Responsible Crafting

Those of us who love vintage things tend to be inspired by vintage items in our crafting, too.

Whether it's the look of a Victorian post card... a quaint ancestor photo... the turn of an antique chair leg or the cheerful graphics of a 50s cookbook... we might just work a little bit of the past into our modern crafts and decorating.

With interesting old items, we see not just the item, but the possibilities for those items-- transforming them with fresh ideas, decoupage and a lick of paint.

But when we get swept up in the creative moment, the tricky part is still keeping in mind the following important points:

  • "What exactly is the value of this item I'm using?"
  • "Am I actually destroying something that I should be trying to preserve?"
  • Or even simply, "wouldn't it be nice if I could reuse this image again and again, instead of just working with it for a one-shot deal?"

I bring this up because every now and then, I'll see a decorating magazine where an article encourages the reuse (and consequential destruction) of something which might actually have monetary or historical value on its own.

For instance, Country Living (a magazine I really tend to like) had a craft project where Victorian postcards were crafted into billfolds. While the end product was lovely, the article never took into account something which worried me greatly-- the value of the cards themselves.

I mean, yes, there are a ton of postcards out there. But how rare cards are (and their value) varies greatly.

In reading the article, I admit I had a small panic attack-- having visions of well-meaning crafters out there, hole punching, cutting and gluing rare Santas... one-of-a-kind cherubs... and prized artists' artwork... all for the sake of crafting. How do you know if you're ruining the last of its kind? How can you be sure you aren't taking something wonderful from the world, with your craft? It may sound silly when you're in the creative zone, but it's worth a moment to think about it.

I admit, I also get minor heart palpitations when I hear about decoupage projects snipping away at the beautiful illustrations in vintage children's books.... or old cookbooks... or antique magazines.

I've seen so many antique books pulled apart at their bindings so people can remove and frame (or resell) the illustrative book plates. How many Maxfield Parrish illustrations have been taken from their original tomes just to be displayed or resold? The book's value goes down. Intact books become a rarity. And without careful attention to the remaining ones, they may be lost to time entirely.

I find myself thinking the loss is all of ours.

The good news is that today's technology allows these items to be used and enjoyed-- but safely. Quality scanners and color printers can be had cheaply these days-- and they replicate vibrant colors well and are ideal for decoupaging.

Not only does it mean the ephemera we love will be around in its original state, to be enjoyed for years to come. But it means as crafters, the scanned images can be used again and again. That way, it's possible to develop a large, versatile image library in no time!

At the risk of being preachy (which is certainly not my intent), I do urge crafters doing this kind of work to at least consider investing in a scanner and printer to preserve the ephemera which inspires you. I think you'll find that while it's a little more work up front, the collection of images you'll develop will be well worth it in the long run.

In the same vein, thoughts of preservation cross my mind when I see antique furniture being painted. Paint can do wonderful things to freshen a piece of furniture. But giving a new look to a drab vintage piece of without a lot of value is quite different than covering the finish of an antique heirloom.

Good questions to ask when faced with the question of painting, can include:

  • Do I know the age of the piece?
  • Is the finish on the piece flawless or would paint help cover over something that would be difficult to restore?
  • Do I know the value of the piece?

What is that old saying about how you can't go home again?

I guess I feel the same is basically true with vintage items-- they're from a time past, and they become the tangible embodiment of their time period.

Once these things are gone-- barring a swift trip with time traveler Doctor Who-- we simply can't go back.

As crafters, we're responsible for bringing the imagery we love-- the designs that inspire-- to life again for new generations to appreciate. But we're also custodians of the items themselves.

A little responsible crafting can go a long way toward preserving the beauty of the past. And making the art of creating a fulfilling, rich and beautiful experience.

I appreciate your taking the time to read my thoughts on this today!

I'll be having some myself today! Hope you all have a great week ahead of you.


stepha said...

Ahh, thank you for writing about this!! It's always something that has been in my brain when I craft with old stuff! My own personal rules for myself usually state that the book I am tearing pages from must be completely falling apart already, or have next to zero value to condone the knife. Whatever guidelines one sets up for themselves, even if they decide to cut up something masterful and rare, they should at least know full well what they are doing; the value then becomes a part of the art and crafting process, at least...

ThriftShopRomantic said...

Stepha- Thank YOU for chiming in on this about your personal rules when crafting with older things.

Your "falling apart" rule is basically the same rule I use for painting furniture-- the finish has to be pretty bad, or I have to have a good sense that, "Ah, this was just out in the 70s." That way I know, I'm not devaluing something that would have the Antiques Roadshow folks cringing. :)

Yup, a little education is never a bad thing!

Anonymous said...

Ack ! Paint ? No !

Our house (rather mansion) in India was built in early 1900s and we still own furnishings from that period.
To restore them, we sanded them down and varnished !
And no we did not do it ourselves - we hired skilled craftsmen.

Hearst media has many good magazines - but one particular I like is Town & Country Travel.

ThriftShopRomantic said...

Jaffer- It's been the rage, though, in some decorating styles to paint everything-- typically white. It's a fresh look, but also has potential to inadvertently ruin some more valuable pieces.

Your place in India sounds like it was beautiful!

Carolina Gonzalez said...

You are so right!Education is the key, and a good scanner and printer our dearest friend! In countries where vintage is really rare like Spain, you can't ruin a treasure!

ThriftShopRomantic said...

Carolina- That's a wonderful point, too, regarding areas where these items are already rare finds! Thanks, Carolina.

SueLovesCherries said...

Well written! I hope the whole vintage (and not vintage) community finds their way to this post. I get so tempted to write nasty notes to eBay sellers who take old kitchen items and repaint them with roses or cherries, etc. - the items are instantly lost. Thank you! Thank you!

ThriftShopRomantic said...

Sue- I understand your perspective, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I think some of the issue involves the fact that crafting does follow trends. And so what's popular now, may actually seem odd, dated or even tacky later... (I can speak from my own crafting experience here! :) ) So how do we know that what we dismantle today will really be that treasured heirloom tomorrow? And what have we lost as a result?

Down Comforter said...

You raise some really smart points to consider when getting creative :) Hard to decide sometime what should be left alone.

Da Old Man said...

Great article, Jenn. And the points you raise go across the board in the entire collectible field.
The general rule of thumb used is this: would altering the item make it more or less valuable?
My basic knowldge is with toys. To refinish/repair or not? If the item is in such poor shape that it is not worth preserving as is, then a professional refinishing is in order. But if a refinished item is not going to be all that valuable, then it is perfect to be used in another project.
Ok, not an exact science, but that is part of the fun of a hobby, I guess.
I have a bunch of National Geographics that are about 100 years old. No one ever throws NG's out, so they are pretty common. I still would feel guilty if I cut them up, even though that was why I bought them.
Go figure.

Peggy. said...

Great put into words exactly what I think everytime i see vintage items taken apart and used in craft projects. I have recently seen lots of single pages from old books for i know some books can't be saved but it just make s me cringe when I see this. it is so easy to scan the page or card or what ever and save the origional...and by scanning the image we can share them with others.

Anonymous said...

Good pointers, Jenn. After working in a library, I would never have the heart to take a pair of scissors to a book. Books are like living beings to me and they are honored and valued in my home. The ONLY piece of furniture that I have ever painted is a metal glider for the deck. I am just a big chicken when it comes to painting over wood furniture. I am always afraid that I'll regret covering up what the original craftsman intended.
I'll just stick with coloring Easter eggs!!

Andrea said...

I don't know how ANONYMOUS came up on my comment.....I typed in my's me...ANDREA!

ThriftShopRomantic said...

Down Comforter- It is, I know. Particularly when you have craft ideas you're excited to try out, too.

Da Old Man- You raise some good points yourself! I can see older toys facing just the same sorts of issues. As for the National Geographics, I guess it would depend for me what sort of condition they were in. If they were common and already falling apart, that would be different to me than if they were really nicely bound and intact.

Heh, hi Andrea- Yes, I'm similar to you when it comes to books. I love illustrated books for the experience of reading them. When they've been gutted of their illustrations it makes me sad to see they're now missing a part of their original intent.

Caroline said...

The point you made about old and potentially valuable, but certainly irreplacable books being destroyed for their prints really hit home. You hear so very often that they are taken apart so that prints can be sold off individually, not just for crafting, but also for financial gain.
Your point about scanners etc. is truly to the point as well.
By the way, keep crafting and thrifting, I love your blog!!!

Da Old Man said...

You want some nice 100 year old NG's?

Janelle said...

Yes, you've mentioned some things that I do think about quite often. We've had a cedar chest in our bedroom for years that came from my DH's grandparents, and although it's terribly beat up and I would like to paint it, I keep chickening out. I can't imagine it's of any value, but I hate to take the risk.

ThriftShopRomantic said...

Caroline- Thank you! And yes, those torn apart books bother me a bit. It's one thing if the book itself is in bad condition, but often that's not the case.

Da Old Man- :) Only if they have amusing ads. :)

Janelle- Oh, I can understand your dilemma on that. Maybe check and see if it has a maker's mark on the bottom or under the lid. That might at least give you some idea of where to start researching its age.

Broke Bettie said...

Hi there - I just stumbled upon your blog...what a wonderfully thought out post!

I've often wondered about this issue myself. As a vintage lover and someone who loves to make stuff the value side usually wins out over the crafty side.

ThriftShopRomantic said...

Broke Bettie- Thanks-- and it's wonderful to hear from so many conscientious crafters who really DO think about it before they craft with vintage items. It's very reassuring to know so many folks are still actively trying to preserve things.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful thoughts! I so agree with what you have said here. I cringe at the thought of taking a book a apart for the sake of crafting and while watching HGTV, I have wonder how old is that piece? I hope they aren't ruining something precious? It is important to preserve the past and as much as I love crafts I believe it is important to be responsible.

chyna said...

I'm so relieved that I'm not the only one cringing while watching or reading some craft. I can't tell you how many times I've switched channels while watching HGTV or Trading Spaces just because they are cutting up or painting something. Does give me an excuse to get up and do something at least. ;)

That Girl Ang said...

I tend to go back & forward on this issue. yes, I love vintage & antique.. However, I also love to collect... and when I am filled to the brim.. I try & sell just for a simple low cost... and nada.. Some stuff I can't even give away. So at what cost should I preserve? I hate to see these things in the trash; and yet I trash my home stacking them there...

I recently purchase a set of old Life Mags to cut up.. but alas.. One housed the famous KISS.. you know.. the kiss b/n the nurse & the soldier.. & yes another detailed the death of Ghandi... NO! I won't destroy them, but what do I do with oh so many treasures?

If the ones who value them would only step out.. there would be so many less of them to be thrown out... yet cut out....



Jenn Thorson said...

Lissie- I used to do the same thing when I watched Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic show. I loved some of the things she did, but would see her rubbing all the color off of vintage ornaments, or painting some antique piece white, and it would make me a little queasy.

Chyna- Hey, motivation is never a bad thing. :)

Ang- I'd say consider donating to a library, a historical organization, or something like that. Even something free like Craig's List would at least keep it out of the landfill and potentially give it a good home.

That Girl Ang said...

That's the thing.. my library is selling them for a quarter a piece & junking the rest.. i get many from them. The historical society is filled to the brim & freecyclers do not want them... many of the "sought" after items are in abundance in my neighborhood and the baby boomer's parents and still alive and running the streets... So I end up keeping them.. but OH so many items end up in the garbage... it's really a disgrace. So I'm not totally mad at the folk who create with them.. as They are preserving them, in part. I just can't do it myself. Well atleast not yet... it depends on what this recession brings. I may need them for heat! (that was a joke ;)

Bird said...

Oh noooo! I get so upset at the thought of beautiful old books being destroyed. I remember seeing that someone was selling envelopes made from the pages of a very old and beautiful wildflower fieldguide - for pennies! She obviously didn't know what she had, that book was worth a lot of money and obviously in perfect condition too for her to be able to use the pages the way she had. It's not the fact that she didn't know how much it was worth in money - more that she couldn't see it's intrinsic worth as a beautiful and useful thing in it's own right and just went and hacked it up. Sorry, you've just got me on a bit of a rant there didn't you. I use a lot of old stuff for crafting but my rules are that the object used has to be not fit for original purpose or salvagable as such. For instance I use a lot of broken records, and they often have lovely cardboard sleeves that are ideal for paper craft.


Anonymous said...

My number one gripe is everyone's infernal need to "PAINT IT WHITE and put some decals on it!!!" Beautiful grain is only beautiful as long as it's visible. And you NEVER have to worry about it chipping or needing repainted. grrrr

ThriftShopRomantic said...

ThatGirlAng- Fingers crossed the recession doesn't require you to take Time and risk Life for heat. :)

Bird- That's quite all right, rant away. It's good to hear about folks doing things with broken records and other stuff that would just be tossed. When junk really is JUNK making it be great crafting-- now that's just smart.

Dana- Yes, that's been a trend for quite a few years now. I HAVE seen some very mediocre 60s/70s furniture store furniture that's really benefited from painting. But when it's some marvelous oak grain, like you said, it's a shame to cover it up.