Portable Cutlery Set Tutorial

Recently, a video about a sea turtle that had to have a plastic straw removed from its nose went viral on the Internet. So powerful was the suffering of the poor animal in this video that it sparked plastic straw bans in many cities. As much as I appreciated the sentiment behind this move, my personal opinion is that it treats a symptom rather than the underlying disease. For example, to reduce plastic straw use, some restaurants redesigned the lids of their disposable cups — but continued distributing single-use plastic lids that could not be easily recycled. Bans also left many people with disabilities in a tight spot, since they have no options but to use disposable straws. Plastic straw bans don’t help any of the old straws already out there to get recycled instead of going into landfills — and according to this site it takes 100 to 500 years for a plastic straw to decompose. It doesn’t address recycling policies that keep plastics from being properly recycled in the first place. And once the furor raised by the video died down, a lot of people — and more importantly, a lot of companies — went back to single-use plastics without a second thought. As it stands right now, 89% of plastic is not recycled in Canada.

So I asked myself, what can I do? Well, I personally I can stop using plastic straws whenever possible, that’s a given. But in all of the viral-video-fueled excitement for people to buy their own personal reusable straws to use with their takeout food, I think a lot of people forgot about the disposable cutlery that goes hand with those straws. While personal cutlery sets have been available for years (and are especially popular with those who camp), and they’re definitely better than disposable, I think it’s possible to do better. Why? Because these are generally made with new materials.

If you go out to any thrift store you will find that there is lots of perfectly good, used, stainless-steel cutlery that can have a second life as a portable cutlery set. Not only that, it’s generally quite affordable! When I buy vintage kitchenware for my market stall, it often comes with old cutlery thrown in; a lot of people don’t see its value. But all it needs is a recycled travel case to put it in so it can be thrown in a purse, briefcase, backpack, desk drawer, or lunch box.

I made up a bunch of these sets and brought them with me to the 613Christmas this past weekend. However, I think it’s more important to encourage everyone to use them than it is for me to make a profit, so I thought I’d share a tutorial online. It is very basic and can even be hand-sewn if desired. Of course, if you are a master sewer, you can probably make something even nicer, and I encourage you to do so! Experiment! Use even tinier scraps of fabric and quilt them together in incredible designs! Knit a case! Crochet! There’s no limit to the techniques you can use. What’s most important, to me, is that your materials be recycled — not only the cutlery, but also the textiles.

So your first step is to pick your cutlery. If you’re lucky they will all be from the same set, but they really don’t have to be. I recommend the basics of a knife, fork, and spoon, but you can also include a steak knife (although probably not if it’s to be brought to school), reusable chopsticks, and a reusable straw.

Secondly, you’ll need a piece of fabric, preferably recycled. It can come from old clothing, bedding, or draperies, but another good resource (if you don’t sew much yourself) is a friend or family member who sews, who will inevitably have lots of scraps and remnants that they just can’t bear to throw out, but would be happy to see used.

Cut a piece of fabric that, when the fabric is folded in half length-wise, is at least 6″ longer than your longest piece of cutlery. Width-wise, you want it to be twice as wide as the widest piece of cutlery, plus 4″ or so to allow for the depth of the deepest piece. I found that a 30″ x 6″ strip of fabric was adequate to comfortably accommodate every style of cutlery that I tried.

Fold the fabric in half so that it is long and skinny; in the case of our demo, it became 30″ x 3″. Make sure that the wrong side of the fabric faces out. Sew a seam with half of a centimeter of seam allowance around the two longest edges. Alternately, you can serge the edges, which is what I did. (Seams indicated by blue lines in the photo above.)

Turn the tube you have made halfway inside-right, so that the right side of the fabric is visible on the outside. The tube will now be half as long as when you started (15″). Press flat.

On the unfinished end, fold the top layer back about 4″. Sew a seam on the inside layer about 1″ into the fabric, as per the blue line in the photo. Leaving an allowance of about half a centimeter, cut off the excess fabric at the end.

Fold the top layer back so that it lies flat. Fold the two unfinished edges of the top layer inside the tube, and stitch the end of the tube closed as close to the edge as possible (blue line on the right). Making sure to catch the inside layer, sew a second seam parallel to the first, about half a centimeter further in (blue line on the left).

Insert your longest piece of cutlery (usually the knife) into the tube, making sure it goes all the way to the bottom. On the middle of one side of the tube, mark a spot 1″ down from the top of the knife; sew a button on there, making sure to sew it only to one side of the tube. On the other side of the tube, mark a spot 1/2″ from the top of the knife; sew a loop of elastic onto this spot. The length of the elastic will depend on the level of stretch and how big the button is, so it may take a bit of experimentation.

Insert all cutlery pieces in the tube, roll the top closed, and loop the elastic over the button to secure it.

There you have it, your own personal recycled portable cutlery set. Make them for your friends and family this holiday season! They make great stocking stuffers and teacher appreciation gifts. And after many years of hard use, when the cutlery does finally wear out and the bag falls apart, the steel is recyclable and many fabrics are biodegradable. Even if you chose a synthetic fabric, it’s better that it be reused instead of going directly in the trash. Perhaps only the button (depending on the kind you chose) will end up in the garbage at the end of life of your portable cutlery set — and with any luck by then our recycling programs will accept them too.

Cleaning Coloured Pyrex

At my last flea market, one of the other vendors (a lovely lady selling the most fabulous knitwear) asked me how I get my Pyrex so clean and shiny. She’d had some issues keeping hers looking its best, and was wondering if I had any tips or tricks. I kind of brushed it off with an, “Oh, I just wash it!” But later I thought about it and realized that I really do have a process that I use. I thought I would share it here so that I can help other collectors.

For the purpose of demonstration, I’ll use the two pieces that came into my possession recently. The top one is a JAJ Pyrex casserole in the Market Garden pattern from 1971. (James A. Jobling’s company produced Pyrex in England from 1921 through 1973, when the patent rights reverted to Corning; after this point, the “Pyrex England” backstamp was used.) The bottom is a rectangular casserole from 1956 by the American Pyrex division in the Snowflake pattern, which is the very first pattern that was ever screen printed onto Pyrex. Given the age and condition of these pieces, I really want to keep the designs intact. Most importantly, when I got them there were no chips or nicks, which is something even the best cleaning can’t fix!

To be honest, these dishes aren’t in the worst condition of the ones that have come into my collection; some good examples of how bad it can get are in my old Cleaning Glass post. As is quite common, the inside of the casseroles were in pretty good shape, since people are most picky about keeping the parts that touch their food in the best shape, but the bottoms were worse off. But do not despair if you see this brown residue on a dish that you want, since it will totally come off with a bit of work!

One of the most important things I can say about cleaning old coloured Pyrex, whether it be solid-colour or screen-printed, is not to put it in the dishwasher. They won’t warp or chip in there — after all, they’re meant for the oven and even the oldest are safe for the microwave if there’s no metallic trim. However, the harsh chemicals and high heat of the dishwasher can fade or even completely erase the beautiful colours over time, so I really would recommend avoiding it! Of course, modern Pyrex and Corningware are dishwasher-safe, so if you’re not sure of the age of a piece, look for the stamp on the bottom that labels it as such.

On the Market Garden piece, the worse part was where food debris had collected in the edge around the rim. This is usually really hard to get out, but I have a technique for that which works for most dishes.

When cleaning coloured Pyrex, one of the things you want to avoid the most is heavy-duty scrubbing. So, no highly abrasive cleaning powders or scouring pads! (Although I’m quite enamoured of Lee Valley’s stainless-steel chain mail scrubber, which is great for cast iron, it would utterly ruin a Pyrex dish.) So your best bet is to fill up a sink with hot water and a generous helping of dish soap, and then let that sit overnight. Yes, the same technique for tackling the roasting pan from the Christmas turkey works with Pyrex, but why wouldn’t it?

When it comes time to scrub the dishes in the soapy water, I like to use the double-sided cleaning sponges with the green scrubber. I find that they’re generally abrasive enough to get rid of stains, yet not abrasive enough to remove designs (unless you scrub for a really long time — always be careful!).

And here you can see my secret weapon: bamboo skewers. They’re perfect for getting into tiny little areas that accumulate grime, but because they’re so breakable it’s really difficult to scratch the finish with them. The wide end of the skewer can even be used to concentrate your effort on areas with a thick layer of baked-on grease; I used them to great effect on my enameled cast-iron pan. As a bonus, they’re not strong enough to go through the enamel on cast-iron either (on which you also don’t want to use anything too abrasive lest you damage the finish).

I was lucky this time in that the Snowflake dish came completely clean with this treatment, even though it looked like it was in the worst shape. So I only had to do the next step on the Market Garden piece: a paste of baking soda and lemon or lime juice. The juice is acidic and the baking soda is slightly abrasive, which makes for a perfect cleaning combination. I left the past on overnight to dry, then added more lemon juice to scrub off the stains the next morning. Then, for a super-shiny finish, I gave it one more good wash in dish soap and water.

Sometimes, with dishes in really rough shape, you have to repeat these steps a few times. One other thing you can try, although only as a last resort, is a sink full of hot water and a single dishwasher detergent packet, left to sit overnight. I only do this when the dishes have resisted every other cleaning method, because the detergent is really harsh and concentrated. But I much prefer using one of the packets instead of giving up altogether! However, this time I didn’t have to resort to such drastic measures.

So here are my cleaning results:

Pristine bottom surfaces.

Edges like new.

And interiors from which you’d be happy to serve any guest.

So next time you see an old Pyrex piece that’s a bit worse for wear, don’t automatically discard it because of the amount of work that’d be involved bringing it up to snuff. It may take a couple of rounds of soaking, but it can look like new again without all that much elbow grease!

Teapot Herbs

A couple of months ago I was in the middle of selling a lovely Sadler “Brown Betty” teapot to a customer. I had already made the sale, had cash in hand, and was just wrapping it up in paper for safe transit. We were chatting while I packaged, and she said, “Oh, I have a teapot just like this at home, but I dropped the lid and smashed it. I just had to get a replacement.” To which I replied, “Oh yes, it’s always the lids that go first.”

And then I dropped the lid.

Of course, it fell straight down onto the concrete floor and smashed into tiny little pieces. The customer and I stared at each other mutely for a moment, and then I asked her, “So… Do you want the brown and green one instead?”

So I returned home that day with a pretty little teapot with lots of life left in it, but that is unsalable because of a lack of lid. “What am I going to do with this?” I thought. But then it occurred to me that Mother’s Day was coming up, and that my mother loves tea, so maybe I could make her something? I ended up using the teapot as a little herb planter. I planted basil inside, two different varieties.

Mom liked the gift so much that I’ve started hunting down lidless teapots to use as planters for different herbs. So far I’ve found her a metal one that obviously used to be used on an open fire, and one of those vibrantly-painted ones that’s a tea-for-one set with a pot on the top and a matching cup on the bottom. I think that after a while we’ll have a full-fledged herb garden, possibly even branching out to flowers or seasonal arrangements after a while. It really pleases me that we now have a use for these otherwise-unusable items — and now the hunt is on for more teapots to rescue. This should be fun!

Cleaning Glass

Because I am passionate about thrifting, a lot of second-hand items come my way from friends and family, garage sales, thrift shops, charity stores, estate sales and moving sales. I’d like to say that everything that I get comes in tip-top shape, but unfortunately that’s not the case. A certain amount of wear-and-tear is expected, especially when it comes to vintage or antique pieces that have seen everyday use. That doesn’t bother me at all. What I will not condone the level of filth of some of these items.

That isn’t to say that I won’t work with something that is scuzzy. On the contrary — but I won’t keep an item that I can’t get clean. Luckily, a lot of kitchen items are metal, glass, or plastic, which can all be recycled in this area if I can’t bring them up to an acceptable level. But I much prefer to put some elbow grease into it to get things spic and span again if I can. Reuse before recycling, if possible, as it were. If you factor in the time it takes me to clean pieces like this, it’s probably not cost-effective, but to me it’s still worth it to keep something perfectly serviceable out of a landfill or recycling center. Those teachers who repeated, “Reduce, reuse, recycle!” to me as a child should be happy that something stuck.


Before and after cleaning of some glass cookware that I came by recently.

Clear glass, especially Pyrex and Anchor ware, are some of my favourites when it comes to bringing things back up to snuff. The heavy, clear glass is impermeable, so even long-standing coatings of dirt and grease don’t sink under the surface. This glassware is dishwasher-safe, so often I can get the machine to do a lot of the work for me. I mean, there are all kinds of tricks online to help remove different kinds of gunge, but in my experience a lot of soap, hot water, soaking, and scrubbing usually does the trick. I’ve discovered that one of the best things to use to scrape off stubborn, caked-on food is bamboo skewers. You can put a fair amount of pressure behind the wood, but it’s still fragile enough that it will break before scratching or etching the glass.

There’s just something terribly satisfying about seeing what was once a shamefully dirty dish become something you wouldn’t hesitate to use to serve your grandmother.