An umbrella is truly an item that has been designed for the dump in every possible way. If you don’t like being wet when it’s raining, you need to have one. But they don’t really work all that well to begin with, the slightest wind will turn them inside out, they bend/break painfully easily, and wet umbrellas are often left outside of places by accident. They are so cheap and easy to replace, there’s not much incentive to make an umbrella last. Even if something small and simple breaks on an umbrella (like one arm bends just a little), it affects the way the whole thing works. It doesn’t open up all the way and won’t fold up anymore. Umbrellas aren’t really fixable, which is a shame when only one arm is broken or something. So the whole thing ends up being trashed when there’s only a small problem with it.
I always try my best to take good care of my umbrella (I’ve had the same one for about a year and a half now, which really says something considering I walk everywhere), but there are lots of people who just toss an umbrella on the sidewalk when it breaks. It’s been a rainy past few days in the Boston area, which means it has been a great time for me to go out and scrounge for broken umbrellas. I know, I know, that sounds totally weird, but go with me here for a minute. Broken umbrellas make for a great source of free fabric. And I love free fabric.
With a bit of washing, this fabric makes nice and easy lightweight grocery bags, sandwich wrappers, or lunch bags. It would also make a nice travel bag for toiletries. Really, the possibilities are endless. I’m even currently pondering the possibility of an umbrella skirt….that would take some of the edge off walking home in the rain wouldn’t it? Hmm…and it could have maybe two different layers of two different colors or be pieced together from various colored umbrellas…..
Ok, back on topic, focus. This is supposed to be a tutorial.
Making a grocery bag from an umbrella is surprisingly simple. I just used a regular plastic grocery bag as a pattern and made one just like it out of the umbrella fabric. They roll up into a tiny little package, so I can carry one with me at all times and never have an excuse to ever bring another plastic bag home. And they make fantastic gifts. I made about fifteen of these suckers last year, and everyone in my entire family got one for Christmas.
First, find a plastic grocery bag to use as a pattern. Cut the bottom melted seam off and the top melted seams out of the handles. Next, slice open the two sides, so you have two separate pieces that look like this:
These will be your pattern pieces, but they’re not quite ready yet. Fold the pieces in half up the center, matching up the sides. Trim down as necessary so your pattern piece is symmetrical. I folded them together and cut them both at the same time to ensure they’d both be identical. That’s important too.
Now on to the umbrella. Get your seam ripper out and carefully cut all the threads that attach the fabric to the metal frame. Check the very top of your umbrella. There is usually a button up there you can unscrew to free the fabric rather than cut a hole to get it off. Also, if your umbrella has a Velcro or snap strap, carefully take your seam ripper to this as well and set the strap aside. You’ll need it later.
Fold your umbrella fabric and both of your pattern pieces in half. If you have a really enormous piece of fabric, you might be able to match the folds of both pattern pieces with the folds on the fabric, but generally, I can get one to fit and end up piecing together the other one.
If you’re having trouble getting the pieces to fit, keep in mind that it makes a difference how you fold the fabric in half. If you’ve got it folded on a seam, try folding it between two seams to see if that works any better. Sometimes a change even that small makes the difference between having the pattern fit on the fabric or not. If the fabric piece is on the small side, you might have to piece both sides, or use a different umbrella for the other side of the bag.
Here is what mine looks like: one side fits on the fold, and one side will need the two halves sewn together up the middle. This is pretty standard for the umbrellas I pick up, and will likely be how yours will fit too.
It’s hard to get them pinned down straight on the curved dome shape of the fabric, but don’t worry about it. Pin them as best you can, and once you make a few cuts, the fabric will lay flat so you can readjust pins as necessary.
Here’s what the pieces will look like when they’ve been all cut out.
Match the right sides together of the two partial pieces and sew up the middle. Now, you’ve got two full pieces to work with.
Next, find the strap you set aside and pin it on the right side of one of the fabric pieces with the fold lined up with the edge of the fabric, about 6 inches in from one side. It doesn’t have to be exact or anything, an estimation is fine.
Match the other piece on top of the first one, right sides together, with the small strap in the middle. Pin the whole length of the bottom, making sure to pin the strap too. Don’t forget to remove the pin that was under the top layer, holding the strap in. Sew along the bottom. Then, pin the sides and top of the handles and sew these sections too. Yes, that is hideous, non-matching white thread that you see. That’s what was in my machine and I was too lazy to change it. I mean…I used white thread so it would show up in the photos. And you’re welcome for that.
You now have a bag, but it’s not quite finished yet. To add a bit of width expansion, take each of the sides and fold them over about 3 inches. Again, it doesn’t have to be precise. Actually, it should fit the measurement of folding the strap in half. So fold and pin the strap, and follow the fold line all the way to the bottom of the bag and pin the flap down on each side. Sew along the bottom again, with the sides folded in.
Now the bag itself is done, except for the raw edges. If you like turning edges in, you can just hem the top and handle holes. I don’t like doing that sort of thing, so I usually just fold bias tape or ribbon over the edges and sew it down. If you’re really ambitious, you can make your own edging out of your umbrella scraps. Or you can just dig around and see what you’ve got in your sewing scraps: some ugly brown bias tape I’ll never use. I was hoping it would be something a little brighter, but I’m too lazy to make something in a nicer color. So here goes. I’ll have to sew it down with some bright thread. Fun colored thread always makes it better.
And for the last step, fold the straps in half and sew them down, a length of about 2 inches across the top of the handle.
Now you have a nice bag that will roll up into a little ball and fit anywhere!
I mentioned saving something from the landfill, but really, it’s only the fabric I’ve found uses for, which makes a difference, but only a small one.
So….what can you do with the rest of the umbrella?
I haven’t really figured that one out yet. Mostly, I strip it down and separate out recyclable metal pieces and recyclable plastic pieces from the parts that have to go to the landfill. Occasionally I save a few spare parts, but most of the umbrellas I pick up do not have interchangeable parts and would be nearly impossible to repair.
Occasionally, I use pieces for various artistic endeavors, such as my lottery sculpture, and if they have a long wooden post in the middle, I’ll save that. I can usually find a use for a good-quality dowel stick.
Recently, I used a few of them to make a giant indoor tree. In my mind, it’s sort of the equivalent of making a giant fort out of sheets like I used to do with my sisters as a kid. (Actually, I still do that when I hang laundry to dry…What can I say? Forts are just fun!) And having an indoor tree is just awesome. What kid (or grownup!) wouldn’t love to play with a tree for a while? I have to be honest and say I’ve had lots of fun with the tree over the past week. It provides a nice place to sit and read, to do homework, or to change up the eating routine with an indoor picnic; it just provides an endless source of fun and creativity. And it will really let you know just how much excess green fabric you have lying about. I really should do something with all that fabric. Wait….I made a tree with it!
So I’ve used the actual umbrella mechanism for a few different things, but I’ve mostly only been able to prolong its eventual trip to the landfill. Anyone have other ideas? What else productive might we make out of broken umbrellas?