Trash-in’ The Ocean

Photograph by Jordi Chias

Last year I joined the Wey Valley Workshop, an exhibiting textile group based in west Surrey (UK). The theme for this year’s exhibition will be “re-use, recycle, re-purpose” and titled, “Adapt, Adjust, Amend”.

I have long considered myself (and most felt-makers) to be a Womble at heart, making this an ideal exhibition theme. For those who do not have childhood memories of these fictional furry beasties from the 1970’s, they were among the original recyclers, decades ahead of their time, collecting rubbish left by others and finding new uses for it. As I write this post the theme tune is running through my mind….

Underground, overground Wombling free, Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we….

Making good use of the things that we find, things that the everyday folk leave behind.

By our very nature, using wool (a waste product of sheep husbandry) as our principal material we felt-makers are already up-cycling other people’s “rubbish” but many of us also scour charity shops for unwanted fabrics and felting tools (AKA children’s toys, massage tools and kitchen equipment), old rubber mats, plastic shelf liner… the list is endless, in our pursuit of textile happiness.

For my exhibition piece I wanted to highlight the growing issue of plastic detritus in our oceans. The impact of human activity on the wildlife in our oceans is truly horrific, I have been reduced to tears time and again by they photos and videos I encountered while researching this project. The impact of plastic affects all ocean-dwelling species, from the the larger pelagic species and seabirds found dead or dying from gut obstructions (caused by swallowing plastic carrier bags) or intestinal perforations (caused by ingesting shards of plastic), to turtles and fish entangled in the plastic rings from multi-packs of drinks and discarded fishing nets, down to the tiniest crustaceans ingesting micro-plastics.

Terrapin trapped in plastic packaging; before someone feels the need to comment I know these are fresh-water inhabitants, it serves to illustrate how rubbish in our rivers flows downstream to our oceans.

I knew I wanted to upcycle some waste plastics into my exhibition piece and that it would have an aquatic theme so I put a call out for mesh plastics on local social media sites and to the Wey Valley Workshop members, I was inundated with donations, this is just a fraction of the plastic netting I received….

Many, many thanks to all the wonderful people who donated to this project, I will make sure they are put to good use and don’t end up in landfill.

My initial thoughts were that the netting would look like fish scales when felted into the surface but the more I pondered this exhibition piece the more I started to see possibilities in all manner of items that would normally go in the recycling bin and a few items I could rescue from the horrors of landfill. So I started collecting all manner of “rubbish” much to my other half’s bemusement. 🙂

Unusually for me, I refrained from immediately making the most complicated fish imaginable, instead sampling a wide selection of plastics, including food netting, carrier bags, drinks bottles, sweet wrappers, bread bags and the trays soft fruits are often sold in.

The sweet wrappers were a surprise, they feel like plastic but once they were wet with warm soapy water it became apparent that they were organic in origin; they became slimy and slowly disintegrated while I was fulling the felt.

Already impatient to stop sampling and start making, I started experimenting with different resist shapes for the fish, of course I had to start with my most complicated idea first…. 🙂 This is a yellow box fish, made using a book-resist and strips of deep purple carrier bag between the layers of wool. He is a bit of a disaster but with a lot more work he might still make it into the exhibition.

My next two “water babies” were a little more successful, this time using plastic mesh for surface decoration.

I plan to add some plastic pectoral fins to this little chap.
Close up of the plastic netting

Plastic bottles and food trays have proved useful in my attempts to replicate coral (employing a fair amount of artistic licence of course).

I plan to colour the plastic and entwine it more evenly amongst the felt but I am mesmerised by how the shiny plastic and matt felt augment each other’s qualities.

Some of my other plastic bottles have the potential to be become jelly-fish, what do you think? Try to imagine this piece upside down with slubby yarn tentacles….

This just the beginning for this piece of work; looking forward, I hope to incorporate crisp packets (which invariably end up in landfill) into some fish and I envisage all of these elements (and lots more, yet to be made) forming a 3D coral outcrop that could be hung from the ceiling.

Has this post struck a cord with you? Would you like to do more to lessen your personal impact on the oceans? This link contains several helpful suggestions, some of which I expect you are already doing but there may be one or two you haven’t considered yet. Please add a comment your thoughts on this topic and any novel steps you are taking to minimise your “footprint”.

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25 Responses to Trash-in’ The Ocean

  1. Fascinating blog and wonderful, creative & unique pieces, they are great. I think the plastic bottles will make fabulous jelly fish & I look forward to seeing it / them. Re uses of plastic ocean pollution: I have a friend / colleague who has recently made some gorgeous & thought provoking artwork from the plastic cotton bud / Q tip stems he’s cleaned off our local beaches over several years. You can see them on Instagram (AlexLawDesigns) if interested.

    • teriberryguest says:

      Thank you Lindsay, especially for the link to Alex’s work, that sounds fascinating, although I can’t begin to imagine how much work it must be to scour beaches looking for used Q-tips (not to mention very icky to think where they might have been!).

  2. annielynrosie says:

    Your fish are great! We very much look forward to seeing more of your project.

    And yes, we think most of us felters are wombles at heart.

    Mankind has certainly caused problems – the youngest member of our family is covering this in a college project and she has taken a photo (on our local beach, using a soft toy and net fruit bags) very much like the one at the top of your post.

    • teriberryguest says:

      Thank you ladies, I am so relieved at least you “got” my wombles reference 🙂

      That is a very interesting and creative take your youngest has on how to present this issue, you have sparked an idea for a larger sculpture but I really must get this piece finished before I start another project, my UFO box can’t take any more!

  3. nanacathy2 says:

    What a good set of ideas for your exhibition. Many years ago, back in the 70s, a colleague at work had the very hard job of freeing a squirrels head that had got stuck inside a yogurt pot. Someone had dropped it from their lunch box in the work carpark. He succeeded but it took a long time.

    • teriberryguest says:

      Thank you Cathy, I don’t envy your colleague trying to extract a squirrel from anything, they have VERY sharp claws and aren’t adverse to biting if they get the chance, I hope both the squirrel and your friend were alright after their shared ordeal.

  4. Wonderful work. I am sure it will help raise awareness. It amazes me how people still throw their garbage any old place. I hope you show us what else you make and do a post about the exhibit when it happens.

    • teriberryguest says:

      Thank you Ann, yes if I am allowed by the other artists I would love to post a blog tour of the exhibition, I have seen some tantalising glimpses of other works in progress and they look amazing (they made me feel quite inadequate!)

  5. Lillian Johnson says:

    When I taught Spanish in middle school, not only was it language learning, but one unit was on reducing waste ( reducir) recycling (reciclar) and reusing (reusar). The world is finally catching up. Your felting is inspired. Thank you for sharing your work & the links too.

    • teriberryguest says:

      Wow, that is an unusual way to be introduced to the concept of recycling, I wonder if your students took it to heart, possibly on an subconscious level?

  6. ruthlane says:

    Thanks for a great post Teri! I like the looks of the netting included in your felt. I have used those for printing but haven’t tried them in felt. Your fish experiments are looking good. I look forward to hearing more about your project.

    • teriberryguest says:

      Thanks Ruth, I hadn’t considered using the netting for screen-printing but can see how it would be very effective, yet another item to add to my to-do list! 🙂

  7. What a creative way to raise awareness! I grew up in a family that recycled before it was a thing. And now we consciously avoid most plastics and non recyclables. Good luck on your project. I look forward to see the end results.

    • teriberryguest says:

      Well done Marilyn for avoiding single-use and non-recyclable plastics. Its not an easy thing to do at all, until our governments start taxing suppliers and supermarkets for using these materials they will continue to take the easy option. I am really fortunate to have a plastic-free shop in my village and it is always busy in there so clearly there is a consumer demand for less plastic packaging.

  8. Antje says:

    Thank you for giving me an ear worm….or should that be Womble worm! They should bring the programmes back for a new generation to become attached to them.
    It is difficult to avoid plastic in our world but we are trying at home ie – going back to childhood washing & re-using of things. My most awakening experience was Pulau Ketam Malaysia where under the stilted houses of the ‘floating’ buildings it was a continuous 30-50cm deep layer of plastic bobbing on the water – truly horrific.
    A thought provoking post Terri, which prompts a question….your fishes are colourful & indeed very attractive & endearing – is this the message? Are you showing waste can be made into something beautiful or are you wanting to show that plastic waste is harmful, in which case your beautiful fish need a few warts so to speak?

    • teriberryguest says:

      Thank you Antje, I hope my Womble worms don’t make too much of a nuisance 🙂

      You are quite right regarding the question of cute and adorable or shocking and horrific presentation. I went with the former (but could have easily adopted a more shocking approach) for several reasons: 1) my work over the last year or 2 has focussed on human animal interactions and having animal sculptures that express express what we normally consider to be “human” emotions with the aim to have my viewers engage with the sculptures (and their real-life kin) on a more emotional level. 2) There is so much horrific imagery of animals suffering the consequences human activities already “out there” I wanted to take a different approach. 3) I want my viewers feel empathy towards the beautiful sea life, and in so doing perhaps feel a little more responsible (perhaps even guilty) when they knowingly buy a product wrapped in plastics that can’t be recycled.

    • Antje says:

      Thanks for your detailed explanation. I hope you didn’t think I was rude, the question simply popped into my head because of the importance of the message.
      I like your thinking, of which you have done a great deal. Yes, getting your audience to feel sympathy/empathy for our precious sea life is definitely a positive approach.
      Looking forward to seeing the rest of your sea creatures.

    • teriberryguest says:

      Not at all Antje, in fact I thought your question was very astute and I was impressed with the depth of your perception, I think you have given this topic more thought than you have us believe 🙂

  9. I wish I could say all, but that’s nearly impossible these days. But we recycle most things that can be. Like Antje, we witnessed plastic everywhere littering the Dominican Republic several years ago. It was so disheartening. A beautiful place, but drowning in trash. Every little bit helps and creating awareness is key.

    • teriberryguest says:

      I know what you mean, I deliberately steered away from the places I have seen mountains of (mostly plastic) rubbish piled up in the streets because they are generally less well developed countries who simply don’t have the infrastructure to make recycling easy. If it took a whole day to walk my trash to a place where it could be recycled I’m not sure I would, I certainly wouldn’t do it every week. We in the west have it very easy…. but it still saddens me to see mountains of rubbish, waiting to be spread all over the place (and into rivers, which inevitably lead to the ocean) by birds, dogs and wild animals.

  10. Leonor says:

    Very thought-provoking. Plastic has become so pervasive in our daily lives, it’s horrible. I get angry every day when I see something packaged by my local supermarket and it’s labelled “not currently recyclable” – then why are you using it?
    I’ve switched to compostable dishwasher sponges, coconut scourers and natural loofahs, as my latest bid to help the planet.
    Your work looks fantastic and I hope it raises lots of awareness.

    • teriberryguest says:

      Thank you Leonor, compostable dishwasher sponges, I have not heard of those before, will have to do some research!
      On a related note, my local plastic free shop sells compostable cleaning cloths (to replace J cloths). The plastic-free alternatives are gaining traction! 🙂

  11. Ruth Rotherham says:

    Thanks for your post, and I love your fish. I’ve been experimenting with including plastic within some of my felt pieces. The first picture I made included pieces of plastic I’d picked up from our local beach. From a distance the picture looked like a beautiful sea, but once you got closer you could see the hidden plastic. I’ve also made brooches with tiny pieces of plastic incorporated within the felt. Keep up the good work and I look forward to seeing what else you make.
    PS. I used to love watching the Wombles!

  12. teriberryguest says:

    Thank you Ruth, I would be interested to see your work, especially the picture, is it available online (blog, Facebook or Flickr perhaps)?
    So glad I could rekindle fond memories of the Wombles, I would like to see them return to our screens but suspect they would look very dated now 🙂

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