SARANAC LAKE - Gail Meyer's house is a tapestry of color as quilts, vintage pillowcases and sweater pieces hang over bannisters waiting to be reinvented into totes, pinafores and caps.
She gestures to a stack of bags as she readies for her latest craft fair. Perhaps best known to the Saranac Lake High School population as the biology teacher since 1994, Gail's passion for fabric and the Lake Placid nonprofit Reason 2 Smile Inc. provides an opportunity to reuse with purpose.
"Starting this wasn't anything deliberate," Gail said. "The ideas that came to me have been effortless. I was on the board for Reason 2 Smile for a year, and I felt my goal was to put us out of business by making Jamba Jipya (school) self-sufficient."
(Photo — Diane Chase)
Reason 2 Smile Inc. is a 501(c)3 located in Lake Placid, and currently works with one school and orphanage by providing immediate and long-term financial stability.
Founded by Keela Davis, Reason 2 Smile works with a board of directors and the Jambo Jipya School in Kenya to provide immediate assistance via student sponsorships. The goal is to raise funds to help provide a more sustainable environment for the school, the orphans and other at-risk children.
Reason 2 Smile Inc. continues to look for other organizations to support in developing countries and further support the same demographic of at-risk children.
Her two sons are grown and out of the house, and Gail admits her repurposed clothing line, Binding Threads, came about because, not only does she have the time to dedicate, but sewing is something she enjoys and does well.
"I have a very supportive husband," she said, smiling. "My boys are 23 and 25 and have been out of the house for a long time. My time isn't spent on getting them places. It makes a big difference.
"I love my job working with teenagers, and then I get to come home and love my job here," Gail said, laughing. "I suspect that this end of the business will slowly just take over. It is a wonderful way to use my time, meeting people at craft shows and playing around with my website and blog. That has been really interesting.
"I used to own the Hallmark store downtown, and I understand the limitations of trying to get the word out. I'm on Facebook for Binding Threads and am always interested to see how people find out about me.
"We closed the store, and I went back to work at The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, owned by Sarah and Marc Galvin. I had worked there ages ago. Keela Marie (Dates) was working there at that time. I had known her grandparents. Keela had just come back from her first trip from Kenya. I was totally enthralled with her program. Once you meet Keela, you can't help but be enthralled. She is hypnotic."
The store Gail refers to was the home for 59 years of Meyer's Drugs (later known as Meyer's Gifts) on Main Street, Saranac Lake before closing in 2007.
At the same time she was being introduced to Keela's fledgling project, Gail found a book at The Bookstore Plus about felted wool projects. Gail was then presented with a reason to make tote bags and help raise funds for Reason 2 Smile.
"The author had outlined how to shrink wool sweaters and make them into totes," she said. "I tried to sell them through school and ended up at Sparkle Village (a Saranac Lake craft show) with just the felted bags."
Gail started sewing totes in 2008 with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Reason 2 Smile. It wasn't until this May that it became obvious as she began outlaying more of her own money that her business needed to be more self-sustaining. With the website, craft fair space, labels and other expenses Gail formed Binding Threads to support the business infrastructure. Each label on Gail's product advertises Reason 2 Smile Inc. to further promote the organization. Currently Gail donates one-third of her proceeds to the nonprofit.
"In two weeks I'll be in Altona at the North Country Small Biz Show with Suzie Thaller," Gail said. "Suzie and her husband Jeff Rabideau run a series of rod and gun shows and I was at the Fish and Game Club's gun show in the summer and met Suzie there. She gave me her card and asked me to be in her next show."
Gail's product line started with a recycled sweater tote. Using a felted sweater (a wool sweater that has been shrunk in water), Gail pieces together various parts of the sweater to recreate a new tote bag.
"I love material," Gail said. "I love to touch it. I love to smell it. This is my recreation."
Gail modestly claims she is just following a recipe when making her products.
"I know how to sew," she said. "To me, the beauty is in the fabric. The ideas are only limited by your imagination and what the material can do. I can make recommendations to people based on the object and material."
She was finding sweaters at garage sales and various thrift stores. Good friends have also taken to finding her various materials to support her creative endeavor. Gail holds up a special tote made out of upholstery samples.
She stresses the importance of friends and local businesses that have helped her be able to support Keela's organization through her totes. Gail's friends have wholeheartedly embraced her endeavor.
Gail credits Debbie Neill with giving her other ideas to reuse the recycled materials. Other friends like Bonnie Birk donated hand-embroidered linens from her grandmother to reinvent as pillowcase pinafores.
"Bonnie knew she was never going to use these pillowcases and wanted to them to go for a good purpose. She gave them to me," Gail said. "It is important to mention Patricia Inslerman of The Decorator Shop in Saranac Lake. She has donated hundreds of upholstery samples. The upholstery tote exists because of Patricia."
Not only has Gail turned upholstery samples into bags, she has made curtains into aprons, pillowcases into pinafores and vintage sheets into tote linings. She points to one tote where she even used the shirtsleeve from a wool Pendleton shirt for a tote pocket.
"This apron is made from the edge of a curtain and the flounce was already there," Gail excitedly points to other features. "The tea towel I used was from the 1939 World's Fair. I have two aprons made and two waiting to be sewn. I sewed the tea towel to the front of the apron so you can dry your hands on the towel."
"Once you realize the materials that make it happen, you see them everywhere," admits Gail. "For felting you need a 100-percent wool sweater that will tighten up and thicken when washed. I also started to play around with men's ties and using them as handles."
"My friend Heidi Roland has agreed to help me out," she said. "Heidi has a beautiful eye for design and display. She is going to come over and help me with the display items I've picked up at various garage sales. She is also sewing totes and I will sell them, giving Heidi the opportunity to donate to Reason 2 Smile."
Nothing that Gail receives goes to waste. If she finds the clothes do not work for her products, she donates them to either Family Champions in TupperLake or to other artisans looking for wool material.
Gail has recently been turning grain bags from Lake Placid Pub and Brewery into tote bags.
"I work at the high school with Amanda Zullo, whose boyfriend is the Brewmaster at Lake Placid Pub and Brewery. When they make beer they have to use malt and various grains which come in these bags," Gail said, gesturing to the white woven material. "It is a woven plastic that can't be reused because of agricultural stipulations and can't be recycled because of the type of plastic. I had been making totes out of the heavy-duty dog food bags when Amanda and Kevin saw me at the Sparkle Village Craft Fair and thought the grain bags would also work."
"I try to reuse every part of what comes in, without making myself too crazy," Gail nods. "Why get rid of beautiful material?"
Gail modestly talks about how the other embellishments are also reused from antique buttons to handmade laces, all with the goal to reinvent and reuse.
Gail started selling totes on the online shopping site Etsy under the name "Repurposed with Love" and by that time Reason 2 Smile was a non-profit. It was her nephew by marriage that came up with the name Binding Threads.
"My niece got married a few summers ago, and she asked for me to make bridesmaid gifts," says Gail. "She then gave canvas totes to members of her wedding party."
Her most recent addition is an Artisan Floor quilt. The quilts are really treated artist canvases with materials placed and decoupage in layers to create a floor covering or rug. The look is folk-inspired and reminiscent of painted floor cloths. Traditional Arts of Upstate New York in Canton is currently carrying the floor quilts, pinafores and grain bag totes.
For those people interested in a project, she offers braided rug kits made from recycled wool trousers. She cuts the materials and encloses the directions allowing a more crafty type to complete a project made from either her materials or their own. The bonus, for those who don't sew is that it does not require a machine.
Gail has always sewn. She made her own maternity clothes, theatre costumes for plays and even Halloween costumes until a few years ago.
Gail doesn't just make items from clothing she finds. She has been helping people repurpose their own vintage linens, sweaters and even men's suits into usable products instead of just saving "grandmother's tablecloth" to pass to the next generation unused.
"I want people to use their things not just save them for good. To me that is the most fun, when I create something that means something to someone else," says Gail. "There is a form on Bindingthreads.org to contact me."
The pitch in Gail's voice changes as she describes a poignant moment when a client's father had passed on and she was able to convert a favorite clothing article into a gift for Mother's Day.
"When another friend of mine was ready to move on with some of her husband's things after he died, I was able to turn his wool suit coats into totes for her daughters. That is what I prefer, making a new memory."
Her sewing room/studio is a small space that puts out numerous products. It's not the normal studio filled with bolts of fabric but with bins that line the hallway overflowing with pants, skirts and sweaters, all waiting to be given a new life.
"I won't make something that isn't functional, unless somebody requests it. I truly believe in using things."