Project: making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

Words and photographs by Jennifer Getsinger

Jennifer “Aunt Broccoli” Getsinger shows you how to upcycle a thrift-store silk garment into a funky, hand-crafted purse. It’s easy; it’s inexpensive; it’s the perfect Christmas gift for an eco-crowd friend.

The finished product.

The expression “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” means that you can’t make something luxurious out of inferior ingredients. It was said by Mr. Neverout, a character in Jonathan Swift’s 1738 work Polite and Ingenious Conversation, in Several Dialogues. In those days, sows’ ears must have been easier to acquire and less expensive than silk. But things have changed, and, in 2012, finding an affordable piece of silk fabric is much easier than finding an equivalent piece of pigskin. (Aunt Broccoli has heard rumours of pigskin for sale for only $3/square foot at Tandy Leather Factory in Surrey, BC, and will be launching a field expedition to investigate.)

Notwithstanding the rumours of $3 pigskin and the fact that it actually is possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear (in 1921, chemists from management-consulting firm Arthur D. Little made two silk-like purses from 100 pounds of sows’ ears that had been reduced to 10 pounds of glue, made into gelatin, spun into strands, and then woven into fabric), Aunt Broccoli will confine herself to making a silk purse from an upcycled silk garment. Not only is it easier, it doesn’t require a degree in chemistry and is significantly more frugal.

Herewith, Aunt Broccoli’s directions.

What you need for this project

  • 100% silk garment (with sewn lining and a short waist zipper).
  • Needle and thread (matching or contrasting).
  • A pair of sharp fabric scissors.
  • Embellishments such as buttons, embroidery, appliqué, bits of fur, feathers, rhinestones, chains or other hardware, ribbons, and shoulder straps.

Sourcing eco-friendly materials

The brown silk skirt used in this project is probably shantung.

Walk, cycle, or drive to the nearest thrift store and look for a 100% silk skirt or pair of pants with the following features:

  • Attractive silk fabric such as shiny, nubby dupioni or shantung (although both are shiny and taffeta-like with visible woven lines, dupioni is thicker than shantung and has more slubs).
  • A sewn lining.
  • A short waist zipper, approximately 7–8 inches (18–20 cm) long.

Don’t worry about labels that declare “Size 4” or “Dry Clean Only”; these warnings are irrelevant to the project.

Recently, I purchased a brown silk skirt with 157 mother-of-pearl buttons around the hemline for only $5.99 at the Kerrisdale Salvation Army. Frugalista that I am, I used the silk for this project and set aside the buttons for future projects. (Cards of two mother-of-pearl buttons were going for $1.99 at Dressew Supply, so I “saved” $300 with my thrifty buy!)

My local favourite is Sunny Seconds, located inside Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children in East Vancouver, BC, with its $5/bag days on the first Wednesday and Saturday of every month (hours: 10h00–14h00). The lilac silk capri pants shown in the background of these photographs (but not used in the project) were among the loot in just such a bargain bag.


You must first complete a purification ritual for anything that comes home from a thrift store to rid it of unwanted guests and stains: wash garments by hand in hot, soapy water and rinse thoroughly. (Palmolive dishwashing liquid was recently ranked right up there with Woolite in a well-regarded consumer magazine in a study of handwashing, so go right at it.) Yes, some dye will go down the drain, but so what? This small amount of dye is nothing compared to the pollution caused by textile-dying factories. Saving the Earth is why you are upcycling fabric and not buying new stuff, remember?

Hang garments outside to dry and then press smooth with an iron.


Step 2. Use your sharpest fabric scissors to cut a rectangle from the garment.

Step 2. The resulting rectangle of fabric. Remember to leave room for a narrow seam allowance.

  1. Fold your thrift-store garment at the zipper, leaving the zipper intact.

  3. Use your sharpest fabric scissors to cut a rectangle—the size is up to you—from the garment. Remember to leave room for a narrow seam allowance.
    See two photographs.
    This is not physically difficult but can be a psychological challenge if you believe that you might be ruining an expensive item of clothing. However, it is easier if you remind yourself that you will never again be a size 4 or that you would never get caught dead in that particular item of clothing, no matter how expensive it once was.
    And it does not have to be perfect. That is the charm of a funky, handcrafted purse—it is not, after all, an Hermès bag with a $1,000+ price tag.

  5. Step 3. Sew the rectangle closed “as is” with a narrow seam, wrong sides together.

    Sew the rectangle closed “as is” with a narrow seam, wrong sides together. (The lining will be sewn right in with the outer fabric.) Choose either a matching thread or one with a colourful contrast; black is always appropriate.
    While the construction of the purse can be done either by hand sewing or by sewing machine, Aunt Broccoli prefers hand sewing as it’s much quieter and uses no electricity at all.
    See photograph.


  7. Step 4. Sew another seam, right sides together, hiding the raw edges.

    Open the zipper and turn the bag inside out. Sew another seam, right sides together, hiding the raw edges. If done correctly, this will result in a tidy effect called a French seam.
    See photograph.


  9. Step 5. Your silk purse is ready for a few finishing touches.

    Turn the material right side out again. Voila! Your lined, zippered silk purse is complete and ready for a few finishing touches.
    See photograph.


Finishing. These real mother-of-pearl buttons come from Aunt Broccoli’s upcycling stash.

The thrift-store skirt has yielded a unique zippered purse, embellished with real mother-of-pearl buttons and a bit of faux fox fur. (Aunt Broccoli confesses that it’s not actually faux fox or faux anything but a gift from Mr. Sciurus or Ms. Procyon. And no, she did not pull the tail off the unfortunate varmint but found the fur swatch under a tree in her local park.)

For final touches—or to hide those rogue darts or waistbands—consider embellishing your purse with buttons, embroidery, appliqué, bits of fur, feathers, rhinestones, chains or other hardware, ribbons, and shoulder straps. You or a neighbour ought to have a box of collected frills and finery on hand at all times anyway in case you require a last-minute fascinator for a royal wedding.

I recommend taking full artistic advantage of any inherent asymmetry in the finished purse by clever placement of unusual elements. For this project, I used real mother-of-pearl buttons (real gastropods made the material from which the buttons were drilled, by extracting CaCO3 from sea water), a grosgrain ribbon, and a bit of upcycled fur.

Happy crafting.


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