Shall I be Mother?

I am returning to a subject which has interested me over a period of twenty years. It’s a very ordinary thing – a spent teabag. They pile up in our kitchens and bins without a second thought.

Tea stains on muslin, applied to paper with double sided adhesive tape

Teabag Diary 1999

My interest started when I was studying for my BA(Hons) at Farnham. My project lasted for 6 and a half weeks and consisted of pieces of muslin, one for each day, upon which I had placed (thrown sometimes!) the used teabags for the day. I found the tea stains interesting in themselves but I began to see a pattern of how the day had been at home. Visitors meant more teabags and deep stains could indicate a stressful day, needing lots of cups of tea.

I thought the project was huge at the time, but I can now see that it is quite minimal in the scheme of things.

I also kept a ‘compost diary’ for a while. This required me to photograph every day the peelings and teabags etc that had been discarded into a white bowl, ready to go on the compost heap. Again, the aesthetic of the work appealed to me and it felt like a diary, showing what we were eating at the time.

Peelings and skins diary

The photographing of food scraps lasted a couple of months and was broken by major family issues. This work has never been shown either. The above compilation gives an idea of the seasons covered and the kind of eating going on in the household.

More recently, I started keeping and drying the teabags we used in the house – now only a household of two. I wasn’t sure of how I was going to use them but my first thoughts were to stitch each month’s bags together to make ‘quilts’ and indeed I have done this will four months’ teabags. The dead tea leaves had a different destination and were collected into used coconut oil jars.

‘Dead’ tea from the teabags

The work load of sewing became quite burdensome as arthritis in my hands makes sewing by hand quite painful. I tried to find venues to show the work, but locally, I found that exhibition spaces were by invitation or required the work to be for sale, with commission to the gallery. I didn’t think that anyone would want to buy my old teabags.

I approached Tick Tock to see if they had any space that I could use, but they were unable to help with space, but did send me a parcel of bashed (unsaleable) boxes of teabags, which were very welcome.

sewing empty teabags together

Ill health and a studio relocation together with the problem of where to show the work dented my motivation to complete it. However, I have now started work on it again, with a view to completing it and using the teabags in other ways alongside the quilts eg books, boxes, wrapping paper etc.

Making the teabag ‘quilt’

Purpose of the project

I ask my self what is driving this project and what have I learned? What started as a purely time-based project has become multi-faceted, making me think about the environmental concerns of throw away tea bags; who makes the tea; how to create something of interest from the apparent waste product and the qualities of items that have had ‘value added’ through the addition of stitching and pattern.

I think that I have a long term interest in what we throw out routinely. Parting with worn out or badly fitting clothes usually involves us in some consideration of how to do this. Throwing away spent teabags probably doesn’t occupy our thoughts at all. Having a compost heap might make you consider whether the teabags are suitable, otherwise we just chuck them. Every day. Even the apparently environmentally aware of us, still fail to recognise how many things that we handle – and discard – are actually resources. When the world is running out of these resources, will we have to resort to saving the paper from teabags just to make things that we can’t otherwise obtain?

What I had never thought about was the constituents of the bag itself. It is obvious, now that someone has pointed it out, that the paper is a bit more than just paper. The bags would be splitting when wet otherwise and my own research into obtaining authentic teabag paper revealed that the paper contains plastic. We are more aware of ‘dormant’ plastic, even four years on from my time of researching. I also realised that the cheap teabags had cheap, more perforated paper than the rather pleasing quality of the Tick Tock bags. Perhaps the cheap ones degrade more easily?

Why stitching?

The hand stitching is a contemplative occupation and I have thought about how, certainly historically, it was always expected of the female in an office – regardless of hierarchy, to make the tea. We (even men) say “Shall I be Mother?” when faced with a full teapot in company. Making tea is deeply rooted in our culture as a female occupation. It seems appropriate to take a largely perceived female activity, sewing, and use it with the teabags.

The traditions of Kantha quilting and Japanese Sashiko (little stabs), both involve stitching layers of, often discarded or torn fabrics, to make a thicker and warmer fabric. Sashiko fabric was used by firemen of the Edo period to protect them from falling masonry. Most Sashiko is constructed with running stitches, but other patterns have developed too, such as zigzag patterns which are thought to give protection against the devil who cannot follow the zigzag lines. I have used some Sashiko grid patterns on some of the teabags.

What am I trying to say with my stitching of the bags? I think I am trying to say that, even the apparently environmentally aware of us, still fail to recognise how many things that we handle – and discard – are actually resources. When the world is running out of these resources, will we have to resort to saving the paper from teabags just to make things that we can’t otherwise obtain?

For myself, I favour the use of loose tea, now, preferably in a teapot, but I also use little devices that can be charged with just enough tea to make one mug of tea.

Tea in a bag


The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook; Susan Briscoe, David and Charles Book, F&W Media International 2004 Printed in China