Home Icons Tea Towel

What does it take to turn junk into novelty?

This essay is part of Home Icons, a series about the cultural and material histories of domestic objects. Read the others here.

I’ve started to comb my possessions in preparation for an upcoming move, assessing each object in my apartment for its capacity to spark joy. Take, for example, this backless, floral-print halter top, made from the reminisce of a vintage bedspread. I haven’t been able to wear it since one of its straps caught on a loose nail and ripped in half, but I’ve decided to keep it anyway. It might not be useful as a piece of clothing anymore, but every time I open the top drawer of my bedroom dresser, there it is — this beautiful, broken halter, as serene and understated as a still life in a gallery’s permanent collection. 

The top was designed by my friend Isla Cowan, founder of Heavy Flow, a Toronto-based brand that produces hand-made clothing exclusively from repurposed textiles including bedspreads, curtains, tablecloths, off-cuts, and deadstock. Constrained by material limitations, the brand adopts a patchwork approach to turn otherwise unusable scraps into pockets, sleeves, collars, and cuffs. Heavy Flow is a disciple of the slow fashion movement, a philosophy of sustainable garment production that champions the use of ethically sourced materials, low-waste manufacturing, and transparent labor practices. A quick Google search informs me that over 11 million tonnes of textiles are wasted each year in the U.S. alone, a number expected to rise with the continued popularity of online fast-fashion retailers like Shein and Fashion Nova. Heavy Flow and similar brands offer an environmentally friendly alternative, but with price tags that reflect higher production costs. I donated four bags of clothes to the local thrift store last weekend. The backless halter I set aside. It’s one of a kind, a piece of clothing as well as a piece of art. The strap is easily repairable. Besides, I can’t afford to replace it.

We might call the linen tea towel an outdated technology

The last time I visited Isla in her studio, she was contemplating what to do with a storage bin full of tea towels, some with their corners embroidered in colorful thread. Cut from soft linen and popularized in the 18th century as a tool to dry fine china, tea towels began as decorative, upper-class status symbols, adorned with intricate needlepoint designs and proudly displayed for company. With the development of mass manufacturing, the tea towel transitioned from an elite domestic accessory to an ordinary household object. Nowadays, embroidered linen tea towels are largely ornamental. Maybe you have a set in the back of a closet somewhere, but poly and terry cloth are more efficient at the task of drying dishes. We might call the linen tea towel an outdated technology, one whose ubiquity has outlived its intended purpose. 

What other outdated technologies do I keep around the house, their presence largely ornamental? On the living room windowsill rests a portable bluetooth speaker, purchased nearly a decade ago, its tinny output only available for the 10 minutes it retains a charge. In a drawer across the room lives a ratking of cables, adapters, and chargers, their heads dismembered, the frayed wires of their interiors exposed, the ports to which they connect long forgotten. On my bedroom dresser sits a pair of earbuds irreparably damaged after the warranty expired, and an iPhone, several generations old, that refuses to turn on. What am I to do with all these broken objects? I could take them with me when I move, only to have them sit in a drawer somewhere new. I could sell or donate them, but it seems cruel to offer someone a gadget that doesn’t work, especially in exchange for money. I could attempt to have them professionally repaired, but it’s an expense I can’t justify, results aren’t guaranteed, and to be honest, I’m incredibly lazy. As moving day approaches, so too does the urge to throw it all away. 

E-waste, a term used to describe scrapped electronics and their associated parts, represents one of the largest avenues of waste production in the world. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, we created an estimated 50 million tonnes of e-waste in 2018, a statistic that obscures a larger truth: we don’t know what happens to the majority of our electronics once they cease to function. The report concedes that only 20 percent of e-waste is managed through regulated recycling programs; the rest, we can assume, resides in landfills, or is dealt with in some clandestine or potentially hazardous way. Planned obsolescence accelerates this cycle by cajoling consumers to replace electronics at a rate that exceeds the development of sustainable and accessible disposal strategies. E-waste management is wrapped in concerns about environmental protection, information security, workers’ rights and safety, and the politics of global trade, which is why, perhaps, it remains inadequately addressed. 

Unlike a vintage bedspread, these digital technologies are materially and conceptually inflexible

In the absence of comprehensive regulations, policies, and guidelines for the handling of e-waste, what should I do with all my busted tech? Hesitant to toss these accessories in the garbage, I attempt to turn their nothing into something by stretching the boundaries of their use. This bluetooth speaker could be a…doorstop? A bookend? Maybe I’ll braid these broken chargers into a cable-knit scarf, or reanimate them as twist-ties. All of these possibilities seem ridiculous, impractical, or destined to fail, a testament to how difficult it is to reimagine these objects as anything other than what they are. These technologies are often built from materials nearly impossible to reshape with bare hands. They come to us wired and programmed to behave in a specific way; and to manipulate, disrupt, or even understand that process requires a level of technical expertise that the average person simply doesn’t have. Unlike a vintage bedspread — which can be broken apart and refashioned into halter tops and handkerchiefs and any number of objects that extend beyond its original use — these digital technologies are both materially and conceptually inflexible, which is why, when they inevitably outlive their intended purpose, they so often end up in the trash. 

What if, instead of trying to salvage the utility of these objects, we leaned into their ornamental properties? What if we reimagined tech as decor, its symbolic power more significant than its tangible function? What if we treated these objects as art? Consider the following examples: While having dinner at a friend’s place recently, I noticed in the corner of her living room, alone on a white plinth, a transparent landline phone, complete with coiled handset cord, its clear plastic shell exposing its complex circuitry. Twenty years ago, I would’ve killed for a phone like this, and now here it was in front of me, my childhood dream phone. I traced its line to the ground, only to find it wasn’t plugged into a jack. My friend just liked the way it looked. At a suburban thrift store a few weeks later I noticed, in a vitrine by the register, a bulky speaker popular about a dozen years ago and only compatible with a device dated enough to be effectively extinct. It was strange to see it there, this relic from my adolescence, totally useless and exhibited behind glass like an artifact in a museum.

When understood as art, these readymades accentuate the space between what they promised to deliver and how they currently exist: the speaker is haunted by the absence of the device needed to operate it, while the see-through casing of the landline reflects an early 21st century eagerness to make visible technology’s inner workings, a trend that has since given way to a preference for the opacity of a sleek surface. Metonymies of the periods in which they were popular, these objects now accrue value through the nostalgia they might evoke or what they might reveal about a specific point in time. The landline and the speaker are only two in a laundry list of technologies that have become obsolete over the past 20 years. What emerges when we consider them as art is the chasm between past and present, a gulf of shrinking distance filled with broken junk. 

The creation of art through trash needn’t only be happenstance; plenty of artists have plumbed the depths of obsolete tech in order to recover new materials. One piece that comes to mind is Nam June Paik’s Bakelite Robot (2002), a sculpture composed of nine vintage Bakelite radios assembled into the shape of a body. Bakelite, one of the earliest industrial plastics used in common household objects, was developed in 1907 by the chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland. It was central in the production of radios during the 1930s, a time in which the radio was enjoying prominence as the most significant piece of technology in the average home. Opposed to the wood-cased versions that came before it, the Bakelite radio was colorful and light, a visual reflection of the newfound ease with which news, sports, and entertainment could be broadcast directly to the public. As the radio’s preeminence gave way to new forms of technology, and manufacturers developed more easily producible plastics, the Bakelite radio went from cutting-edge accessory to kitschy flea market prop. To create Bakelite Robot, Nam June Paik scoured radios from thrift stores and second-hand markets, constructed them into a human form, and replaced their dials with LCD television monitors playing clips of science fiction movies, vintage robot toy commercials, and other bits of retrofuturist camp. An ironic repurposing of outdated materials, Bakelite Robot offers a playful examination of our deference to innovation through a backwards glance at the novel technology of yesteryear. 

What emerges when we consider these objects art is a gulf of shrinking distance filled with broken junk

This impulse toward artistic repurposing can also be driven by necessity. In 1889, at the end of what would be a short, commercially unsuccessful life, Vincent Van Gogh was admitted to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a psychiatric institution in Saint Rémy that provided little in the way of art supplies. Awaiting a roll of canvas from his brother, the Dutch artist began to paint on any surface the hospital had to offer, churning out work at a speed for which he would become posthumously known. The artist died less than a year later, leaving behind a museum’s worth of his signature impressions. In the decades that followed, archivists have uncovered several Van Gogh pieces painted on what appear to be tea towels, the grains of the textile visible through layers of paint. What was once a symbol of elite domesticity, exalted for its capacity to fulfill a particular function, became a literal blank canvas that would later be sold for millions. 

Individual resourcefulness is no bulwark against the steady accumulation of waste, a phenomenon fueled by capital interests and encouraged by state inaction. What I propose, not to solve the issue but to possibly mitigate it, is an exercise in imagination, a bid to bend the inflexible. The landfill is only one potential grave site for tea towels and corded phones. What about the archive, or the gallery? To reimagine these objects as art is an act of preservation, one that prioritizes cultural significance over immediate use-value. In this way, preservation manifests twofold: once for the object itself, and then again for its place in our memory. While the substantive impact of this approach might be limited, it gestures toward a reverence for material history that could circumvent the wastefulness of our preoccupation with new, shinier objects. Whether this process happens intentionally, as with Heavy Flow or Nam June Paik, or incidentally, as with Van Gogh, will vary by artist.

With moving day on the horizon, I’ve begun to collect the requisite boxes, tape, and bubble wrap, all of which will be trashed after I’m done with them. In addition to the four bags of clothes I donated to the local thrift, I’ve given away two shelves of books, recycled a shin-high stack of papers, and divided a showroom of unwanted furniture among family, friends, and strangers on the internet. What I can’t repurpose or rehouse goes guiltily in the garbage, with a sheepish promise to try harder next time. 

On my living room floor sits an opened box labeled “MISC,” where I place a selection of things with which I’m unable to part: the Heavy Flow halter top, its mangled strap tucked gingerly into its breast; the comatose iPhone, its fate dependent upon professional opinion; a USB cable, what exactly it connects to I’m unsure. Maybe these objects have no futures, only glorified pasts and inactive presents. Maybe the landfill is inevitable, but for now I’ll stash these broken talismans in the back of a closet or the bottom of a drawer, where they can continue to await the possibility of a less disposal life.

Cason Sharpe is a writer currently based in Toronto. His first collection of stories, Our Lady of Perpetual Realness, was published by Metatron Press in 2017.