Craft Stars: Upcycling Genius Kat Roberts
Dig upcycling? Then you need to know about Kat Roberts - this North Carolina-born, Brooklyn-based crafty lady is a bona fide artiste when it comes to taking things most people would put in the trash and making them into shiny, colorful, fantastic wearables.
But unlike those in the traditional fashion scene, where trade secrets are closely guarded, Brooklyn-based Kat cranks out tutorial after tutorial for upcycled projects on her amazing We Can Re-Do It blog. She believes that recycling our clothes and shoes can art form, and shares her zeal not only with internet fans aplenty but with her many students at venues like the American Folk Art Museum.
When Kat agreed to meet up for a chat, I eagerly took the chance to find out how her endlessly inventive mind works, and where the wide streak of generosity in her personality comes from.
Left: one of the many one-of-a-kind products Kat has for sale in the Whitehaus Etsy shop.
Hi Kat! When were you first drawn to upcycling, and when did it become a focus of your fashion practice?
Well, I've always been doing it, though on a much smaller scale in the past. I was working in accessories design, and when I got into that I imagined myself making things ... but the reality is that you spend a lot of time in front of a computer, and a lot of time sketching.
Making things became a pretty serious hobby, just to de-stress from the rest of my job.
But that gets expensive! So I started to think, what can I make just with what's around here. I have a daughter, and we're both incredibly rough on our things. Even stuff that was generally in good shape could no longer fulfill its original purpose, because we destroyed it. So I started taking raw materials like that, and brainstorming, asking, okay, what can this be now? From there I started giving myself more and more design challenges.
Because most of the projects I do with recycled materials are free for the most part, I'll take chances and try techniques that I probably wouldn't try with if I spent a lot of money on the materials. I'd be afraid of messing up a very expensive piece of leather, or fabric.
The other thing is that I truly want to try and make something that looks better than it ever did - so not only making it better than it was when I found it in ill repair, to make it the shiniest it's ever been.
Can you talk generally about your background in fashion?
I was always interest in art, and then I college I ended up majoring in social work - which I love, love, loved to study. But I realized pretty quickly that it wasn't something I was going be doing for a living. I did an internship, and the work was to a good end, but I was so unhappy there...I started coming home at night and compulsively making purses. It dawned on me then, that social work wasn't making me happy, but making bags was.
I didn't know what the hell I was doing - my bags weighed a gazillion pounds because I was just sort of making up how to construct them by any means necessary. I looked into it, and Fashion Institute of Technology was the only place at the time I really could study this how you do this for real. I came up here (to NYC), and I got into the accessories design program. I did the one year program at FIT but I still wanted a little more when I was finished - jobs I wanted to apply for required so much computer stuff I didn't know.
So I ended up re-enrolling at FIT for a two-year illustration degree. I figured I could keep tightening up my drawing skills, and I started learning Photoshop, and Illustrator, and all these things that were completely baffling to me, before.
Through that I started making comics, and then, that became incredibly important to me, so since that time, the constant challenge has been honoring both of them.
I didn't know that you considered them equally important. I mean, I first encountered your work on the comics scene, but I figured that fashion was your first love.
The comics, it's not something I really perceive myself making a living at monetarily, ever. But just for personal reasons, it feels incredibly important to keep going forward with that, so I try and make as much time for it in my life as I can.
Above: some of Kat's hilarious, touching work as a cartoonist, published (with a lot more!) on Activate.
And fashion, I do enjoy it...certain aspects maybe not at all, but I've been doing freelance for a while, and I try and gear myself away from jobs that I know I'm not going to get any real satisfaction from. Typically, freelance jobs with small companies it's everything I love about my job, because it's someone who may not have any experience with this at all, they just have this idea that they're SO excited about.
So being involved with that, with someone who just wants to make the best product they can, it's incredibly rewarding. Basically, I like to be there for all the fun stuff!
Upcycling is incredibly fashionable at the moment - there are companies whose entire output is upcycled, like Freitag. But the fashion industry still seems addicted to novelty, to knowing what the next new trend will be. Do you think there's any chance that upcycling will be permanently fused into fashion, or are we - and pardon my hyperbole - in the death spiral of consumer waste?
I think that the people who really, really care about trend forward fashion, they're going to continue to care about that.
I do think that upcycling can be trend forward, but that's not really the point of it, and I think that more and more people are getting excited about it (as a craft).
The great thing about upcycling and about craft in general, is that it's contagious. Once people see what they can do, they want to do more. I think it's a big moment - I teach a lot of fashion classes, and the first time people wear something out that they've made, they want more. I think it's creating a culture of people who want to do things themselves.
Let's say you've made a bracelet - you may not want to make every bracelet you wear for the rest of your lift, but once you've had the experience of trying it, you can get more excited about buying something that's handmade from someone else. It feels a little more personal - if it's upcycled, recycled, all the better.
When I can get something one-of-a-kind, I think that's fantastic. To me, that's really special and meaningful, as a consumer. So as a producer, I like to make as many one-of-a-kind things as possible. Some people don't care about it - and that's fine. But other people, they get as excited about it as I do.
Our readers love New York! Any tips on where to find great craft stuff?
I'm a bit of a scavenger - I know some people are grossed out about this, particularly my boyfriend. But in New York there's something which I think it's great, which is that when someone's getting rid of something they set it out on the stoop for other people to try to use before it goes to the trash. So in a way it's like a big lending library.
There is this place, Film Biz Recycling - they are great. The founder, Eva, created this space out of frustration. You know, when they strike a set (on a NY area-shot film or TV show), it just gets trashed. She has this huge warehouse, and she will take anything. She sells it, so it's like a thrift store, but you can also rent stuff, so film crews come and get stuff. They also give to a lot of charities, like Materials for the Arts, because they get a lot more than they can house. Charities come, and Eva and her staff help them stock up the trucks, and they take it to people who can use it. They're fantastic. I'm doing monthly workshops with them, you should check it out!
What do you think is the biggest wasted upcycling opportunity? What do you see being wasted that drives you crazy?
I've been doing a lot of stuff with umbrellas lately. Again, back to the scavenger thing - New Yorkers have a tendency that, if your umbrella breaks during a rain storm, you just kind of heave it. So there are a lot of umbrellas that you see on the streets in various states of disrepair. But if I see an umbrella with a beautiful pattern on it, I totally pick that up.
When I comes to logos, I don't like them, they're not really for me - but I've found that a lot of times if there's an item I'm looking for, like a bag, or a specific type of shirt for work, the crap with the logos is the cheapest at the thrift store. So I really like buying that stuff and finding interesting ways of completely concealing the logo.
Anything I can do with leather scraps...I find it hard to justify putting them in the garbage. Also, it's not like fabric, where there's a clean geometric shape - there's so much waste involved with it....so any way I can use those...there's a place, Global Leathers, they have, depending on who's asking, a student section or a scrap section. That's fantastic if I'm buying for a class, or want to experiment.
I'm not sure if that's from scrap pieces, but you can get smaller pieces there. People who use ostrich, for example, they're only interested in the smallest portion of the animal, the part that makes it most clear that it's that creature. There's so much waste, it's ridiculous.
Did you come from a crafty family? North Carolina, where you're from, is someplace I associate with a lot of traditional crafts, especially quilting.
I've always been making stuff, drawing...(and now) my daughter is even craftier than I am. That's how we spend the majority of our time together, relaxing. She's a big knitter, so I'll be doing whatever I'm doing and she likes to make blankets and dolls. She has me show her some stuff, but she does a lot of stuff that either I'm not into or I am not great at. I totally suck at knitting, and it doesn't matter how many times she tries to show me what I'm doing wrong, I'm just not good at it.
She actually gave me a calendar - she and her step-mom put together a calendar of her creative activities every year, and last year it was her dolls. It's like, a different creature for every month, and she'll embroider their dresses, and make their hair.
Above: one of Kat's classes at Manhattan's must-visit American Folk Art Museum.
That's cool - when I was a kid, you did a craft project and it sat on the shelf. Now there are so many ways of sharing what you do, what you're into.
She really wants a blog, but I figure she can have one when I'm not in charge of writing it.
Are there people you look to for inspiration?
There's Kim Grassie - when I was still doing the traditional fashion trajectory, she was way into making things by hand, and she gave me the push to get away from doing all of the job stuff I didn't like. She works for Etsy now - she's a very enthusiastic employee of theirs.
Stephanie Huffaker is a constant inspiration for me. I met her a few years ago while when we were both vendors at craft market. I'd been eyeing her stuff from my booth for a lot of the day, so when there was a lull in the crowd I walked over to get a closer look. As she and I were talking she told me that everything thing she made was more or less made out of garbage: yogurt container, plastic bags, etc.
I was blown away at how complete the transformation was! It was really fantastic stuff. We've since become friends through our mutual interests and now collaborate on workshops together.
Christopher Raeburn is also a big inspiration to me. His designs, his philosophy, his approach to life. He really seems to be living out a lot of the values that people often just give lip service to.
Speaking of your workshops (and of inspiration), you are always on the go! What's the relationship like between your teaching and your crafting?
I love teaching - I think it's because I'm always doing it, that it's so much fun - I'm always trying to make a better pair of shoes, or work on my handbag technique, and so it's great to pass that on. And also with teaching, there's something about hearing what you already know come out of your mouth, that helps you to refine it in your mind. But also, you have people coming in, and they're so excited about what they make, it's the funnest job on earth.
Before you go - the most important craft question of them all. In case the zombie apocalypse strikes Brooklyn - which of your crafty tools will you use to dispatch the undead?
Probably my awl. Those things come in handy for just about everything!
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Kat!
Fancy taking a workshop with this upcycling genius? Keep up to date on Kat's many workshops, continuing education classes and tutorials at We Can Re-Do It. She's also on Tumblr. Her next appearance will be at the Stumptown Comics festival on 28 and 29 April, in Portland, Oregon. And don't forget to visit her Etsy.