Barbara Wampler comes to the rescue of neglected, vintage textiles. Catherine “Rabbit” Janecka brings new life to weathered wood, chipped resin, and rusted iron. These “champions of second chances” repurpose, repair, and recycle items that others might consider trash.

Their endeavors require unique talents plus boundless patience.

Barbara’s on a mission

Don’t look for Barbara in the fray at a garage or estate sale. While other shoppers compete in a heady adrenalin-driven rush to pick over trinkets and treasures, she stands back. Barbara wanders in after the bargain hunting throng dashes off to the next sale.

Calm and self-assured, her practiced eye seeks clues to a potential prize. Barbara might find it stuffed in a dusty old shoebox, partially hanging out of a white plastic grocery store sack or hidden in the bottom of a cardboard box, camouflaged by more appealing goods.

Shoved under a table or on the fringes of the sale space, it represents an afterthought at best or an apology of sorts to the original owner.

One man’s trash…

Who buys an old hand embroidered tea cloth that’s half finished? Who wants a few matching quilt pieces, far short of the number needed for a quilt? Who needs an unfinished needlepoint picture? Who values long, narrow strips of colorful fabric prepared for an unknown project?

Barbara.

That’s who.

Barbara quickly recognized this vintage feed sack fabric because of its softness to the touch and vibrant, old patterns. Probably dating back to the 1930s, these small scraps may be remnants from dresses and other household goods sewn several generations ago. In Barbara’s hands, they likely will be turned into a wall hanging.

“When I come across an old, unfinished piece that someone once put a lot of time into, I think it deserves to be finished and treasured,” Barbara says.

“It seems to claim me, versus me claiming it.”

Typically, an item Barbara chooses to take home doesn’t have a price tag. When she asks about the cost, the seller’s reaction is a blank stare. Never believing it would sell, they had put that unwanted piece out just in case someone like Barbara showed up.

“Sometimes they’ll tell me to take it or they price it really, really cheap. Then the seller usually gets curious and asks what in the world I plan to do with it. When I say I’m going to finish it, they think I’m joking.”

The beadwork on the side of an old, discarded purse caught Barbara’s attention. She cut out the owl and mounted it in a simple, wooden, recycled picture frame to create an interesting, one of a kind piece of art.

“I wonder about the women who made the pieces and what they were like.

“When I was a child, I would go up in the attic of our farmhouse and spend time admiring the fabrics of old clothing and household goods stored in trunks that likely came from Czechoslovakia in the late 1800s,” she says.

The Smithville, Texas, resident has had a lifelong interest in antiques, especially needlework and handwork, but has an interest in other collectibles.

Vision is her innate gift

Seeing far beyond an item’s original purpose, Barbara can envision a fabulous new life for a rescued item. It rarely bears a resemblance to its original form.

Then she sets about methodically creating it.

“I like working with bits and pieces of fabric. Ideas and possibilities just pop into my head when I sit down with these textiles. Combining them in interesting ways is really fun.”

Sometimes Barbara’s refurbishing efforts are not textile related. One day recently, when she and her mother, Hazel Kobersky, were decorating the family graves at the Catholic cemetery in Schulenburg, they noticed something out of place. A three-inch-long porcelain image had fallen off a headstone and broken. Knowing the pieces would soon be scattered by the wind or a leaf blower, Barbara carefully gathered them up. She mended them at home and later returned to the cemetery. Then she affixed the repaired miniature century-old portrait to its rightful place.  

Tying up loose ends 

Sometimes Barbara, whose mother taught her to sew when she was a child, must master a new skill to finish a craft. Although YouTube offers boundless instruction, she prefers to sit quietly and follow the steps in a book on her lap. Currently, tatting is on her list to study.

Occasionally she is disappointed when a piece is too fragile to rework or repair.

Barbara often works on several reclamation projects at once. Some take only a few minutes to complete, while others take weeks.

“It’s ironic, but I’ll sometimes be working on a project that triggers memories from my childhood. I like that,” she says.

Picking up too many unfinished projects is a hazard because they stack up.

“My husband says my sewing room should be cleaned out,” she adds.

Barbara thinks there are more than enough abandoned projects out there to go around. She will gladly share.

“Since the pandemic has slowed down our pace of life, perhaps more people will get interested in repurposing, reusing and recycling.”  

Barbara (center) creates striking quilts like this utilizing other crafters’ unfinished projects. She draws encouragement from her mother, a lifelong quilter, and her sister, Marilyn Sims, who admires her efforts.

Rabbit sees past rust and peeling paint

Rabbit views the world through the lens of an artist. Her skillset is even broader, though, because she combines her God-given painting talent with self-taught restoration skills.

Drawing upon a palate of creativity, experience and instinct, she undertakes the rescue of a wide range of relics that have seen better days.

“A pile of old barn wood or a piece of furniture hauled out to the curb gets my attention. I’m not particularly curious about what it used to look like or who once owned it.  

“I’m interested in what it can become,” Rabbit says. “How can I make it functional again?”

Rabbit expects the unexpected

“I tell people I’m a small town artist. I paint whatever someone in the community needs painted or repair whatever they want fixed. That’s my business. I find time to do some projects for myself, as well,” she explains.

I called Rabbit about my rusty old cream can. Was it too far gone? I knew Rabbit would level with me instead of telling me what I wanted to hear.

My dad’s name, R.W. Taylor, was barely decipherable through the chipped paint on this vintage cream can. It speaks to me of my childhood when our entire family worked together to earn a significant part of our livelihood by milking cows and selling the cream.

A farming icon from the early to mid-20th century, a five-gallon steel cream can symbolizes how families like ours earned a nominal weekly check to make ends meet.

Like the vast majority of small farmers in those days, my mother and dad milked cows morning and evening every day of the week, 365 days of the year, when I was growing up in Southern Alberta.

The cream was separated from the skim milk, which was fed to the milk cows’ calves we called pail bunters. The rest of it was fed to the pigs who enjoyed it immensely.

We kids helped.

Once a week, 52 weeks a year, rain or shine, bitter cold or pleasantly warm, Dad drove to downtown Calgary to deliver the cream in several of these five-gallon cans to Central Creameries Ltd. Each weighed about 40 pounds.

After Dad unloaded his cream on the dock, he would pick up his clean cans from the previous week and go into the office to collect a small check.

Mom and Dad shipped two cans of cream on June 22, 1943. Both tested as special grade, which meant their butterfat content was greater and worth more than lower grades. My parents’ check for a week’s worth of hard work was $38.46.

My can, which was manufactured approximately100 years ago, likely first belonged to Grandpa Wylie before it served our family. It was taken out of service about 60 years ago when the steel rim around the bottom weakened to the point that it was no longer safe. However, it was never thrown away. Those who lived through the Great Depression hesitated to part with items even if they were worn out. How fortunate for me!

My husband, Emil, dropped off the cream can at Rabbit’s home workshop in Weimar, Texas. She called to say she’d try to restore it, but I’d better keep it under cover and treat it with kindness. It may have been manufactured of steel, but it was fragile now.

Projects are full of surprises

“I tried sandpaper to get the old paint and rust off, but the steel surface is pitted. It needs to be sandblasted,” Rabbit told me.

“Have at it,” I replied.

Rabbit and I have an unspoken understanding. She doesn’t second-guess how I write stories and I don’t second-guess how she approaches restoration projects. We simply appreciate each other’s work.

After the cream can and lid were sandblasted, Rabbit ran into a problem painting them. The powder from the silver paint came off on her hands. True Value Hardware in Schulenburg, Texas, advised her to spray a light coat of clear paint over the wet silver coat. Rabbit heaved a sigh of relief when that solution worked. She learns something new every day.  
Next Rabbit tackled the challenging task of copying the attractive freehand lettering of a long ago employee at Central Creameries. Using a scruffy flat brush that feels good in her hand, Rabbit replicated the striking style perfectly on the front, back and lid of the can.
Rabbit and I are both satisfied. She’s glad my cream can has a new purpose: holding paper for my office printer and I treasure the memories it brings to mind.

How Rabbit works

Several years ago when she decided that a winter wind had whistled through her carport workshop far too long, Rabbit decided to do something about it with new lumber and secondhand windows and doors.

“I sketched out the wall, but I build like a kid. I figured it out as I went along. My husband, Chad, pointed out it isn’t perfectly square, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s functional, you know?”

Rabbit’s artistic skills surfaced when her parents, Thomas “Rabbit” and Lorine Holub, enrolled her in the first grade at St. Michael’s School in Weimar. The other 43 children in Sister Carola’s class soon started to try and copy her pictures.

“I thought everyone could draw and color like I could, so that surprised me,” Rabbit says.

The back porch of her early 1920s home is Rabbit’s inspiration deck. It’s a beach scene complete with nets reminiscent of the Gulf of Mexico excursions her family treasures.

You name it: repairs on a vintage resin angel statue, a full-size bar on coasters, an exuberantly painted picnic tabletop extension or Halloween and Christmas yard-art plywood cutouts, Rabbit can create it. A significant part of her business is signs she produces for local companies.

Rabbit says her sons, Clayton, Jack, Willie and Hank, might have thought that drawing and painting was “too girly.” While her granddaughters are a little young yet to assess, Rabbit sees promise in one of her seven grandsons under seven years old.

“Wyatt is the only one who always wants to color. The other boys aren’t interested,” she says.

When Rabbit needs a creative boost, she draws more inspiration from the gallery of her grandkids’ artwork on the fridge door in her kitchen. 
And what medium does Rabbit prefer? She reaches for house paint!

Like Barbara Wampler, Rabbit must exercise great self-control.

“I have to stay away from garage sales because I buy too much junk. I enjoy finding new uses for old pieces, but it takes time,” she says.

***

Barbara and Rabbit’s enthusiasm for repurposing, repairing and recycling reminds me that ‘new’ doesn’t always equate to ‘better.’ What are your thoughts?

As always, please pass this story along through social media or email to others who might enjoy it. I’m always happy to have more readers. Thank you!

P.S. In my next post, you’ll meet Carol MacKay, another Champion of Second Chances, who is drawn to vintage studio portraits like a moth to a flame.

Elaine
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