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Homesteading and Livestock
Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Chicken Behavior: The Dust Bath

Chicken Dust Bath

To hear the words "dust bath" together seems contradictory, yet this is a very important piece of poultry behavior to help them clean themselves. Exhibited by the chicken rolling and kicking within a dip in the ground, or a provided space for birds that don't get the opportunity to free-range, the act of covering themselves with dirt is actually a method to rid themselves of problem pests.

The Importance

Having an area to take these dust baths is extremely valuable for chickens, in that it is shown to reduce external parasites that commonly plague poultry, such as lice and mites. In warm Summer months, there is the added benefit of providing a chance for the bird to cool down. While it may appear to be a frenzied action as you watch on, this behavior is noted by chicken keepers to signify a happy bird!  As a backyard chicken owner over the years myself, I came to know each flock on a personal level, and studied their actions daily. I noted that they appeared to be in their most relaxed state while dust bathing, showing contentedness as they closed their eyes after a good roll.

The Process

Dust baths begin naturally with the bird approaching a spot of loose soil, scratching the area as if they were foraging. They scratch the dirt out of their chosen spot, creating an oval shaped dip in the ground. Depending on the weather, they tend to select a sunny place for cool days, or a shaded area when it is hot. The chicken will then lower themselves into the hole they've made, taking a position that resembles laying.

Leaning to one side, they will use their leg to kick dirt onto their back. The chicken will then straighten up and puff their feathers, shaking the dirt around in an attempt to cover themselves fully. During this time, a chicken will also rub the side and back of their head in the dirt as well. If the area lacks loose dirt at any point, they will use their beak to pull outside dirt into the hole near their chest.

This process can last for a good deal of time as the bird repeats the process of kicking, rolling, and shaking the dirt on themselves. When they are finished, they may close their eyes and remain relaxed in place, or they may stand up and go about foraging once again.

The Homemade Dust Bath

In the event your chickens are unable to free range, or live in an area with hard-packed clay that makes it difficult for them to find loose soil, consider providing a homemade dust bath mixture for them! Start by selecting a deep container to put the mix in, with short enough sides the chicken can hop onto. Examples of containers include old tires, kiddie pools, and even litter boxes. With larger flocks, a kiddie pool is an ideal option, as it allows multiple birds to bathe instead of fighting for a small spot.

While recipes and measurements for the mixture vary, the basic ingredients are loose dirt and sand. Other ingredients include wood ash, food-grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE), and dried herbs such as Lavender or Mint. Caution should be taken when using Diatomaceous Earth if the mixture is too dusty, as it can irritate the nasal passage of humans when breathed in. Be sure to follow the directions and precautions on the package label.

A commonly used recipe for the provided dust bath is:

• 2 parts loose soil
• 1 part sand
• 1 part cooled wood ash (wood only, not from burning charcoal or garbage fires)
• 1/2 part Diatomaceous Earth.
• OPTIONAL: 1/2 part dried/powdered herbs (Lavender, Mint, Rosemary, and Sage)

While it is an important action to the chicken, it can also be enjoyable to watch from a distance, especially for someone who has not seen the behavior before. Consider the benefits to your chicken's health and well-being by ensuring they have a place to dust bathe regularly.

Fala Burnette is a homesteader with her husband at Wolf Branch Homestead in Alabama. They are currently building their own log cabin and milling their own lumber, along with raising heirloom crops in the Spring and tanning furs during the Winter. Read all of Fala's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Chicken Behavioral Problems


Predators, pests and diseases are not the only challenges a backyard flock owner will have to deal with. Sometimes the problems are originated in the flock itself, and solving them involves lots of creativity, ingenuity and even diplomacy.

Here are some examples of chicken behavioral issues we have dealt with over the years:

Egg-pecking and egg eating. Few things are more annoying than walking into your coop with the expectation of gathering some beautiful fresh eggs, only to encounter a spectacle of some piled-up shells and chickens with egg yolk on their beaks. Being omnivores, chickens love a nice fresh egg as much as we do, and once they get into the habit of eating their own eggs, it may be hard to cure.

This may sound obvious, but nice padded nesting-boxes are the first step in preventing cracked and broken eggs, which are a lot more likely to be eaten. Also make sure your chickens’ diet has plenty of calcium for strong shells.

Make a point of surveying your coop for eggs starting early in the morning, and every hour or so, until all eggs are laid and collected. The quicker you remove the eggs, and the more consistent you are about it, the sooner your chickens will lose the habit of eating them. I have found this method to be the most simple and effective in stopping egg-pecking practice, but it does take a few days of thorough commitment.

Placing dummy eggs in your coop may help deter the chickens as well, since pecking plastic gets old pretty soon. Some chicken keepers, for an extra measure, have even used hollowed empty egg shells filled with mustard or hot pepper to teach their birds a sharp lesson, but I personally have never tried this.

If there is one persistent egg-pecker in your flock, sometimes you will have no choice but to cull her (whether this means the stew pot or just giving her away to a petting zoo or something). Watch carefully and see which chicken it is, and once you are certain, remove her.

Aggression toward humans. In most cases, aggressive birds are roosters and, far from comical, this can actually turn pretty serious, especially if you have small children. Such behavior should be nipped in the bud; don’t ever let a rooster gain over you.

Chickens are birds with a strong hierarchical order, and often the rooster will view you and your family as fellow flock members, and try to challenge you for the position of the alpha rooster. Don’t let such a challenge go unmet; the first act of aggression on a rooster’s part should be answered, and promptly (broomsticks and water jets are useful here). Another effective treatment is taking a firm hold of a rooster and keeping him down until he is properly subdued. A persistently aggressive rooster, however, may be more trouble than he’s worth; some people have been dealing with aggressive roosters for ages, or else gave up on keeping a male in the flock entirely, due to the belief that “all roosters are aggressive”. This is totally untrue; rooster behavior depends very much on breed, temperament and early upbringing. We currently keep Brahma roosters, which have been hand-raised are very nice and friendly. Bottom line: if your rooster is too much trouble, replace him. You will most likely fare better.

Aggression toward other birds. As I have said before, chickens have a strong hierarchy, and the establishing of their pecking order involves a lot of, well, pecking. There are some limits to what is reasonable, however. We draw the line when we see blood, or when we notice a bird that is persistently bullied up to the point of being denied access to food, water and shelter.

Plentiful food and space can potentially solve a big part of excessive pecking, as the birds won’t have to compete for resources, and hens that are weaker in the hierarchy can simply walk away to a quiet corner where they won’t be bothered. Another method is to temporarily isolate the strongest-pecking chicken, and re-introduce her a few days later, which will shuffle the pecking order somewhat. If there is one bird that is persistently mean and aggressive, however, sometimes you will find that culling is your most reasonable option.

Allowances can sometimes be made for special circumstances; we once had two hens go broody and hatch chicks at once, and when of the chicks accidentally wandered away from his mother and to the other hen, she pecked him to death. As sad as that episode was, it served us to learn that some mother hens are very strongly protective of their chicks, and should be separated from the rest of the flock until their young ones are a little older.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blogRead all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Labor-Saving Tractor Implements


Have you ever said to yourself, “I wish I knew about that earlier?” Or wished there was an easier way to accomplish a task? For those of us living on a homestead, those comments seem to come up often and such was the case with me recently.

I maintained our trail to the source of our firewood with a rake and shovel. Our dead standing aspen are at the far end of our property and to keep the trail open to them is a physically demanding job. In addition, there are all the tree limbs that have accumulated over the years. Both are hard physical jobs that usually don’t come without a lot of muttering to myself. I wished there was an easy way to accomplish these tasks or I wished I knew a better way.

Aggravating tree limbs. Probably the worst, dirty and most annoying job was dealing with the brush piles full of pine limbs. Those limbs catch on your clothes, scratch, cut forearms and legs, and are in essence a miserable nuisance. In the past we would haul them to the disposal site on our utility trailer but since they entangle each other (and did I mention they are totally annoying) we had to untangle them, and load them one at a time. It would take us most of the morning to remove one substantial pile of limbs.

Eureka! A solution. I also post articles on MOTHER EARTH NEWS Community Colorado Facebook page and as I was posting one, it had a photo of a Kubota tractor exactly like mine. On the front end was an implement that appeared as a task saver so first thing Monday morning I called our Kubota dealer to inquire if they made one for my size tractor. It turns out they actually do make them for a compact tractor and after some discussion I had them order one for me. I had checked implements on the Kubota website but they did not show a grapple. I found out they are made by a subsidiary company called Land Pride.

Making the job easier. A month passed and my grapple arrived and was installed on my tractor. It didn’t take long to remove those piles of branches. I drove up to the pile of branches and latched onto a bunch, let the hydraulics crunch them up and dump them on the utility trailer. What used to take all morning I can accomplish in 20 to 30 minutes. The entire job was done in a single morning that used to take days. Do I feel foolish for not having discovered this implement earlier? More than just a little.

Multiple uses. I have found it can also serve other functions as well. It can pick up and move rocks as well as move firewood without heavy back-breaking lifting. I can latch onto a downed tree and suspend it at a comfortable level so I can cut it to firewood length. No more bending over and ending up with a backache. 

Box blade for more labor-saving. The same time I ordered the new grapple I ordered a box blade implement. I had seen a box blade in use but always in conjunction with ripping up land to level that land. I had always maintained our long driveway with a single rear blade and also with a rake and shovel. It was getting pretty lopsided and ragged and I was hoping a box blade would make it easier to maintain.

Efficient and easy to use. Again I was impressed at how level the box blade made our driveway and I also used it on the trail to our firewood source at the far end of our property. What a labor saver it turned out to be and the cost was very moderate thanks to our stimulus check. I couldn’t accomplish with the rear blade in a week what I could accomplish with the box blade in half of a day.

'If only I'd known this sooner'. Those are two recent cases where I have said to myself,  “I wish I had known about this earlier”. I think about all the painful backaches, muscle aches and painful joints these two implements could have helped me avoid.  Not to mention hernia surgery to correct a tear that was from lifting large rocks that this grapple now moves with ease. Both implements take some time to get proficient with but the learning time is actually pretty short. Now thinking back on our 23 years here I don’t see how we lasted this long without these two implements. We did it the hard way and every day my sore joints and aches remind me of doing it the hard way. The satisfaction of doing it the hard way rapidly diminishes in light of my recent discovery of a grapple and box blade. 

'No fool like an old fool'. What I have spent over the years on across the counter pain medication could have paid for the grapple and then some. As I was growing up I heard my elders say, “there is no fool like an old fool”. Point well taken and I should have listened more closely back then. It is my sincere hope that someone who is in the same situation we were 23 years ago will read this blog and profit from my mistakes.

Bruce McElmurray homesteads at high elevation in the Southern Rockies with his wife, Carol. For more on their mountain lifestyle and their observances of animals coupled with their strange behavior, visit Bruce’s personal blog site at Bruce Carol Cabin. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Processing KuneKune Pigs at Home

Little Girl Petting Pig

I grew up in Northern Indiana, the same town I find myself raising our family in now. I fondly remember the excitement I felt each autumn when I would pull on my camo gear and let Dad spray me with deer urine before heading out to hunt with him behind Grandma’s and Gramps’ house. I think that stopped about the time I became a teenager and had other things on my mind.


The only negative feeling I can ever remember about hunting is from a time when my dad’s shot didn’t kill the doe and we had to hurry down to follow the trail of blood and find her. My dad is colorblind, so it was up to me to find the tiny red spots on the forest floor of leaves. I honestly can’t remember if we found her or not, but I do remember feeling pressure (that I was putting on myself) to find that doe and keep her from suffering, wondering how much confusion and pain she must be feeling as we stumbled through her home.


Years later, I am grown with a family of my own. We got our first KuneKune pigs here at our farm in 2017 and although we have had two litters born since them, we kept pushing off eating any of them until the next event: “Oh, maybe for our harvest gathering they would be a good size to eat” “We have so much going on, why don’t we just wait until the winter solstice?”


Deciding to Slaughter Pigs at Home


Meanwhile, their bellies were getting bigger — right alongside the growing bills for feeding our fuzzy friends. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, our future became less clear, money got even tighter, and we both realized it was time to do with the hogs what we got them for-sustenance for our family.


Now, as I had mentioned, I am no stranger to hunting wild animals with a bow, and I definitely got lots of practice on our BB-gun as a kid, but putting down an animal we had raised ourselves was different. We had given many a belly scratches to these sweet hogs. We had sat next to their momma and watched eagerly as she pushed each one out, and our children had literally cuddled up with them over straw beds while winter storms raged on down in the warm basement of the barn.


Sharing homestead responsibility. When we decided we would be putting down three of our eight hogs, John went into planning mode and starting talking to me about the gun he would use and without even thinking before speaking, I let him know that I would be putting one of them down with him. I was almost surprised to hear myself say it and part of me wondered immediately if I would regret it. There was absolutely no part of me that was looking for excitement or joy in this — there were two factors that made my mind up instantly.


Considering emotions. I just don’t feel that it’s quite fair making John do all the killing around here. So far, we have only eaten ducks and chickens we have raised, but I knew that putting down our piggies would be different. The KuneKune breed has the personality of a sweet, noisy dog that just wants plenty of snacks with a belly rub afterwards. John and I do everything together, and so last thing I wanted was for him to take the life of our sweet animals alone, with no one to process it with.


Considering where meat comes from. I also wondered if it would change how I feel about eating meat. We probably don’t eat as much meat as the average American diet, but we are definitely meat-eaters. The way I look at it, we are either going to buy our meat off a shelf at a big box store, from the hard-working hands of a neighbor down the road, or at our own gentle, grateful, and dutiful hands, with a cost that’s measured quite differently than the American dollar.


Home Butchering Two Pigs


Processing Pigs at Home


John set out a target for me, talked me through how the 20-gauge shotgun worked, explained what a slug was, and prepared me for the kick-back. After I fired that practice shot, my mind was blank and my ears were ringing. I felt focused on the task at hand: ending this pigs life quickly.


The kids climbed up in the tree house to watch us but from a distance. After each pig, when they knew the shooting was over, they would climb down and ask if it was done, wondering about the movements and wanting to know that the animal was not suffering. We would then cover the pig to make sure the next incoming pig did not know what was going on. Their last memories were just enjoying their leftover soup and lettuce John gave them.


When that first part was all done, John got to work skinning the first boar. I watched for a minute and then asked, “Where’s my knife?” I don’t think he had planned on that, but I’m not really the kind of girl who just sits and watches when there is work to be done, no matter the work. So I ran inside to get a knife, pulled my boar over next to his and he talked me along as I followed his lead.


That night, after gutting the pigs, we hung them in the workshop and the next morning he got to work on the two pigs that he had put down and I on my boar that I had put down. Lilly, our oldest daughter, asked to help for a bit while the others asked questions here and there, in between hanging up ropes, making swings, and nailing together projects alongside us.


Processing Pork At Home


Processing the Experience


That afternoon, the kids had lunch in their chairs instead of at the table, because we were in the thick of separating out all the parts, processing, and vacuum-sealing the meat to get it in the freezer as fast as we could.


We talked about memories we had of our now gone piggies, of the two boars who spent their first year as free-range hogs, because they could get through a spot in the fence, stayed away from the road, and kept the grass trimmed (so why not?). The kids at our Wild School loved when they would turn on the hose to play in the mud, just to find the pigs rolling around with them! Or the time we finished up playing in the slip and slide to come back out and find them laying on it.


We talked for a bit about what kind of life a large-scale farm could provide for animals and remembered the good life all our animals have but mentioned that our ducks probably didn’t love it when they chased them around the yard all that much.


Pigs On Slip And Slide


Appreciation Under a Honey Moon


That same weekend, we took our first box of honey from our Warre hive. John had built the hive by hand and that I had painted by hand, with accurately sized worker, drone, and queen bees on the front for educational purposes. We couldn’t believe the almost 20 pounds of honey we ended up with! Our family follows the moon’s cycles and this cycle was named the Honey Moon for us — a chance to celebrate, acknowledge, and appreciate all the sweet gifts Mother Nature shares with us.


Wow, has it been such a full time for our family. Full of emotions across the wide spectrum and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Life has been hard lately, after losing our pup Magill, who we just got at the beginning of quarantine, to the road. Celebrating the sweet things in life seemed impossible after losing her just after the New Moon. And just before that, our farm and children (who were outside at the time) were subjected to Roundup when the neighboring field was sprayed during very windy conditions.


But just as time can soften the roughest of rocks around, we are trying to allow that softening of our sad hearts to happen as well by leaning into our future through the tears and living our humble human experience with presence and gratitude.


Now, when I climb the fence every once in a while to check the sows eyes and pull away Sadie’s and Eleanor’s eye goobers and spray down their dry backs and protect them against the hot summer sun with coconut oil, I feel joy in knowing I am helping make their lives here better.


When I hear John rise before work and catch him carrying bucket after bucket of fresh water to the animals, I am filled with a new sense of pride in the way we are choosing to obtain and produce our meat.


And now, when our kids see Momma and Daddy moving around the pigs to greener pastures, they know it’s not just for shorter grass, it’s not just for better meat, it’s for a better life — for them and us. They know why it matters. And I’m waiting to see if just maybe, the next time they think about chasing the ducks to see their funny waddle, or I find them making plans to create traps to catch a chicken for fun, just maybe they might think of the meals and energy they give to our family at the end of their life and chose not to. But kids will be kids, so we’ll see about that!


And finally, when I head down to the basement to pull out a pound of sausage made from our old friends’ meat, to make a nourishing breakfast for our family, I pick up that pork with a certain heaviness that you just can’t get when you pull a pound off the shelf at a store, and I am grateful.


Packages Of Frozen Meat


Amanda Jo Boener teaches wildcrafting, foraging and more at The Luna Hill Wild School. With her degree in digital photography, Amanda is a Certified National Geographic Educator and Purdue Master Gardener. Connect with her on Facebook and Instagram @lunahillfarm, and read all of Amanda’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

 All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

DIY Rabbit Hutch From Wooden Pallets

No one wants to spend gobs of money on a simple rabbit shelter like a hutch and while it’s great to go to the hardware store and buy supplies new, it isn’t always possible. This rabbit hutch was built utilizing four recycled wooden pallets (picked up for free!), a roll of rabbit floor wire, wood screws, scrap plywood, hinges, and a latch. Using pallets for lumber was certainly a new experience and should I decide to build another hutch, I don’t think we will be using pallets again. Although one saves close to $60 in lumber, it is a pain in the booty-cakes to pull those things apart. If you can spring for some 2×4 and plywood — go for it! If not, this tutorial is for you. The cost of all the materials needed was about $22 total.

DIY Rabbit Hutch construction

You will need: 

• Skill saw/radial saw
• Cordless drill driver
• Hammer
• Crowbar
• (4) Wooden pallets in decent shape –mine were 48″x38″ with a few boards on the back
• 30″ wide x 10′ roll of 14 or 16 gauge rabbit wire in 1″x1/2″ (friendly size mesh for bunny feet)
• (1 box) 2 1/2″ wood screws (1 box) 1 1/2 – 2″ wood screws
• (1 box) horseshoe nails
• (2) hinges
• (1) latch –do not use a hook and eye; raccoons are smarter than you think
• A box of tissues for when you cry over pulling apart pallets

First off, dismantle all of your pallets while trying to keep all of your boards intact. I ran the radial saw down the insides of the first crossbar to ease the bigger boards off. Give yourself a good, full day just to dismantle all four pallets… maybe more. Most pallets are put together with corkscrew nails, not screws. These corkscrew nails look like normal nails, but have grooves in the sides to prevent them from being pulled out easily. You can attribute the cause of your headache to trying to pull out these awful corkscrew nails all day.

DIY Rabbit Hutch construction with wooden pallets

Use this diagram provided as a guide in constructing the frame of your hutch. Please take your own materials and their size into account when building your hutch and adjust accordingly.  The pallets you find may be smaller or larger than what is shown here. There are typically two types of boards on a wooden pallet, 2x4 boards and thin wide boards varying in width.

I built the frame for the floor using the same diagram illustrated above. The wood used was from the 2×4 crossbars of the pallets and not the wide, thin boards. The two long sides are 44″ inches and the two short sides and center crossbeam are 27″ inches (the thickness of my 2x4 boards ended up being 1 1/2″ inches). Screw the three 27” inch crossbars to the long 44” inch sides using two screws through the long side and into the end of the crossbars as shown.

Your finished bottom frame should be 44″x30″ inches. Next, roll out your wire flush with the 30” inch sides and overhanging the 44” long sides by an inch or so. Use the horseshoe nails to tack the flush sides down well. Then use a piece of thinner board to create a trim piece to fit on top of the cut ends of your wire. The wire should overlap your frame and then be covered by the trim pieces. Screw the trim piece onto the frame being sure to catch the screws in-between the wire squares. This will ensure that the wire stays taut.

Now build the same frame as you did for the floor to support the roof. Obviously the roof frame does not need wire and the third, middle crossbar is not absolutely necessary.

Rabbit hutch made from pallets.

Set your frames up and see how tall or short you would like your finished hutch. I wanted my hutch to have tall enough legs for a dropping pan to slide underneath and still have ample height inside for a comfortable living space. This left me with 38” inch boards giving me 14” inch legs and an interior height of 24” inches (measured from the floor wire to the bottom of the roof frame). Measure and mark your leg boards before screwing them to your frames.

If you’re with me so far, you should have a complete hutch frame ready for a roof, walls, and door. Mine will be a winter hutch so all three sides will be solid wood. If you are building a summer hutch or live in a mild climate, you can wire the whole outside and just skip to the door. Using more wire may require an additional roll of wire. 

Screw the thin, wide boards to the frame walls leaving enough room to add a door later. Try not to leave too many gaps between the wall boards so nothing can escape… or enter. If there are any obvious gaps, just screw another board over it. Add a roof from scrap plywood pieces or even pallet boards if you think you have enough.

Door: Measure the hole you need to cover. I used a few boards for the front to make a more sheltered hutch, so depending on the size hole you left for a door; your door will be of a different size. Measure and create a frame using sturdy pallet boards. Nail together at the seams with horseshoe nails on both front and back. Then use horseshoe nails to nail the wire to your doorframe. Mount the finished door to the hutch with hinges and figure out where to put your latch.

All done! You may find that a few tweaks are needed depending on the size and type of pallets you are able to acquire. This tutorial is really just a rough guide, but considering we are using free pallets, it works well. If rain is in the forecast, just throw a tarp over the roof and call it good. I even went as far as stapling the sides and roof in tarpaper for winter to keep drafts out.

This is a hutch made from pallets people… it ain’t gunna be too pretty.

Sarah lives with her husband and young daughter in an old Californian gold-rush town and is learning to be more self-reliant though gardening, animal husbandry, and by making things from scratch. Join her journey from the very beginning and learn along with her on her family’s farm blog.

Fabric Patterns and Homemade Clothes: A Tribute to a Mother’s Love

A Tribute to Mother
This story is from Mary Conley and was submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.

Mom was a hard-working farm woman and would put us present women, who sit in front of our computers, to shame. Like everyone, she had her share of faults, but hard work and know-how weren't among them. After giving birth to five boys, she had me at age 40, and never expected to live to raise me. She was almost 97 years old when she died, so I guess a little hard work doesn't hurt anybody. I found the following paragraphs in my files. I submitted them a few years ago to a Reader's Digest advertisement about cotton fabric. Unfortunately, the ad discontinued the following month or they would have chosen my submissions for sure, right?!  We have a small farm, now, and I often wish I could tell Mom about it.

The Drawer: Fabric Storage

My mother made my clothing from layette to wedding gown by using a few patterns and a lot of creativity. She always had a dresser drawer full of fabric that she had purchased whenever there was some spare cash. As a child, I loved to take out all the cotton fabric and study the colors and patterns as if each selection were a piece of art. Then I became a teenager, and the drawer took on new meaning. Many a time, I would come home and tell Mom of a special occasion and the need for a new dress. We would go to the drawer, choose a fabric and discuss a style. There were a few times when I didn’t give her much notice. Then, the deal was made. She would list all the jobs that I must do so she would have time to sew. I did those jobs, but I also remember listening to the rhythm of her sewing machine long after I went to bed. Mom had sacrificed sleep for me. I realize now that it was much more than the contents of the drawer that was the fabric of my life.

Fabric Patterns Puzzle

I cannot think of fabric without also thinking about my mother who lived to almost 97 years of age. I especially value a story she often told me, because it is typical for her generation of creative, hardworking women. Mom had a husband and five sons before I, her only daughter, was born. During the depression, she would buy a large piece of blue cotton fabric and cut all six of her men's shirts from it. She would lay out the pattern pieces for the big shirts first, and then arrange and rearrange the little pieces for the smaller boys until all the pattern pieces fit with hardly any material left over. Of course, any remaining fabric would be used for a quilt block. Mom and the shirts are gone, but I still have many of her quilts--treasured reassurances that my memories are real.

Photo by Mary Conley 

 Please send email submissions to with the subject line "Elder Wisdom" or send mail to: attn: Heidi Hunt, Re: Elder Wisdom, Mother Earth News, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609. 


Sewing and Quilting the Old Way with Rags


My mother never visited a fabric store until she was in her sixties, yet she sewed clothes for my sister and me, made beautiful quilts and decorated our humble home with delightful handmade curtains, tablecloths and couch covers for years. One of my favorite dresses as a youngster was an outrageously bright jumper she made from an old housecoat.

My mother carefully saved each button, zipper and scrap of eyelet trim for other projects. I’d watch as she ripped apart old clothes to remake into something for us, and I’d think how when I grew up, I’d buy brand new fabric from a real store for sewing.

With five sisters who still like to exchange outgrown clothing with each other, my mother filled the hall closet with hand-me-down “glad rags” from my aunts and cousins. Even in the 1960s, this was an outdated practice. Today, it is almost unheard of while stores overflow with cheap clothing and textiles. Thrift stores receive so much donated clothing that they often give it away, as do churches and schools.

In the 1700s and earlier, clothing was among the most costly items for an American household. After a garment was completely used up, thrifty housewives would save even the tiniest bits of fabric for quilts, meticulously cutting out any stains and mending tears. In the 1800s and early 1900s, peddlers (often called “the rag man”) would trade wares for discarded clothing, pieces of rugs and other fabric scraps. According to the American Agriculturalist of 1880, a worn out pair of pantaloons could fetch 20 cents, not a bad sum more than a century ago.

My mother’s quilts were made of all manner of cloth, including corduroy, wool, flannel and cotton. I didn’t realize it then, but her hodgepodge mix of colors, patterns and textures made the most fascinating quilts.

When I made my first quilt as a young woman, I bought yards of crisp, new coordinated polyester fabric. Every piece was perfectly matched in weight, design and consistency, right down to the threads per inch. I was quite proud of my first and following creations, but came to realize my quilts back then did not have the homey feel and character my mother’s did.

Today, I happily sew with glad rags just as Mom did and believe I have recaptured that comfy-as-an-old-quilt feel in my stitching. Plus, I can just glance at one of my quilts and see my grown children as toddlers again, with smidgens of my daughter’s dresses and boys’ shirts mixed among the squares. My expense is minimal and nothing goes to waste.

To sew with recycled fabric:

  • Make a tiny snip at seams and then tear the fabric instead of cutting it. This will reveal the fabric grain. For small quilt pieces, following the grain is not necessary, so don’t throw out tiny scraps if the grain is going the wrong way.
  • Bag up buttons, zippers and other notions to sell, donate or use in craft projects, ornaments or children’s costumes.
  • If you use 100-percent cotton and other natural fabrics, not manmade (polyester, rayon, spandex, etc.), the scraps can be composted in your yard or garden. T-shirts and jeans make especially good mulch. Worms love rotting cotton.
  • Men’s clothing in particular is usually worn to a frazzle, but can still yield salvageable fabric behind pockets, at the upper back of shirt sleeves and beneath yokes.
  • Save loosely woven or threadbare fabric for disposable rags instead of paper towels. I keep a stack of 4” T-shirt squares near the kitchen sink for oiling cast iron pans, for example.
  • Often, if a fabric is too faded or stained to be pretty, it can be used wrong-side up. This can even be done just for variety.
  • Ask at yard sales and thrift stores for clothing and fabric items they intend to throw out.
  • Ball up strips of thick jean seams or elastic from fitted bedsheets to use around the homestead for such things as tying up tomato plants.
  • For an especially treasured quilt, include pieces from Dad’s shirt or Grandma’s old housedress.
  • Prewashing is no longer necessary (unless a garment smells like mothballs or musty) because fabrics from garments and household linens have already done all the shrinking, stretching and bleeding of colors they’re going to do.
  • Don’t be afraid to have fun and mix fabric weights and textures. Large-print patterns, like those in drapes, cut into interesting small squares and triangles.


At the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in West Bend, Wisc., on August 8-9, I demonstrated how to use a treadle sewing machine and use recycled fabric. I will also have with me several quilts made entirely of discarded clothing. Be sure to stop by Booth 1907 (the year Mother’s Day was conceived) to say hello and learn more about sewing the way great-grandma did it.

To see more of my efforts with glad rags, please see our blog, Sewing and Quilting the Old Way with Glad Rags.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.

Photos by Linda Holliday; old photo courtesy of Darla DeGroot

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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