollen cloth could make great alternatives. Do bear in mind that a fabric with an obvious check or stripe, like mine, will show up any wonkiness and uneven tension in the fabric re-fitting much more than a fabric without!

Pre-wash, dry, and then carefully iron your fabric before cutting out. I hate ironing as much as the next person (in fact, I pretty much only ever iron at all if I’m doing a sewing or textiles project!) but do go to the trouble of doing this, it’s important I promise! Washing your fabric first should both shrink it, if necessary, and improve your chances of removing stains from it in the future, should you need to, without causing colour run.

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Using the old seat fabric as a template, cut out your new seat covers. I prefer to cut a little larger, and to cut to square corners, without ‘scalloping’ them out. This just provides more of a margin of error for the fitting process! If there’s any risk of confusion, mark the ‘wrong’ side of your fabric clearly when you cut it out, to ensure it goes on the chair right-side-out! If your seat foam isn’t already glued down to the wood, consider using some spray adhesive to do this, as if the two are fixed in position already, it will make stretching the fabric over them much more straightforward.

Fix straightest edge with staple gunThen, starting along the straightest edge of your seat pad, secure the fabric with your staple gun. The first side is simple, but of course it gets a bit trickier after that. Do the opposite side next, so that your fabric is nice and straight. While it *is* possible to stretch, hold, and staple the fabric on your own, this task is a lot easier if you can recruit a glamorous assistant to help you (hello, Hubby!).

Wrap over fabric snugly and fix opposite edgeYou will want to pull the fabric as tight as you can, and this will curve and round-off the cut edges of the foam in the process. Work slowly and keep the tension even. I tend to work in a divide-the-difference pattern, placing each new staple in the centre of a gap, rather than trying to work along a line from one end to the other.

Then fix sides, maintaining desired tensionThen do the same with the two other sides, though you might find it easier to work on both sides alternately, rather than securing one side and then the other. Just keep checking your tension is even and appropriate as you go along, and don’t be nervous of taking staples out and trying again if you’re not happy with the result!

Once you’ve finished the sides, fold the corners over neatly and secure these too.

Finally staple down corners

With a bit of luck, you’ll end up with seat pads that look a bit like this.  Now just to finish the bottoms. You could re-use the bottoming cloths that you took off in the first place – if you managed to get them off without tearing – but they’ll look tatty and new non-woven fabric to replace them is very cheap (it’s usually available in black, grey, white, or beige and costs a couple of pounds a metre, so choose the one that will blend in best). You could even forget about it and just re-fit the seats as they are, but that will leave the raw edges of your covering fabric exposed and these will eventually fray.

Cut out replacement bottoming cloth using old fabric as templateA word to the wise – take it from me, and do not attempt to iron your bottoming fabric. Doing so (even on your iron’s lowest setting) will result in ruined fabric and a nasty sticky mess on the bottom of your iron. Do you really need to ask how I know this..?

Attach new bottoming cloth with staplesCut out the bottoming cloth using the old one as a template, and then staple this in place over the seat bottom, concealing all the rough edges and staples securing your top fabric as you do.

Treat seat pads with stain-repellant sprayMindful of why I had this job to do in the first place, I got out my trusty can of Scotchgard spray (other stain repellant products are available) and treated the re-upholstered seat pads before re-fitting them. This would also be a good time to make any repairs to the wooden chair frames, and oil, varnish, or even paint these if necessary.

Finally, fix seat pads back in position with screwsOnce everything is done, re-fit the seat pads using the screws you set aside at the beginning, and stand back and admire your handiwork! Aren’t they fine? I’ve only got another four to do, now!

Just consider the possibilities – old dining chairs in need of re-upholstery sell online and in general auctions for pennies on the pound compared to new ones. Doing the job yourself takes a little time and effort, but you can produce a really professional looking result, save a heap of money, and bring a great vintage feature into your home, too!

Admire your finished chairs!

 

Still doubt that this is a beginner’s project? Well, these chairs are the first things I’ve ever upholstered. If I can do it, I have no doubt that you can, too!

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In A Flap – flip-flop denim fabric strap upcycle

The flip-flops.Summer is here (or so they say!). And whether you call them thongs or flip-flops, the three-point strap sandal is a mainstay of hot weather footwear. While I was getting a few bits and bobs in town the other day, I saw these fun flip-flops on a sale rack. I really want to like flip-flops, but I’m afraid they don’t like me! I can’t walk 100 yards in flip-flops with rubber or plastic toe posts without getting the most awful blisters between my toes. Ouchie!

Chop off the strapsSo those straps were going to have to go. There’s always something faintly satisfying about a spot of wanton destruction, isn’t there? Push the straps through the sole and chop them off with a pair of stout scissors. Congratulations, you’ve taken a pair of perfectly good, new flip flops and rendered them completely useless. Time to get mending!

I was planning to make fabric straps for these flip-flops out of some recycled cotton jersey, but I couldn’t find anything in my old-clothes stash in an appropriate colour. What I did find was a pair of Hubby’s old jeans. On reflection, denim seemed like a rather great idea, and the colour was a good match for the psychedelic print on the soles, too.

Of course denim poses some problems that cotton jersey doesn’t, not least in it’s tendency to fray extensively.  It’s also not famous for its stretchy characteristics, which means sizing will need to be more accurate, but I was pretty sure these were things that could be overcome.

Rough cutFirst up, I rough cut a broad and a narrow strap for a ‘test fit’. The narrow strap is tied in a reef knot around the wide strap and acts as the toe post. Push the straps gently through the holes and support them temporarily with safety pins while you offer up the sizing.  I tried the sandal on at this stage and showed it to Hubby to see what he thought. His verdict, ‘they’re quite, erm, rustic…’ felt a little bit short of an unqualified recommendation!

The principle seemed sound, though this mock-up stage proved one thing, which was that the narrow toe straps were literally going to fray away to nothing, and really quite quickly, too. Some reinforcement was going to be needed to avoid the whole thing coming apart!

Now, my sewing machine is a really very basic beast, more or less does straight stitch, zig-zag, not much else. But it has a rather neglected set of ‘special stitches’, one of which I admit I’ve never used in anger before today – it’s a sort of faintly-decorative compound zig-zag, which looked like it might do dual purpose for fray control while not being entirely unattractive! Well, it was worth a shot. A trial run on a narrow strap confirmed that I could run a length of the stitching, and then pull away the stray threads before trimming quite tight to the stitch line. The result seemed quite stable and robust. Excellent!

Rectangle of denimI chopped a rough rectangle of denim out of the leg of hubby’s discarded jeans. They were very well worn by the time they reached the end of their working life, so the denim is gorgeous and soft.

Cut the wide strapsUsing a ruler and cutting wheel, I sliced two wide straps 3cm wide, and two narrow straps about 1cm in width. If you don’t have a cutting wheel, mark the back and cut carefully, especially for the narrow straps.

I decided to go with a contrasting colour for the stitching to make a decorative detail out of it, and loaded up the machine with some bright yellow cotton.

With stitching completeEach wide strap takes two rows of stitches, as close as possible to the edges. The narrow straps get one row of stitches straight up the middle. If your machine doesn’t do a stitch like this, then a sensible width zig-zag is probably a good compromise.

Pull away your the threadsOnce the stitching is done, tease away at the threads outside the sewing, and gently pull it away until it ‘sticks’ in the stitching. Then, using a really sharp pair of scissors, trim the loose threads to within about 1mm of the edge of the stitching. This is all a little bit time consuming, but worth it in the end!

Now, all your straps are made, and ready to be assembled.

Straps complete before assembly

Fit the straps to the sandalTie the narrow straps in a reef knot around the approximate mid-point of the wide strap, and then feed all the ends through the appropriate holes. My denim isn’t an even colour because of the wear on it, so I used the darker end for the outside hole on both sandals, and the lighter end on the inside.

Straps on sole-sideThis is the experimental trying-on bit of the process. Adjust the straps until they’re all the right length and the fit is comfortable, using safety pins on the underside if necessary. Once you’ve know how long your straps need to be, it’s time to work out how to retain them. I’d considered the ‘tie a knot in it’ approach, and that seemed likely to work ok with the narrow toe strap, but didn’t seem as plausible for the thick straps.

Instead, I had a dig about in my button box and found six small stout little white buttons, just the right size for the recessed gaps in the bottom of the sandals.

For the toe strap, join both halves together with a horizontal row of stitches, before fixing the button between them, then trim the ends with about a cm spare and fold the straps over, securing the ends down again as firmly as you can.

Fixing toe strap (1)  Fixing toe strap (2)  Fixing toe strap (3)

For the broad straps, start by identifying the attachment point you need, secure your thread firmly and then sew the button into the centre of the strap. Trim the strap and then sew the corners down over the button, before securing the strap below the button into a round shank, wrapping a few times with the thread to help you hold the shape.

Fixing wide strap (1)  Fixing wide strap (2)  Fixing wide strap (3)

In essence, that’s it. Make the second sandal the same way, trying to get the strap lengths to match.

Finished straps

If you were just going to wear them indoors, you could probably leave it at that. I had in mind using a blob of hot glue both beneath and finally on top of the strap and button assembly to secure and stabilise the lot, and add some waterproofing and abrasion resistance to stop the first rough floor surface wearing the thread away and letting all the hard work come apart again. But then I remembered that I’ve finally got my hands on some Sugru, so I think I’m going to use a blob of that over the top (and possibly a cuff underneath) as the rubber texture seems likely to be nicely compatible with the rest of the sole. I’ll post final photos once I’ve done this (in the next few days, all being well!).

Finished sandals with home-made denim straps

I can think of some possible variations (and having done this ‘make’, some I wish I’d thought of before I started!). Satin or grosgrain ribbon would make great straps (you’d want a matching pair in 25mm and 6mm widths, I would guess, and a metre of each will be plenty) – and might even be quite ‘dressy’, with the right choice colour and plain dark-coloured sandals.  I suspect – though I haven’t tried this, so if you do, please let me know! – that you could just tie knots in the ends of the ribbons, embed the knots in a little ball of  Sugru, and just sort of ‘squidge’ it into the recesses in the sole, reducing the whole make to a five or ten minute job.  Hot glue would probably work pretty much the same, too (but don’t burn your fingers)! Next time I see a set of dirt cheap flip-flops in a pound shop or market, I’m definitely giving this variation a try!

I’m really thrilled with this, actually. These sandals are *comfortable*, and they look pretty cool too, though I say so myself. I’m definitely planning to take them on holiday, and I shan’t be one bit embarrassed by them by the pool – the finished effect is certainly more ‘handcrafted’ than ‘homemade’. So do give this a try, and please, let me know how you get on?

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Simple Summer Sewing – make a quick, cheap, pretty beach and pool cover-up

I can’t take the credit for the idea here – I’d seen a photo of something similar on Pinterest some time ago, and tracked instructions on the ‘Vie en Rose’ blog (and you should go and take a look at these, the rest of the post will make a lot more sense!) at the time. Then I more or less forgot about it until I started thinking about what to pack for our summer holiday. It seemed the perfect alternative to a sarong, easier to wear and a bit more ‘shaped’.

So I picked up some remaindered floral print cotton jersey on Ebay for about a fiver, and got started with it on my day off a week or two ago.  I’d offered up a sarong to get an idea of how wide a piece of fabric I needed, and came to the conclusion that the ‘ideal’ size was about 10cm wider than the width of fabric I had.  Slightly irritating.

Rather than chop a lengthwise section from my 2.5m length (seemed wasteful!), I decided to take a punt on the 1.6m width and hope the bit of stretch in the jersey and the inherent ‘forgivingness’ of the pattern would let me get away with it.  This decision rather forced my hand in terms of hemming – no spare fabric for this, and worse, I was going to have to use the selvedge, rather than trimming it, too. I know, I know, two cardinal sins of sewing and dressmaking just there. But do bear with me, this is quick and cheerful stuff, but the result is surprisingly good!!

Decide roughly how long you want your wrap, measuring from about armpit length downwards, and make this the width of your piece of jersey fabric.  Make sure all the edges are nice and straight as you cut your piece, as these will be your finished edges. I used a cutting mat and roller for speed and convenience, but you could manage carefully with fabric scissors.

Shape the armsThe only piece of shaping required is around the arm holes. I used a strappy top I own as a reference template. Line it up at the top of the ‘body’ and mark out the arm shape. If you fold the fabric in half, you can cut both sides together, so they’ll be symmetrical.

Cut the arm shapingMark (this is the reverse side!) with a pen or pencil. Then just cut carefully along the mark.

Now it’s just a question of working out how to attach a for each shoulder. I measured the strappy top from where I’d stopped shaping the arm hole, up to the seam at the top of the shoulder, and then back down to the seam at the underarm.

Measure for the strapsThis gave me a length of about 40cm as an estimate for the strap length. The blog tutorial I found made braided straps, and you could certainly do this.  I had my sewing machine conveniently to hand, so it was just as quick to make tubes – I cut two lengths about 2.5cm wide and 40 cm long, sewed along the length with right sides together, trimmed the seam allowance and then turned them carefully the right way out.  This was actually pretty fiddly and time consuming, but I think gives a nice finish.

Straps sewn in placeOnce your straps are ready, safety pin them in place and try on your cover up. This will allow you to adjust the strap length to suit your preferences (I shortened mine by about 5cm in the end).  Now, I can see no reason at all to post photos of myself in my bathing suit on the internet, so you’ll have to refer to the original tutorial for fitting photographs. Once you’ve decided on the right strap length, hand sew the straps in place firmly.

If you’re using a solid coloured fabric, this should give a pretty nice finish, but you can see with my contrasting print it’s all rather scruffy!  But it’s done. Try it on and flounce about in it a bit, pretending to be standing by a beach bar somewhere delightfully tropical.

Buttons!I wasn’t quite happy with the strap sewing, so I gave it some thought. Eventually it was a colleague who suggested buttons, which were an inspired solution.  I had a dig around, eventually found my button box, and excavated these four pretty little off-black beauties.

Strap with buttons in placeSewn in place over the strap joins, they completely conceal my scruffy sewing.  Hurray!

I’ve considered shaping the short edges on a slight angle to cut away the worst of the selvedge, but although I know it’s there, it really isn’t obvious, so I’ll probably leave it for now. If it annoys me later, I’ve always got the option!

Finished beach wrapWell, there it is! I’m really pleased with it, I think it’ll work beautifully as a cover-up over swim wear, for the beach of the pool this summer.  It’s such a quick ‘make’, not sure I agree with the ’20 minute’ assertion, but certainly well under an hour, all told. And all for well under a fiver. Practical summer style on a serious budget!

Fun crochet beach bagIncidentally, I’ve also finished the crochet beach bag I was working on a few weeks ago. I’ll  do a full tutorial at some stage when I re-make it (there were a few details I got wrong with this one that I’d like to do right next time!), but I’m still pretty thrilled with it, it’ll do very nicely by the pool this summer with plenty of space for a paperback, the sunscreen, sunglasses, and of course the cover up!

I’m feeling rather excited about the summer now… Bring it on!

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Halloween Rib Cage T-Shirt – five minute fancy dress

Oh no – you’ve got a Halloween party this evening, and to call your costume an afterthought is, sadly, dramatically to over-estimate the amount of thought that has actually gone into it so far!  We’re just back from a lovely week in Cornwall, eating great food and walking the dog on the beach.  I’d completely forgotten about our village pub’s ‘costume optional’ Halloween event this evening until we got home about an hour ago!

Halloween Rib Cage T-shirt

But, all is not lost.  Look at my natty outfit (kindly modelled here by Hubby)!

This really is a five minute costume project.  It’s thrifty, too, and no sewing required.  You’ll just need to round up the following –

  • A ‘sacrificial’ black t-shirt,
  • a white-t-shirt that you’ll get to wear again,
  • a cutting mat, small rotary cutter, and a tailor’s chalk / pencil, and
  • a basic grasp of human anatomy (google images can help you with this bit!)

Find the approximate centre lineStarting with the black t-shirt inside out, mark out the centre line as best you can.  This will be surprisingly difficult to do with any accuracy as the quality control on these things is always shockingly poor, so a decent best guess at it is perfectly alright.

Mark out ribsNext, using the tailor’s chalk, mark out a set of ribs to one side of your centre line.  There are lots of rib cages in google images to look at, and I found the PDF template for a much more complicated version of this project on marthastewart.com was a useful guide to the general size and shape of the ribs.  Remember to offer up to the white shirt you’re planning to wear underneath to make sure you’re not massively ‘out’ when it comes to necklines.

Fold for cuttingNow, fold the t-shirt in half along your centre line, so that you have both halves of the front of the shirt front-to-front and your chalk markings showing, and the cutting mat underneath.

Cut along markings with rotary cutterCut carefully along the rib markings with your cutting wheel, through both layers of t-shirt, so that the pattern is cut as close as possible to identically on both sides of your chest.

That’s it, unfold your t-shirt, and put the cutting mat inside so you can tidy up any bits the cutter hasn’t cut cleanly.

And you’re done.  Simple, or what?

You could do the back now – but don’t cut the same pattern, as the back of the rib cage differs quite a bit from the front!  But if you can’t be bothered, pair it with a cape (or a long dark coat!), dark trousers or a black skirt and knee boots, and – if you’re feeling especially keen! – a scythe made from a broomstick with a cardboard and tinfoil blade.  You’re all set!

Time to get ready to party without feeling like you’ve completely failed to go to any trouble!  Enjoy your parties, folks, and have a ghoulish good time!

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Using Your Bottle – self-watering planter success!

Earlier in the week I wrote about my last batch of bottle cutting experiments.  Just a quick post to update, especially about the self-watering planter which, I had to admit, I had my doubts about!

Self-watering planter

Well, it works!  The compost is staying moist, the water level in the reservoir is very slowly – but visibly – dropping, and the basil seems to be thriving!  There seems to be an added bonus with this design, which is that the glass captures the heat from sunshine much more effectively than traditional pots.  The soil feels quite warm to the touch on a sunny day, which can only do good things for the plants’ growth over the winter, right?

So, many more of these to come, I think!  Hubby not too sure about me filling up our windowsills with recycled wine bottles, but I’m sure he’ll come around!

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Using Your Bottle – testing some ideas for bottle cutting crafts

I’ve been wanting to play some more with the bottle cutting jig since my first attempts at bottle cutting a few weeks ago.  This weekend I found a few hours and raided some bottles from the neighbours’ recycling bins, and got to work.

Almost completed bottle cutting projects

My success rate this time stayed stubbornly around the 1:3 mark.  It’s becoming clear that two things are combining to be a problem.  The first is that accuracy in the score mark is absolutely critical – if you don’t get a perfectly straight even score that meets neatly, there’s no chance of the bottle breaking cleanly.  The second is that bottles are *rubbish*.  Of the bottles I’ve cut – and failed to cut – so far, not one is made up of even thickness glass, and most of them aren’t even anywhere near round in section!  This makes getting an even score more challenging, as well as tending to make the bottle break unevenly as a result of the variable thickness of glass.   There are a handful of gadgets on the market (and one interesting looking one, called the Kinkajou, about to come on the market) which might well improve my hit rate on nice reliable score lines, but I’m still trying to keep this a low-cost hobby for now!

Glass cutting jigStill, a couple of hours work (mostly removing labels!) got me three new nicely cut bottles – a 500ml green cider bottle, and two punt-bottled wine bottles, one of which I cut long, and discarded the top to make a vase, and the other cut more centrally to give a top and bottom section.  Sanding down (see my previous post for more details of the cutting process) gave me safe cut edges.

I’ve really wanted to play with etching, because I’ve seen some beautiful glass decorating projects, but hubby really wasn’t very enamoured with the idea of me using concentrated acid paste in the kitchen (and I can kind of see his point!).  I settled on using some frosted-glass effect spray paint made by plastikote.  This slightly offends one of my fundamental design principles, actually, but never mind!

The ideas for using the bottles were mostly gleaned from Pinterest, which is a new and rather addictive time-sink (those of you who’ve also discovered this can have a browse of my boards here).  I used some black sticky-back vinyl as a masking material for two of the pieces.

Masked-off bottle topIsn’t it great when you discover that the bits and bobs you’ve bought for one craft can be pressed into service for another?  I dug out the rotary cutter, ruler and cutting mat I bought for quilting, and got to work cutting strips of vinyl.  Two to wrap around the bottom of the cider bottle, to give a striped finish, and the off-cut with some newspaper to mask off all but the edge of the cut-off top of the wine bottle.

Masked tealight holderThis vinyl is a great masking material for glass, as it adheres tightly, stretches just a little to account for the wonkiness of the bottles, and comes away cleanly without leaving any residue.  The resulting cider bottle makes a very pretty tealight holder which would make a lovely little gift.

Masked vase with rubber bandsFor the bottle destined to be a vase, I borrowed another idea in wide circulation on pinterest and applied rubber bands, some overlapping, rising and falling. The first thing to note about this approach is that the rubber bands don’t arrange themselves  – it actually takes quite a lot of faffing to get a pleasing arrangement of lines.  They’re not an ideal masking material, either.  As you apply the instructed two or three layers of the frosting paint, some will settle on the top edge of the rubber bands (this is much less of a problem with vinyl which is very thin and doesn’t collect ‘overspray’ in this way).

Dave with vaseThe rubber bands came off easily once the paint had dried overnight, but it took quite a lot of delicate trimming away of the extra paint with a scalpel blade to get a reasonable finish.  I’m still not entirely happy with the outcome, and if I try this approach again I’ll try to get away with one, perhaps two layers of paint rather than the three I used.  Still, the result is quite pretty, isn’t it?  Dave said he wanted to be in the photo, and who am I to disappoint him?

Landscape fabric with stringFinally, and perhaps most interesting for me, is the bottle cut in half.  I’ve made a self-watering herb planter, based on a photo I saw – guess where? – that’s right, pinterest again.  The top of the bottle is up-ended inside the bottom.  I lined it with a cut rectangle of landscape fabric about 4″ by 8″, one half of which I threaded through with a bunch of jute string. Fold this in half with the string dangling through the neck of the bottle. Then, fill with compost and plant (in my case, with some rather sorry-looking home-grown basil I always forget to water).

This is where I admit to being a really neglectful gardner.  I’m full of enthusiasm, but when it comes down to it I have a nasty habit of forgetting to water, to pot on, to plant out…  my garden thrives on it’s own resources more than on my care, and my houseplants have to have a strong will to survive!

Self-watering wine bottle planter

So if this contraption actually works (and the jury is still out on this – it’s early days) then it’s going to change my window-sill gardening forever.  Herbs that will water themselves!  In a planter which is recycled, free, and really pretty, rather than something ugly and plastic and more suited to greenhouse shelving than living room windows.

I’ll update with more photos of the herb planter once it’s clear whether there’s any merit to the design.  In the meantime I suspect there’s quite a bit more mileage in breaking bottles for fun and (perhaps??) profit…

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Bottling It – a first ‘crack’ at recycled glass craft

Some time ago, I came across a blog claiming that you could cut wine bottles with a burning bit of string soaked in acetone.  This sounded hilarious fun, but also a tad more dangerous and unpredictable than I was entirely happy with!  The idea didn’t desert me, though, and as time went by I was thinking of more and more different ways I might use recycled wine bottles, if only I could neatly (and safely!) cut them in half.  Green Glass make some beautiful drinking glasses out of recycled bottles, which were another source of inspiration.  This is a real ‘upcycling’ craft (a word which often seems to be an excuse for selling overpriced old junk on etsy!) creating something pretty and useful out of the contents of your recycling box!

Glass craft - candle holder

So I did what we all do, and broke out a bit of depth-first google searching.  A few idle lunch-breaks worth of reading later, and I eventually decided that I was happy to experiment with a cutting process where hot and cold water are used to ‘crack’ a line scored on the outside of the bottle with a diamond-tip glass cutting tool.

DIY cutting jigOf course, the knack is getting the score line straight.  People will sell you various bottle cutting jigs and devices that work on this principle, but I didn’t want to buy any expensive kit for this, at least to start with.

Jig with cutting toolA bit of thought and collaboration from my lovely husband, and we built this contraption out of leftover wood from the shed.  It’s a v-shaped cradle to hold the bottle with a solid end, and notches cut in the side to stabilise the handle of the cutting tool.  The cutting tool itself came from amazon and cost a couple of pounds.

Give some thought to what you want from your bottle, and whether the traditional bump found in the bottom of most bottles (called a ‘punt’, apparently – here I was thinking a punt was a flat bottomed boat propelled with a pole on shallow rivers in British university cities) is a use or a hindrance.  It might be fine if you want to make a vase, for instance, but not so useful if you want a candle-holder.  Some bottles are tapered or squared-off, and these you probably also want to avoid!  Now, give your bottle a good scrub and remove all the labels. You should to do this first, before there are any sharp edges to work around!

Scoring the bottlePut your bottle in the jig, place the glass cutting tool in an appropriate slot and gently press the scoring head against the side of the bottle.  Now, very slowly, rotate the bottle against the point of the cutting tool.  You’re aiming to complete a perfect full rotation, without leaving a gap or ‘over-writing’ the start of your line at the end.  If the score line isn’t complete and perfectly straight, the bottle isn’t going to crack evenly.

Accuracy is everything, as it’s a one-shot deal and mistakes cannot be corrected later – but on the plus side, the bottles are free and only destined for the recycling bin in any case, so try not to fret about it too much!  My success rate so far for a clean break is about 1 in 3 – not great but it’s early days and I suspect practice will help improve this somewhat.

Once you’ve scored your line, it’s time to get it to crack.  Different approaches are advocated, but I went for the simplest one.  Boil a kettle of water.  Holding the bottle over the sink, pour freshly boiled water gently over the score line, rotating the bottle slowly.  After a few seconds, put the bottle under the cold running tap and repeat the process of rotating it.  I haven’t got any photos of this bit, because both my hands were a bit occupied at the time!

Uneven breakYou’ll have to do this a few times, but you’ll see – and perhaps hear – the score lines start to give way.  If you’re really lucky, the bottle will break cleanly straight along the score line.  This one didn’t!  The fracture line wavered quite dramatically above and below the score line over about 1/3rd of the circumference.  I’m not sure why, whether it was to do with the score line, or the fact the bottle itself which was quite uneven in thickness.  Whichever it was, it’s a dead loss, so throw it away and fetch another one from the recycling bin.

Other approaches I’ve seen advocated include candle flame followed by ice cube, and tapping the bottle from the inside near the score line, though this requires a crank-headed tapping tool. I have no idea if these approaches might result in a better success rate – certainly tapping may give a different, more controlled break than hot/cold shock.

Fortunately, my first try (when I wasn’t taking photographs – typical eh?) did break cleanly, giving me a goblet about four inches high which I wanted for a candle holder.  It broke with a very slight ‘notch’, which I was able to crack off using the glass cutting tool to give essentially a clean cut.  A very *sharp* clean cut.

Sandpaper to grind the edgesSuccess!  But that’s not it, of course, since you’d have a candle holder specifically designed to maim the unwary, which is a silly enough thing to keep around your own house, never mind consider giving as a gift.  Those sharp sheared glass edges are going to have to go.  My approach is low tech – wet, fine grade silicon carbide sandpaper.  I used a slightly coarser grade to take the edges down initially, and then finished with some really fine paper.

Working wet greatly reduces the production of glass dust, which is nasty dangerous stuff that you should not be inhaling.  Work in a well ventilated area (outside, for me!) and ideally wear a dust mask.  Feel the edge *very* gently and tentatively with a fingertip to check the sharp edges are gone to your satisfaction.

Carefully work on the edges as well as the flat cut surface.  A little piece of sand paper wrapped around a pencil or something similar is good for the inside edge without scratching the glass.  I’ve seen the use of a dremel advocated – I can see how that would work really well but you’d want to be really careful about dust, probably dipping the grinding head in water every few seconds to keep it wet.  You’ll want to do much more careful and comprehensive smoothing work on the rim if you want to use your cut bottle as a drinking glass – but your extra efforts may well be worth it!

Finished candle holderThe result is really pleasing, the cut edge after sanding has a mostly-frosted appearance but still shows some evidence of the manner of its birth.   It’s not a perfect, machined straight line, but just has that little bit of hand-crafted variability.  You could etch the glass now (something I’m looking into!) or paint it if you liked, but you’re the proud owner of a hand-made recycled glass candle holder.

I used this with a tea light for a test burn, as much as anything to check that the heating from a candle wasn’t going to cause  unexpected cracking or breakage after the bottle’s relatively rough treatment!  And to get photographs, of course.  I expect this will look even better with a votive candle, but I didn’t have one to hand.

Finished candle holder

This was just a first attempt – but I had a lot of fun and will certainly be doing some more bottle cutting in time for Christmas!  I love that the detail of the bottle is still very much part of the finished piece too.  Definitely something to try – though probably a craft for grown-ups!

For a few ideas, try my next post on bottle cutting – ‘Using Your Bottle – testing some ideas for bottle cutting crafts’.

Finally, an apology to those of you who were emailed a part-finished version of this blog post yesterday – a mistake on my part, I’m afraid!  I’ll try to restrain my itchy mouse-finger from wandering over the ‘Publish’ button so enthusiastically!

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Adventures in Quilting – my first jelly roll, and baby steps in a new craft

A couple of weeks ago, friends introduced me to a wonderful local quilting shop, The Bramble Patch in Weedon, Northants.  All those beautiful fabrics made an impression on me, and I’ve been thinking about possible projects ever since.  Today I was back for a return visit, and whereas last time I escaped with five pretty fat quarters and a relatively small hole in my wallet, today’s visit was a bit more costly!

Jelly roll, fabrics & batting

I came home with a jelly roll – my first *ever* jelly roll – ‘Reunion’ by Moda, a metre of quilt batting, a metre and a half of a matching fabric from the Reunion collection to use as backing, as well as a couple of necessary bits and bobs.  I love the idea of jelly rolls – little strips of lots and lots of co-ordinating fabrics.  I would never buy even fat quarters of such a wide range of fabrics, and the diminutive size of the strips (just 2 1/2 inches wide) is its own challenge.  This collection is particularly lovely – in turns fresh and colourful, classic and muted.

Reunion by Moda fabric collection

My project, after consideration, is a set of six place mats and a co-ordinating table runner. I hope that the small size of the working pieces and the limited scope of the project should make it one I can pull off without too much stress or anxiety!  In deference to my complete lack of prior quilting experience, and relative lack of sophisticated general sewing skills, I’ve chosen the simplest possible pattern – just stripes of colour laid next to one another, edged by turning the backing fabric to the front side.  It’s such a pretty fabric and it saves a lot of faff with binding!

Finished place mat - front     Finished place mat - back

This is my first place mat – the size was chosen with my narrow dining table in mind and is about 22 x 36cm.  The more observant among you will notice one doubled seam where I messed up slightly – this just adds to the cosy hand-made feeling, in my opinion, and in any case is only visible from the back.  I’ll post a full how-to in due course once I’ve finished making it up as I go along – although talk about the blind leading the blind!  The backing fabric was folded over and the corners mitred by hand before being sewn down in a single row close to the edge.  I’m quite pleased with the final result, not bad for a first effort, eh?

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Piecing It Together – fabrics, quilting, and an amazing shop

I discovered the most amazing Aladdin’s cave of a fabric shop yesterday – friends took me along to The Bramble Patch in Weedon, Northants, and oh my goodness I was in heaven!  The Bramble Patch is really a quilting shop, but houses a veritable treasure trove of fabrics (including hundreds of fat quarters), patterns, kits, and accessories.  Kid in a candy store just doesn’t describe my feeling about places like this!

Fat Quarters at The Bramble Patch

I’m slightly in two minds about quilting – I think the end results can be stunning – particularly some the contemporary abstract / geometric patterns, and would love to have a gorgeous family quilt and be able to say ‘I made that’.

On the other hand, I’m a quick and dirty sort of seamstress.  I can’t see much merit in taking twice as long over a sewing project to achieve perfection – ‘good enough’ is good enough for me!  Quilting – and I would love to be proven wrong here – strikes me as the end of the sewing crafts spectrum that rewards accuracy and carefulness, rather than my ‘that’ll do’ attitude!

The range of patterns and kits on offer is really quite impressive – not to mention tempting! – in particular, some very sweet jubilee and union jack cushion covers.

Fat QuartersMuch to my husband’s apparent relief, I managed to escape with only five new fat quarters for the fabric stash – what he doesn’t quite appreciate, I think, is the brain-full of ideas and inspiration I’ve come away with too!

I’m extremely tempted to go on one of the quilting courses they offer (and no doubt much more of my hard-earned cash is liable to go their way in the future!) – in the meantime I’d welcome any tips and leads on utter-beginner quilting skills & project ideas you might know about!

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Handmade Christmas – decorated glass baubles

I have to confess to having a bit of a ‘problem’ when it comes to Christmas tree decorations – I love them.  Every year I try to add one or two (ok, sometimes a few more than one or two!) new pieces, to go on my tree year after year.  In recent years I’ve tried to make some of these rather than buying them, and this year I’ve bought nothing, which is a first!

Finished bauble on my tree

What I added to my tree this year were four lovely clear glass baubles which I already had, but which I have filled with wool fibres, giving what I hope you’ll agree is rather a lovely effect.

Bauble & woolMaking these is very simple – you will require:

  • Some plain clear glass baubles, any size but I used 6cm ones.  I bought them from a website a couple of years ago, but I gather they’re often available in craft shops before Christmas.
  • Wool scraps, as pretty and colourful as you can find.  I begged these from a friend who’s a keen knitter.

Glass bauble with top removedFirst, gently remove the top from the bauble.  With the normal design of blown glass bauble, you do this by squeezing together the sides of the metal hanging loop, which moves the ends together allowing you to (very carefully, broken bauble glass is sharp!) lift the metal crown from the bauble.

Bauble with cut lengths of woolNow take your length of wool – about a foot (30cm or 12″) is probably quite enough depending on how thick and fluffy it is.  Cut this into approximately 5cm / 2″ lengths.

Teased apart wool fibresThen tease the wool apart gently into it’s component fibres.  Depending on the thickness and spinning type of the wool this might be more or less difficult, the wool I had was quite a loose structure and came apart very simply.  At this stage you need to assess whether you have enough fibres, since you want enough to loosely fill your bauble.

Inserting fibresFinally, use something like a chopstick or a pencil to gently push the fibres inside your bauble, and re-attach the cap.

That’s it, all done in only a minute or two, and the colours and effects you can achieve are only limited by your imagination (and wool collection!).  It’s so simple to create a colourful, textured, unique bauble for the price of a plain clear glass one, and these would make lovely gifts, too!  I’ve also seen pretty things done with ribbons, fabric scraps, or glitter inside clear baubles, so why not get creative!

Updated for 2012why limit yourself to wool, there are other things you can fill baubles with, too!

See more crafty ideas for a Handmade Christmas >>

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