Uncomfortable Comforter Recycling

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This post is part of a series about sewing NotQuilts. If you’re unfamiliar with this method, The NotQuilt series begins here.

This NotQuilt project started out with more than a few aches and pains, demonstrating just how hard recycling really is. The first challenge involves comforter recycling.

We like to feel virtuous about carefully sorting our recycling and then they get collected and go off to some place else to be “recycled.” But what happens? Particularly to textiles? Quite often, not what we expect.

I’ve been thinking about this since this morning. I made an expedition to the Dauphin County Recycling Center to drop off two flat-screen TVs. Younger Son had salvaged one from a trash pile for a project. The other dead TV belonged to Oldest Child, long since moved out. His locality did not recycle TV sets, so we took it to dispose.

That’s when we found our area also stopped recycling electronic waste. Why? Because there is such a huge glut of electronic waste on the marketplace. Electronics aren’t built to be repaired, and it isn’t made to be easily recycled either. Materials get recycled only if there is a market for their raw materials that are cheaper to use than new, virgin ore.

Textile recycling is equally problematic. If you shove our unwanted clothing and bedding to the Third World countries, you destroy their indigenous cloth and garment industries. Economics is a dismal science that does not care about your feelings.

That leaves upcycling as a solution for excess clothing, but that takes time and effort. I repair my family’s clothing and I make altered couture. Both require plenty of time and handwork; on an industrial scale that makes them expensive and time-consuming. Companies do not produce things that do not make money and upcycling unwanted garments into new, inexpensive, cost-effective, fashionable clothes must be at the top of the money-losing list.

This is a roundabout way of introducing the new NotQuilt project: Dragon Princess!

As always, I don’t plan on spending any of my coin on this project and I will use only the materials on hand. This is true to the spirit of traditional quilting even if it is not true to the letter. I’m going to use non-traditional materials, starting with synthetics like polyester blends, which our pioneer ancestors never had.

But they would have! I cannot imagine a woman out on the prairies turning up her nose at something washable and colorfast like a good cotton-poly blend.

Starting From Inside

Recycling old bedding can be fraught with peril; it will refuse to conform to what you need it to become.

I had on hand an ancient, king-size waterbed comforter. This very large piece of bedding was made of a sleazy, silky synthetic, a dark ruby red on one side and an ugly dusty rose on the other side. As with most cheap comforters, it was sewn together with that awful plastic nylon thread, now disintegrating into shorter pieces.

dragon princess comforter

The two sides of the sleazy waterbed comforter. My husband bought it as a bachelor. I married him anyway.

Worse, it was sewn with the minimum amount of stitching needed to keep it together long enough to be sold and even washed once or twice. Although the batting had never seen the inside of a cotton boll, it still doesn’t like laying flat without being forced into submission. Washing it will exacerbate the batting’s desire to roll itself up into balls, tear and shred, and in general misbehave.

If you ever wondered why quilts are so closely quilted together, with those lines of stitching never more than an inch apart, this is why. Quilt stitching is in reality an S&M technique to force the batting to behave. Bad batting!

The worst problem will be seen on the edges where it will shred. Manufacturers cheap out on stitching the outside edge, sometimes by adding a transparent nylon thread as a cost-cutting measure. This will be the first place the batting will misbehave as there is nothing to hold it together and protect it from the washing machine. The only way we consumers can combat this is by refusing to buy anything sewn with transparent nylon thread.

So I knew that the sleazy red comforter had issues. I didn’t dare wash it until after major surgery. The material was worn thin, with some long tears and a lot of worn spots.

comforter recycling

Some examples of the tears, front and back.

I also knew the sleazy, silky synthetic would be slippery to sew through, resulting in many more wrinkles than I would accept in a utility NotQuilt. It will take the walking foot and careful pinning with many, many pins to control this.

The colors were problematic as well. That fashion face of dark ruby red would show through just about any fabric and the dusty rose side would not be much better. Since I didn’t know how much the batting had torn and clumped around the edges, the only way to find out for sure was to rip the edges.

I opened the bottom seam, removing the line of real thread and awful nylon thread. The fabric was in such poor shape that I cut off the outermost edge on the other three sides rather than try to rip them. The batting had torn free and clumped from top to bottom on one side. The other side had many large tears, but the batting was still attached in a few places.

Ivan Notquilt comforter

Ivan the Terrible says, “I didn’t do it, you didn’t see it, you can’t prove nothing.”

Can This Be Saved?

It wasn’t a catastrophic fail. This is repairable for a utility quilt. But it is is a lot of work that, in some ways, isn’t really necessary. After all, we are surrounded by stores full of bedding and thrift shops have even more bedding that is even less expensive. We have a furnace to keep the house well above freezing, all winter long. Mountains of blankets are not a lifesaving necessity.

Recycling the sleazy red comforter is not cost-effective. Nonetheless, I could do it. I’ll have to iron the batting flat, using press cloths and the lowest setting on the iron (gift-wrapping paper). Then I’ll hand sew the batting back together, overlapping it and whip stitching it into place. Where batting was missing, I’ll sew in a patch from my stash of quilt batting pieces.

After all this work, I’ll have to resew the top, batting and bottom layers back together, working my way first all the way around the outermost line of quilting, then several inches out, and then sew the edges together, catching in the batting again. That would secure the layers together well enough for the sleazy red comforter to be washed.

Is this worth my time? If we were coping with the zombie apocalypse and I had no other bedding available to keep out the cold, then yes, I would probably do it.

But right now, it isn’t worth my time. Time is money. How do you recycle something like this? Time and money always have to be considered when recycling as you need to get some kind of return on your investment.

What I finally decided to do was to sew all around the comforter, just outside the outermost line of quilting. Then I cut off the ripped and torn portions of fabric and batting, leaving me with a much smaller comforter. It is now about 75 by 75 inches, considerably smaller than the original measurement of 105 by 90 inches. It will fit a couch or a twin bed, nothing larger.

That then leads us back to recycling what remains. I have the sleazy synthetic fabric I removed. It is unusable, even for repair work. It can’t be recycled since there are basically no facilities in the world for turning this petrochemical product back into petrochemicals. Its fate is the landfill or the incinerator.

The batting, however, has possibilities. It is polyester batting, same as the stuff you can buy in bags at Joann’s, usable as stuffing in pillows and soft toys. It is a dull, grayish red, probably from decades of the sleazy red dye working into it along with age. I could trim off the excess batting, stuff it into a pillowcase, safety pin the case closed, and wash it in hot water. A spin through the dryer or a few days on the clothesline would dry the batting. Then it gets shredded into bits and voila, a bag of polyester stuffing.

This is more time-consuming than buying a bag of polyester stuffing at Joann’s, and do I really need more? Keep in mind that this batting is not and never will be white again. The sole advantage is that this bag of polyester stuffing is free, other than my time and the cost of using my washing machine.

That leaves me with the problem of the Dragon Princess NotQuilt. This one needs to be large enough to cover, with plenty of overhang, a queen size bed. The sleazy red comforter is now two feet or more narrower and shorter. It no longer meets the size criteria.

So what do we do? We go back to the stash and look for something else. I discovered a blue blanket, about 100 by 110 inches, and it will become the innards of Dragon Princess.

The remains of the sleazy red comforter will become a much smaller NotQuilt; something suitable as a couch blankie perhaps. It will disappear back into the stash and resurface later on, years from now.

So next week, we will address the blue blanket and why I am calling this NotQuilt Dragon Princess.