Some memories are best Re-Imagined: Sweatshirt to Skirt Upcycle with a Backstory

Camp memories collage

Collage: Clockwise from left, Me at 9, me now, and sunset over the lake. Text reads “Some memories are best Re-imagined: Sweatshirt to Skirt Upcycle with a Backstory”

I spent my summers from age 7 to age 18 at sleep-away camp in Algonquin Park. It was an incredible place. The girls were on an island, the boys on the mainland. There was a lot of politically incorrect “Indian” business that I really hope has since been corrected but at the same time elicits in me a wistful nostalgia.

Indian Council Ring (2)

“Indian Council Ring,” in which a lot of rich white kids pretend to be “Indians” and compete in various tests of strength and skill

My brothers, cousins and I were the third generation of our family to attend the camp, which in our modern, disposable world is pretty incredible to think about.

Imagine a beautiful, rustic wilderness setting. No electricity or running water except in the main buildings (and one set of toilets). Freedom, for the most part, from “grown-ups” except for the counselors, who were really just big kids themselves. Spectacular scenery.

Canoing docks in mist (2)

View of the canoeing docks in the morning mist

Activities included arts and crafts, swimming, canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, horseback riding, and a strong focus on true wilderness canoe-tripping – starting at a 4-day trip when I was 7 and working up to, for most campers, the camp’s celebrated “long trips” of between 21 and 50 days in the remote Canadian wilderness.

Meg in canoe (2)

Relaxing in a canoe

Now for the flipside: I was an introverted, pudgy asthmatic. I was allergic to horses. I hated mosquitoes. I had passed all the swimming levels I could by the time was 11 and they had nothing else for me to do during the two hours a day of swimming lessons. There were only so many arts and crafts sessions they would let me sign up for. And, to put it quite bluntly, I despised canoe tripping.

Karyn age 9 (2)

Me, age 9, in my secret reading nook on the water

To me, wilderness excursions are like roller coasters – lots of people love them, and will pay through the nose and wait hours for the opportunity, but me? I can take it or leave it. People think when you say that that you are scared or just inexperienced and the “Aw, c’mon, it’s not that bad, just try it,” is maddening. So when I was a teenager and went to Wonderland, I would always go on Top Gun just once so I could say, “See? Not scared. Just bored. Now if you don’t mind I’m going to grab myself a Slushie and sit in the shade while you guys knock yourselves out standing in line for 2 hours to go around again.”

The same goes for camping. When people ask if I want to go “camping,” usually meaning, “drive to a campground, set up a tent, and roast hotdogs over a fire,” I’ve got to say, “Been there, done that. I can carry a canoe across a 2 km portage and put up an A-frame tent using only sticks, rocks, and 2 paddles, then pack it away again in a roll the size of a loaf of bread. I’m good. I’m going to stick with my air-conditioning and chilled beer, but hey, you guys go nuts.” I absolutely get what people love about it, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

Now that you have a clearer picture of me as a kid, you may understand how my camp experience was less Meatballs and more Lord of the Flies. And that was back before any of this anti-bullying stuff was invented. It wasn’t even called bullying back then – If you weren’t one of the cool kids, it was just life. And I’m not just talking about the other campers. Remember when I said the staff were just big kids? Well, sometimes the biggest kids are the biggest bullies.

I remember learning very early on that there were a lot of “rules” on canoe trip – Official Camp Rules, we were told. Like “camper portions” and “staff portions.” Official Camper Portions were half a pancake each. Official Staff Portions were 3 pancakes (filled with the pannikin-worth of blueberries that the campers were required to pick before they got to eat). Still hungry? Gee, that’s too bad. There’s no batter left. There were Official Camp Rules pertaining to desserts as well – as I understand it, campers were only allowed to eat what dessert remained after the staff were satisfied. Of course, they didn’t like it any more than we did, but what could they do? They didn’t make the rules!

I went on a 7-day trip in Temagami when I was 9 years old. Boy, that trip brings back lots of memories. The elaborate dramas the staff staged for our entertainment, like the one about the escaped axe-murderer from the nearby asylum that the park rangers flew in to warn us about (years later I realized that they had actually landed to caution our staff about too many people sharing a campsite). That charming amateur production ended with one of the male staff racing out of the end of a portage screaming, “GO! GO!” covered in muddy scratch-marks, later explaining that he had been attacked on the trail by a wild, hairy, mud-covered figure, more bear than man, wielding an axe.

Or the one about the man-eating beaver (all right, admittedly, that’s pretty funny now!) over whose dam we were portaging. I was kind of a suspicious 9 year-old, and I sensed something was up when I was hurried along because everyone was waiting for me at the end of the portage. I remember looking across at the slope on the other side of the creek and thinking to myself, “They’re all lined up like they’re sitting at a movie theatre or something,” before I was yelled at to go and join them so we could witness the climax together – the other male staff member racing out, canoe over his head, again covered with mud (stage makeup was hard to come by out there) having “just wrestled himself out of the grip of the rabid creature.”

I don’t think that last one went as smoothly as they planned, so it may have been out of frustration that they involved us campers in the next drama, a playful piece of black humour entitled, “Call the campers over to the staff tent, pin them down, and force-feed them cayenne pepper for shits and giggles.” I kid you not. That actually happened. I kept my lips clamped shut and it still burned for hours. And let me remind you, we were 9 year-old children and these were adults. I told a friend this story as an adult and she said, “Karyn, you realize they were high, right? They had to have been on something.” I think she was probably right.

I think that there was a lack of oversight and compassion at the supervisory level that contributed to the staff resentment which was in turn taken out on the campers. I certainly experienced this during my one and only year as a staff member when I found that days/nights off were generally decided amongst the front-line staff on a “who can get the most people on their side” basis. In my case, at one point, appealing to a higher authority on one occasion did net me grudging permission to take one extra day off to attend my grandmother’s memorial service, provided that I both made up the time doing extra duties later and was back by daybreak the next morning. My older brother was rather uncomfortable dropping me off on the mainland to fulfill this arrangement, but fortunately one of the skills that I had picked up over the years was the ability to quite confidently solo a canoe, in this case across a glassy lake in the middle of the night.

As for my relationships with the other campers, you could to an extent hardly blame them. I certainly didn’t make it easy on myself. Aside from being a moody bookworm, I was also of that compensatorily over-confident non-conformist ilk with an outspoken attitude of “I don’t care if you don’t like me! I don’t have to change myself just to fit in with you jerks.” At school I had a tight-knit anti-clique clique of like-minded folk as a buffer but at camp I was on my own. To be fair as well, there were only a few incidents of actual bullying; it was mostly an over-arching indifference to my presence in general.

There was good stuff too. I think my overall experience would have been better if I hadn’t stayed for so long – I even went back as staff when I was too old to be a camper because it just never occurred to me that I could stop. I met one of my best friends there, and I have skills and memories that many people can only dream of.

Sunset on the lake (2)

Vintage photo of sunset over the water – taken circa 1987 with a Kodak Instamatic X-15F

Few things can rival the majesty of red pines silhouetted in a Northern Ontario sunset…

Sunset over docks (2)

Another sunset over the water (slightly newer camera)

Or the exhilaration of “bum-sliding” down rapids wearing a life-jacket as a diaper…

Paradise Lagoon (2)

I think this is Paradise Lagoon in Temagami – we would have been jumping off a waterfall into the rapids

…the thrill of leaping off a 20-foot cliff into a deep lake…

Cliff jumping (2)

This would be Little Island, Little Island Lake, in Algonquin. There was a rope swing suspended from a tree atop a 20-foot cliff and you would swing out as far as you could and drop into the water. Frankly it’s a wonder any of us survived childhood.

…or the serenity of watching a wall of rain slowly move in across a lake. All of these experiences together make up who I am today and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

But in many ways, life is what you make it, and some of those experiences had to be reimagined or reinterpreted before they could become a useful part of that whole – which is a philosophical way of leading into the tutorial part of this post, in which I show you how I turned a zip-neck sweatshirt into an A-line skirt.

The connection is not quite as tenuous as you might think, as the sweatshirt happened to be my camp staff sweatshirt, which for me symbolized both a link back to that time as well as my symbolic breaking free of whatever hold kept me going there back year after year. For the last 15 years I have hung onto to that sweatshirt but have rarely worn it because I didn’t find it particularly comfortable. It always chafed just a little and never sat quite right.

With this project I took that not-quite-right sweatshirt and turned it into something unique and uniquely suited to me.

Sweatshirt to A-line skirt upcycle

Step 1: Cut sleeves off elastic-waist sweatshirt.

cut off sleeves (2)

Sleeves cut off – check!

Step 2: Turn sweatshirt inside-out, lay it on a flat surface and place a good-fitting skirt (I like A-line) on top of it, lining up the waistbands.

lined up with skirt (2)

Sweatshirt lined up with skirt (I still need to turn it inside out)

Step 3: Pin the edges of the sweatshirt to match the shape of the skirt.

pinned over skirt (2)

Sweatshirt pinned to match the line of the skirt

Step 4: Trim the bottom of the sweatshirt to your preferred length (the knit material should not need to be hemmed).

Step 5: Sew the edges along where you pinned and then trim.

Step 6: Turn right side out and try on!

(Optional) Step 7: Embellish or decorate skirt however you like – I used the camp crest and the zipper to create appliquéd pockets by cutting them out and sewing them on around their edges.

appliqued pockets (2)

Pockets positioned and ready to be sewn on

Step 9: Wear and enjoy!!

Karyn modeling skirt (2)

Me in my skirt. Have you ever seen a more uncomfortable-looking model?

*Please note that I made a deliberate choice not to identify the camp by name. I am talking about things that happened more than 20 years ago and I understand that they have worked hard to “clean up their act,” so if you happen to recognize it please do not “out” it in the comments.*

9 thoughts on “Some memories are best Re-Imagined: Sweatshirt to Skirt Upcycle with a Backstory

  1. Having attended the same camp, and also been in a similar situation socially, I’m quite happy that we managed to form some sort of friendship over a common hatred of tennis 🙂

    I was shocked to talk with my sister recently to learn that she had gone through the same kind of bullying that we both went through as well. I wonder sometime if everyone shared these stories, the “cool kids” would get the picture.

    I’m glad that you have some fond memories of summers up north. For me, I love canoe tripping and felt much more comfortable with fewer campers and more solitude compared to the in-camp experience.

    Thanks again for sharing this, Karen. I still think about those summers a lot, with some fond memories, and some nightmares.

    • The summer we became friends was one of the best I had there, and I think part of that was realizing that there was someone else who was in the same boat (so to speak). I wonder if you’re right, that sharing these stories might change things – not even by making the cool kids realize what they did to us, but by encouraging them to admit that the same things happened to them. I think part of the culture of the “cool kids” was the knowledge that if they let down their guard, even for a second, they would wind up right there with us.

      The same friend who said the staff must have been high also asked me the fateful question, “Why do you keep coming back?” and I shit you not, until she said those words, it just never occurred to me that I had a choice.

  2. Oh my, I LOVE camping and all things outdoors. I can see why you csn take it or leave it though. I spent many summers at an amazing camp and I am appalled at the stuff you were put through ad a camper. That would NEVER fly today, I don’t think. Great pics though, and way to be yourself at an age when its a really hard thing to do!

    • Thanks jeannine! I can only imagine what would happen to those counselors if they tried stuff like that today – probably criminal charges for them and a huge class action lawsuit for the campers…I’m not sure if that’s much better, though – just a whole different kind of bullying! I totally respect your love for camping and the outdoors even though I don’t share it!

  3. It’s been over 30 years since I attended a Summer Camp and I can assure you the same shenanigans went on then, too. That was a bittersweet time of life for me, too. I think I may have burned that sweatshirt, but I like that you turned it into something useful. Thank you for telling your story and linking it to the Get Inspired Blog Hop!

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