Easy, thrifty pillow covers anyone can make

Chances are, if you attended an American high school anytime from the 70s through the 90s, at some point you wrote a “found poem.” As Poets.org will tell you,

“Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.”

Perhaps the most well-known contemporary found poets (and one of my favorite writers on creativity) is Austin Kleon, of newspaper blackout fame.

This (sorta) Old Life: Austin Kleon In a Suburb

(Clicking on the image will take you to its source.)

Well, if a pillow could be a poem, I’m on my way to being the found poet laureate of pillows. Quite by accident, incidentally–but isn’t that how many creative passions are often born?

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

It began simply enough: After making the big revisions to our family room (flooring, sectional, paint, storage), my attention turned to editing, which, in the realm of room writing, means making small changes to the details.

While the most important part of a pillow (to us) is its squishiness factor (no hard, stiff pillows for our crew!), I couldn’t help noticing that our collection of pillows was a bit visually cacophonous.

This (sorta) Old Life: family room pillows

I liked many of the colors, but this motley crew lacked cohesion. I wasn’t sure of what would work better, but I knew I wanted to take my cue from Cane’s colorful abstract collage:

This (sorta) Old Life: family room storage cabinet

Being an Undesigner, I wasn’t able to create a design in my head and execute it. I had to do what I always do:  See what I could find and let the design emerge from whatever that is. So I headed off to the fabric store.

This (sorta) Old Life:  family room pillows Fabric Depot

Fabric Depot is a huge, generally overwhelming fabric store. I didn’t know where to start, so I wandered out to the outside bargain area. During the summer months, the store has a large covered area with all their discounted fabrics. And that’s where I found these:

This (sorta) Old LIfe:  Family room pillows fabric swatches

A whole big stack of those things that display upholstery fabric samples. They were only a couple bucks apiece–which means that I could get quite a bit of fabric for not a lot of money. I wasn’t sure what I might do with it, but I liked all those jewel-toney colors and different textures and figured I could figure out something. (And if I couldn’t, well–I wasn’t making a big investment.)

This (sorta) Old Life: Family room pillows fabric prices

A pile full of fabric squares could be a ticket to quick paralysis for me; it would be easy to get stuck in the planning stage trying to figure out the best possible way to use every piece. I started to go there, and then I stopped myself.

I gave myself permission to use designs that are nothing special. I gave myself permission to “waste” some of my stash (which means not using it in the best possible way).

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

This is my stash after I’d already made 3 pillow covers. I had LOTS to work with. And I’ll get to those sweaters in a minute.

I started very simply. I arranged some of my favorite pieces together and simply sewed them into two rows:

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

I gave myself permission not only to design simply, but to sew simply, too. No zippers, no buttons, no piping, and no careful measuring.

I simply measured the height and width of the front of the pillow I wanted to cover, and added an inch to both (allowing for a 1/2 inch seam on each side). I sewed the pieces together for the front cover, then trimmed it to be the size I needed.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

This is a piece I cut for a later design. For all the covers, I used a cutting board and a rotary cutter, which I highly recommend. So much easier than scissors!

I decided to make sham-style covers, which meant no buttons or zippers. To make the backs, I simply took a piece of fabric that was wide enough to cover the front piece and hemmed it.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

If the fabric had a raw edge, I folded it over twice and stitched. If it had a selvage edge, I often didn’t even bother to hem.

Then, I found another piece of fabric that was large enough to cover the front and overlap the first piece. I hemmed it, then pinned both pieces to the front piece (right sides together.) After pinning, I simply trimmed the excess fabric off, making the two back pieces conform to the lines of the top piece.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

Sew straight seams all the way around, then flip it all inside out and stuff the pillow in.


This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

This was pillow #2, even more basic than #1.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

The back side of pillow #2.

After the first two, I started to get a little creative. Most of my pillows are 20″x20″ and with the first two I was able to make covers without doing any tricky cutting/measuring. I sewed big pieces together and trimmed the edges to get a 21″x21″ front piece.

After the first two I had used many of my favorite larger fabric pieces, and I was getting down to smaller ones. Even doing two rows of smaller pieces wasn’t going to cover  my pillow, so I added a band of solid color and came up with this:

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

I liked the first 3 just fine, but I started thinking I was going to want more variety. I wasn’t sure if a whole couch full of only this kind of pillows would really work.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

Too much of a good thing?

And that’s then the whole “found” pillow thing took off.

As it happened, about the time I was first working on these I was also doing some wardrobe purging as school had started and the weather was starting to change. I had a sweater that I’ve really wanted to love–because I hate admitting I made a purchasing mistake–but I really just didn’t.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

 I liked the color, the texture, and the zipper detail, but it just didn’t fit me correctly. I could have donated it to a charity thrift store, but I decided to see what I might be able to do with it as a pillow cover. Thus was born pillow #4:

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

I really liked the way the textured solid colors mixed with the multi-colored pillows, and I hit our local thrift stores in search of sweaters. Making pillows out of old sweaters is not a new idea, but this one gave me a variation I haven’t seen a lot of:

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

I knew this cardigan–with its funky buttons–was going to be my easiest cover yet.

All I had to do was cut off the arms, trim the collar, cut the front from the back and sew the right sides of both together. Unbutton the buttons and flip the right sides out, and the buttons provide closure for the cover.

 This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

It may very well be at this point that the whole pillow-making project crossed over some line into a thing that was not about pillows at all. Because it seemed that everywhere I looked, all I could see were pillows waiting to be found:

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

This might look like a green scarf to you, but to me it looked like…

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

…a pillow!

And this table runner I picked up from Goodwill a few years back–which was always kinda weird as a table runner because it was too bulky and too short–also whispered pillow in my ear:

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

I just attached strips of fabric to each side of it, and now…

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

From there is wasn’t much of a leap to mixed media: Strips of fabric alternating with strips of knits:

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

As with any of our creative projects, this one wasn’t without missteps. I bought more than one thrift store sweater that didn’t pan out:

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

I thought for sure I could do something great with this vintage Jantzen sweater, but it just didn’t look right with the fabric pillows. I’m sure it will be perfect for some future project.

And I tried one with pieces cut on the diagonal, but I decided it just didn’t look right with the other pillows. That was OK though; I just used the pieces for one of the pillow’s back:

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

In spite of a few small hiccups, this has been one of my favorite projects in quite a while. Here’s why:

1. I like the way the pillows look. I think they fit great into our colorful, casual, eclectic family room.

family room

2. They were easy and fun.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

It’s really not hard to sew knit pieces together, and few measurements made this fun for me.

3. They were super-thrifty. I mostly covered pillows we already own, but I supplemented with pillows from thrift stores. I was able to find down pillow inserts for $5-6. Compare that to $15 for a smaller, poly-fil insert from a craft store.

(I know that bedbugs are a huge worry in some parts of the country. They aren’t huge here, but I’m still wary of thrifted upholstered items. Luckily, pillows are small enough that they are pretty easy to bug-proof. I tied them in plastic bags for a few days, and then to be safe, I tossed them in the dryer on high heat for 40 minutes. You can get more detailed de-bugging tips here.)

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

One of my $5 thrift store finds. Inside that rather garish cover is a squooshy, high-quality down pillow.

But more important than any of those reasons? It just felt great to get creative making something tangible.

As an educator and creator of this blog, I get to do lots of creative work all the time. Most of it, however, uses my head more than my hands. I spend a lot of time in front of a keyboard, creating abstractions. One reason I’ve cut back on the number of posts we write here is that I wanted more time to actually do projects (as opposed to write about them).

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

It felt good to get messy. (That’s another thrift store pillow in the background.)

At my core, I am a word girl. I love poetry and delight in language and know that my pillow project doesn’t have the same importance that my other kinds of creative work does.

But making them made me ridiculously happy. It was just so nice to lose myself in cutting, designing, stitching, listening to music, sipping tea, watching something take shape beneath my hands. Finally having a good work space for these kinds of projects is making all the difference in my ability to do them.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

We all need to do some things just because we like doing them. Maybe the next time you’re feeling guilty about spending time on something that feels inconsequential but completely scratches some kind of itch for you, you’ll think of my pillows and me and give yourself permission to scratch away.

I think it’s especially important to do that at this time of year. While there are things about the holiday season I truly enjoy, the loss of our usual routine and typical activities makes me gritchy after a few weeks. I’m going to be purposeful about building time in to do the kinds of creative things that make my heart happy.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

I’m pretty much done with the family room pillow project, but it was such a success that I’ve decided to take what I learned there and apply it to a set of bigger pillows: Our sad, saggy couch cushions.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

I probably won’t be blogging about that until the holidays are over. Heck, I probably won’t be doing that until the holidays are over.

Wishing all of you the happiest of Thanksgivings. We’re looking forward to a weekend of family, good food, and winter pleasures.

This (sorta) Old Life: Easy pillow covers

(I’ll be taking my cues from these two. They know how to do cold weather afternoons right!)