Before it was called re-cycling

My mother was fond of saying ‘Waste not, want not’, and these became our ‘words to live by’ when I was growing up in 1950s Sydney.

Around that time, there was radio program called the SAWPAC Show: Save All Waste Paper and Cardboard. It was an afternoon quiz show that aired after one of my mother’s soap operas: ‘When A Girl Marries – dedicated to those in love and all those who can remember…’ (cue sappy music). As well as promoting recycling, with bundled WP and C collected from the kerb regularly, there was a quiz along the lines of ‘Name that tune.’ We once won a ‘mantel-model radio’ for being first to phone in with the right answer. Ironically, we had just bought one, so now we had the unprecedented luxury of two new working radios, one in the loungeroom and one in the bedroom.

As well as recycling newspapers, we kept some for other purposes, such as lining cupboard shelves, wrapping kitchen garbage, or starting fires. On another continent, decades later, I found 1931 Toronto newspapers used as insulation in the walls of our old wooden garage, proof that there were other creative recylers at work in other places, long ago.

Extending the life of a growing child’s clothing was one of my mother’s strengths. She made most of my clothes, but some, like school uniforms, had to be purchased. She bought me a larger size school tunic, hemmed it, and unpicked and resewed the hem as I grew taller. I think she would have made my tunic herself if the regulations about Kambala’s uniforms hadn’t been so strict, but she did knit my winter jumpers, a deviation that the principal kindly overlooked – and she didn’t overlook much! My peers were quick to spot the difference, of course, and not always in a kind way. When my longtime friend Penny left Kambala to go to Frensham, she kindly gave me her school tunic and blazer, both a lot newer than the ones I’d been wearing for many years.

When I became a professor and anticipated attending students’ convocations, I briefly toyed with the idea of making my own academic gown instead of renting one. Paper patterns were available, I discovered. As it turned out, I chose not to join the ‘procession of educated men’ (Virginia Woolf’s term), but sat in the audience wearing non-academic attire when my students graduated.

Readers of a certain age will recall how Sydney shoe shops offered x-ray machines so that mothers could see if shoes had sufficient room for a child’s growing feet. Alarmingly, kids could play on these fascinating (and potentially dangerous) machines until an adult intervened. True to form, my mother bought larger-sized shoes for me, and put cotton wool in the toes until I grew into them.

As a child, I had a Royal Stewart pleated tartan skirt that I loved. Instead of a waist band, it had a cotton bodice, allowing my mother to buy a bigger size, sew a horizontal pleat in the bodice to shorten it, and adjust it as I grew. (Apologies if dressmaking terminology isn’t your strength – Ms. Google will help you.)

The tartan skirt

Having grown up with a frugal widowed grandmother, my mother learned many household recycling tips. When the middle sections of sheets got worn, she cut them in half lengthwise, removed the worn parts, joined the outside edges using a flat seam, and hemmed the edges. A double bed sheet would then become a single. Leftover pieces went in the rag bag to be used as dusters or floor cloths, with good strips reserved for bandages. Similarly with bath towels: cut out the worn section, hem and use the remaining parts as hand towels or face cloths, or even as towels for my dolls.

There was a similar trick for men’s shirt collars – unpick the collar, turn it over so that the underneath was now on top, and reattach it. A few years ago, my favorite Ken Done shirt needed that treatment – a bit time-consuming but worthwhile, as I’ve extended its life by many years, and that particular vintage is no longer available.

My father had a workshop attached to the garage, and it was here that he practised his versions of recycling. I don’t think he ever threw out leftover wood. He either saved pieces ‘for a rainy day’, or split them into kindling for the fire. Bent nails were collected in an old jam tin, to be hammered back into shape and reused as needed. He even sharpened his large collections of saws himself, a time-consuming job usually done by a saw doctor. Did you know that if a crosscut saw is set properly, you can make a needle run down the entire length of the teeth? (Again, Google will explain.)

Needless to say, many of my parents’ recycling practices continue to influence me today – and I’m grateful for that.

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ

April 2021