By Lindsay Toler
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Some 30,000 feet in the air, Autumn Wiggins entered into a debate with a stranger about, of all things, crafting. She had just been complimented on a red bag she had screen-printed to look like the very first square of the periodic table of the elements: hydrogen. "'You could sell a million of those,'" Wiggins recalls her seatmate saying. "He wanted to hook me up with a retail outlet, and he was explaining to me that whole process of taking my pattern and digitizing it and sending it overseas. And so I have this offer, and there's people around me on the plane, and we start having this argument. I'm like, 'I don't want my stuff sold at Wal-Mart. I don't want my stuff to be made by kids overseas. No, I don't care how much money....'"
Large- and small-scale versions of this scenario play out every day, each one a potential benefit or detriment to the global environment and the people who call it home. For Wiggins, 31, a self-proclaimed science nerd (one of her product lines was called String Theory, and she considers Carl Sagan a hero), website designer, crafting-class teacher, founder of the Upcycle Exchange and the Strange Folk Festival and mom of two grade-school boys, the process of crafting boils down to its elements.
Maybe that's why she finds peace in spinning her own yarn — perhaps the oldest form of crafting there is: starting with things at their most organic, then building something greater. "You have the fiber and you spin the spindle and then you're pulling, and you're kind of untwisting and pulling, and the fibers snap back on each other," she says. "It's very satisfying."
While writing for the blog Crafting a Green World, Wiggins researched environmentally responsible ways to craft. Through articles and presentations at Craft Con and Maker Faire, she asked artists to demand better practices from suppliers. She also championed an idea called upcycling. Unlike recycling — which often involves melting, remanufacturing or otherwise changing an object's chemical structure — upcycling takes something that already exists and alters its function. Though the term is relatively new, the idea is not: People have been upcycling for generations, using jelly jars for glasses and turning old clothes into quilts.
Back at home Wiggins saw a void within her own crafting community and knew it was time to take action. She asked herself: What if crafters could collect things we need, instead of buying them in thrift stores? Upcycle Exchange completed the equation.
Upxchange.com posts a "wish list" that asks people to donate everyday materials — candy wrappers, felt flowers, neckties and hundreds of others — that local crafters can put to use. It operates drop-off sites throughout the metro area, including DIY Style Boutique in St. Charles; Masterpeace Studios in Crestwood Court; Circa Boutique in Belleville, Illinois; and Cherokee Street's Peridot. In exchange for the stuff, crafters reward donors with incentives — freebies or discounts. By upcycling, crafters don't waste time sifting through thrift-store detritus or expend resources buying something new, and patrons are able to give away their own un- or under-used items, all while supporting the indie-craft movement and minimizing crafting's environmental impact.
"She can organize things she's committed to, such as ecologically minded practices, and put it to use in the crafting community," says fellow crafter Raquel Pikula, who attended the inaugural Upcycle Exchange event last year. "She's a crafter of crafters."
The idea has taken off. Wiggins has open-sourced Upcycle Exchange's pilot program, and now other cities, including Chicago, New York and Leeds in the UK, are in the process of starting their own.
Upcycle Exchange is at its best when donors redeem their incentives and meet face-to-face with crafters — such as at Wiggins' annual Strange Folk Festival in O'Fallon, Illinois. Last year 120 vendors set up booths, and over the course of the two-day festival more than 250 people donated to the Exchange. (The fifth annual fest will be held at O'Fallon's Community Park on Saturday, September 25, and Sunday, September 26; visit www.strangefolkfestival.com for more information.) An O'Fallon resident herself whose family has deep roots there, Wiggins calls Strange Folk "suburban, very colorful and beloved by its community."
"She is so humble," Pikula says of Wiggins. "The first couple of times at Strange Folk, people were expecting to see this huge presence of a person, and she's really not. She's petite. She doesn't come across as a mighty force, but she really is."
The community has responded accordingly; attendance has doubled each year.
"O'Fallon, Illinois, does not have a whole lot of culture. We have a lot of McDonalds and Wal-Marts and things," Wiggins says. "We have a lot of sports — our schools are very well known for their sports. This is something that's totally different for them, and they love it. It's so eclectic." While she does spotlight vendors who give crafting a modern twist, Wiggins also seeks out artisans with varied expertise, from furniture makers to bath and beauty vendors. "People have this idea of what craft is, but they have no idea of all the cool stuff that we're doing," she says, describing crafters as innovators who make things work in interesting, unexpected ways.