When Libby James looks at the large pile of used teabags in her kitchen, she can't help but see flowers hidden in the stains, or perhaps a split-rail fence.
But never trash.
"I don't like to throw things away I think have life in them," says Libby, a 74-year-old described by her children as the "original recycler." "It's satisfying to use what you have and stretch everything as far as possible."
Libby harnesses tea bags for inspiration as founder of oldBags, a line of greeting cards and other artistic goods. Since late 2006, her Fort Collins, Colo., home has doubled as a humble studio, littered with bags in various stages of life. Some appear recently used -- she has a cup of straight black mighty-leaf tea every morning -- while others have long-since dried out. All await a second life as art.
"The bags are like a starting point, a little stained canvas," Libby says. "You can look at it and say, 'I see a bird,' or 'I see a bear.' That's where the creativity comes through."
Creativity and simplicity are the core of Libby's process. Her tools are understated, the sort of supplies easily found in a dollar store craft aisle: scissors, card stock, glue, gel pens, glitter. She laughs when asked if she's artistic.
"I can't draw worth beans," she says, preferring to label her work as "tampering." Her talent is the ability to squeeze more than a few aromatic drops from the bags.
"It's a journey," Libby writes in "The Tale of an Old Bag," a short piece steeped in the published author's wit. "I've rejuvenated so many tea bags that the process has evolved. When I tire of one style, a new idea invariably emerges and I'm off on a new tangent."
Often, those tangents involve only a few lines or occasional hand-drawn flowers. Her work feels rustic and effortless thanks to the delicate burlap-like texture of the tea bags. She prefers to let the bags speak for themselves, akin to a photographer who uses a careful eye to frame what already exists. The accenting pales in comparison to the time and love she puts into rescuing, drying, emptying, ironing and preparing the bags for a new purpose.
"I'm not too worried about people stealing my idea because I don't think most people are willing to sit around and empty old tea bags," Libby says. "One nice side effect is I always have a good compost pile. There's lots of tea in there, that's for sure."
For Libby, rescuing and reviving tea bags are small portions of her sustainable lifestyle. Frugality isn't simply a way to save money on bills; rather, it's a mentality she has embraced all her life, proudly saying she was "committed to an anti-consumer lifestyle before it was 'in.'"
Her house, a panoply of recycled wares, old books and local art, reflects this commitment. Along with the discarded tea leaves in her compost pile (like coffee grounds, the nitrogen is good for bacteria), she saves chicken bones for soup and cuts toothpaste tubes to scrape the insides. A woodworker friends made her a low bookshelf using the frame from an old hot tub. The crown jewel of her wardrobe is a nylon windbreaker given to her at the age of 13.
"I don't know if I was born frugal, but I grew up not wasting stuff," Libby says. "I lived in England not long after WWII. There just wasn't anything extra to go around."
Libby tells the story of her British mother's first visit to America and subsequent shock while watching her mother-in-law dump a dozen egg yolks down the drain to make a cake. During wartime, Libby's mother survived on a single egg per month.
It's fitting that the story of oldBags begins with another place of want, albeit a time more recent than postwar England. In 2006, Libby received a card made by a women from a small, impoverished village in South Africa. It was decorated with paint, pen and a lightly stained tea bag. Below the drawing, it read: "Once filled with tea, now filled with love."
Using imitation as inspiration, Libby dove in and began honing her skills with greeting cards. She admits they never did (nor will) look like the original from South Africa. With time, she expanded to bookmarks, coasters, gift tags and other small items. As of mid-February, she has already made 400 different works. The seemingly rapid turnout pales in comparison to the over 5,000 she has created since starting oldBags.
True to her own frugal nature, most of Libby's pieces have a secondary purpose. She realized cards have a short lifespan and so began crafting other goods: Where a card lasts several days, a bookmark lasts several years. Whenever possible, she uses recycled paper and accents found around the home, such as leaves and the tea bag tags.
At $2.50, Libby's cards are less than Hallmarks at a supermarket. She estimates around one-fourth of sales come direct from her home and prefers it this way, as she's able to sell them for less.
OldBags have slowly made their way across the country and are found in storefronts throughout Colorado, as well as in Wyoming and Maine. Her most recent goods are available at Trimble Court Artisans, a shop in downtown Fort Collins featuring original paintings, sculptures, jewelry and other assorted works from people who, like Libby, don't consider themselves professional artists.
"Libby's work is really unique compared to a lot of reused art," says Jill Popplewell, the manager at Trimble Court. "People like it because they can grab a card or two and it's affordable. There's a huge tea drinking population and it appeals to them. Before, they just tossed their bag and let it enter a landfill. Now they see how Libby puts it to good use."
The spirit of Trimble Court is alive and well at Etsy.com, the 21st century equivalent of a local art outlet. Like much online, the New York-based website gives anyone and everyone access to nearly anything and everything. The handmade goods on Etsy range from crocheted clothing to jewelry created from broken skateboards, all made by ingenious folks in search of a market for their crafts.
The appeal of Etsy for buyers is the ease of use. Along with a new Etsy free shipping program, the site features a mass search function, simple online storefront and giant community willing to support and encourage small artists. Like Libby, many sell repurposed and "upcycled" goods, including Missy Blakeslee, owner of the clothing store Salvaged Threads. (We featured Missy in another profile, "Salvaged Threads Upcycles Castoffs Into Kicky Couture.")
Libby's verve for finding life in everything spreads easily to those around her. Friends and neighbors leave caches of old tea bags on her doorstep and her daughter, who lives a few blocks away, saves them in a coffee can to give during regular visits. For a local high school's sustainability fair, she brought a slew of bags and allowed teens to create their own cards.
She makes everything last, including her health: As an avid runner for over 40 years, she holds the national 10k record for her age group.
Libby's projects have become more ambitious as of late. Several months back, she created nearly 150 custom invitations for a wedding, her largest order to date. She's currently making a vertical display of round bags and arranging several on the glass of an old window frame.
Modest to the end, Libby is quick to tweak the storied saying, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and apply it to oldBags. It's apparent many find her work beautiful: Popplewell notes Libby has built an avid following. Her framed pieces do well at Trimble Court and disappear almost as soon as they're put up for sale.
"The tea bags await," Libby writes towards the end of "The Tale of an Old Bag." "No two are ever stained the same. They gracefully offer themselves for enhancement. I think they know I've come to save their lives."
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