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.

New Toy

So I have a bit of thing for hunting for interesting vintage kitchen gear. Part of this is the love of the hunt, part of it is because I love the look of older pieces, and part of it is because I actually use a lot of these things and I just can’t afford to buy them new. And, let’s face it, the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” was beaten so thoroughly into my head as a child that I just can’t shake it free. My new toy is a case in point: a Oster Regency Kitchen Center, circa 1983.

Oster Kitchen Center Slicer Shredder Salad Maker
Kitchen Center with slicer/shredder/salad maker/French fry cutter attachment and four cutting discs (shredder, French fry cutter, thick slicer, and thin slicer).

I adore the styling of the KitchenAid and Smeg stand mixers, but heaven knows that I can’t afford one. I do have a beautiful Dormeyer Princess mixer, but so far I only have the mixer attachment for it. My new-to-me Kitchen Center has slicer/shredder/salad maker/French fry cutter, mixer/doughmaker, and blender attachments. Actually, it originally came with a grinder as well, but that part went missing sometime in the last 35 years.


Kitchen Center with blender attachment.

Also missing: the mixing bowls! Well, two bowls that looked about right came with it, but it turns out that they weren’t the correct ones. I shopped around at my local thrift stores and found a total of four that work for about $20, which is reasonable when you consider they’d be about $70 on Amazon.

I was a little worried when I took the machine apart to clean it and realized that some of the gears are plastic. I have a bad habit of putting too much strain on my machines and stripping plastic gears. I’ve ruined a couple of blenders that way. Luckily, the gears for the blender attachment are all metal. We’ll see if the other attachments’ gears are durable enough to withstand my not-so-tender ministrations.


Kitchen Center with mixer/dough maker attachment.

I have to admit that the part I am most enthused about is the stand mixer/dough maker. So many recipes and instructional videos just call for you to use one. I mean sure, it’s possible to do it all by hand, but sometimes I just don’t want to put in all that effort. Also, it can sometimes be a bit tricky to translate directions (especially timing/consistency) from machine mixing to hand mixing.

Apparently there were a whole lot of other attachments that were additional, optional purchases. The one that interests me the most was the pasta accessory, which included five processing discs for thin or thic spaghetti, lasagne, rigatoni, and fettuccine. Unfortunately, it looks like it attached to the (missing) grinder. So I’ll be keeping an eye out for these pieces during my future thrifting expeditions. There may be homemade ramen in my future yet!