The wool gatherer

Posted Jan. 30, 2009, at 6:21 p.m.

Mary Alice Bird has always been fascinated with fabric, but for years, she shunned sewing while pursuing a busy career as a fundraiser for various organizations, including some nonprofits that enhanced her concern about the environment. So when her daughter Sarah, who is a fiber artist living in Texas, took Bird to a clearinghouse for fabric that was destined for the landfill, Bird was ready to realize “how terribly wasteful it is to dump perfectly good fabric in this way.”

Particularly attracted to sweaters that are rich in color and-or texture, even if their styles might be outdated, Bird thought she would learn to recycle some wool for hooking rugs. But when she learned the art of shrink felting — which involves washing wool sweaters in hot, soapy water until they shrink to felted pieces — she saw other possibilities in the fabric she had produced. When she put together some hats and took them to a fair at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Rockland, they sold quickly and Bird discovered a ready market.

Suddenly, the woman who once eschewed stitchery became hooked on using a sewing machine to create all sorts of felted items from hats to baby booties, blankets, belts, hair-clips, pins and purses. “Once I got started, it was like eating popcorn,” Bird said during an interview recently at her Rackliff Island home studio in St. George. “I was unable to stop.”

Bird’s creations are one-of-a-kind, notable for their color, texture and especially for the imaginative reuse of cuffs and other sweater parts in their design. Rather than setting out to use a sweater in a particular regard, she shrinks the garment “and then I let the sweater talk to me,” she said. “Each sweater tells me what to make of it.”

Typical of Bird’s work is the use of a shrunken sweater cuff as a hatband or as the edge of a purse pocket. She also has a flair for making flowers. Her wool-felt flowers are used to striking effect in enhancing hats or purses. She also makes them into pins, or arranges them on hair clips. Her strings of flowers make stunning scarves, or they may be used as belts, too.

Using other kinds of recycled fabrics, she also makes “fantasy clothes” for children, including capes, flounced and ruffled skirts and dresses, and tutus. She uses linens and cottons to create beautiful and utilitarian tote bags and purses as well.

Sold under the MABird label, Bird’s creations are available at Archipelago in Rockland. She also sells her products at some church fairs and has sold them at the Common Ground Fair in September. She may be reached online at www.mabird.com.

“When I first made the stuff, I didn’t know if it would sell,” Bird recalled. “When I went to Archipelago and they called me a ‘craft artist,’ it was very affirming,” she said.

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