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ART: New heirlooms 

Nancy Topolski and the art of repurposing

As we engage in the fall-swallowing holiday madness, go ahead and disdain the horrors of the mall. More and more, people are turning to support the local, handmade, and "upcycled" movement, but it can be hard to find all three aspects in one. Local maker Nancy Topolski is a triple threat, offering some seriously sweet stuffed animals she calls Foundlings, which meet all three of these sustainability standards, and delight children and adults alike. Read on to learn about the Foundlings, as well as various other crafts and vintage items Topolski sells.

Topolski has enjoyed knitting since she was 13 years old, and has a long history of crafting, but she stopped selling her crafts in the early 90's. "I had taken a hiatus, because I didn't want to add more stuff to the world," she says. "I felt like, even if it's handmade, it's still more stuff, and I didn't want to be part of that consumerism."

But she kept creating, and eventually began selling her work again when she was invited to participate in the first Artist Row, 10 years ago. Topolski sold fingerless gloves she knitted, and began thinking of how she might translate her post-consumerism philosophy into bread and butter.

click to enlarge Nancy Topolski - PHOTO BY JOHN SCHLIA
  • Nancy Topolski

Topolski's first Foundlings were actually Easter presents that she made five years ago for her two kids and a couple of their friends. "I tried to make these bunnies...and they didn't look anything like bunnies!" she says. "But I liked making them, so I just kept playing with different forms. The sweaters came later."

The look of the Foundlings continues to evolve, and ranges from floppy-eared animals which could be dogs or bunnies, pointed-eared cat creatures, round-eared might-be-a-mouse-or-a-bear beasts, and recently, some cute bird-lings. Most don't have arms, but some do, and hold the sewn-on shapes of baby animals, flowers, or other objects, like airplanes.

Their faces are simple, with giant eyes looking up or off to the side, as if recollecting, or hiding something. Topolski loves posing the Foundlings together, because the way the expressions relate "look like they're rolling their eyes, like they've been naughty," she says.

Nearly everything Topolski uses for her Foundlings is repurposed. She buys second-hand cashmere or angora-blend sweaters, and washes them a few times to turn them into soft, felted wool before cutting them up. The sweater size determines the size of the Foundling, because Topolski tries to use as much of the material as possible without waste. The thread and poly fiberfill stuffing she uses are bought new, but the stuffing is made from recycled milk jugs.

click to enlarge Creations by Nancy. - PHOTO BY JOHN SCHLIA
  • Creations by Nancy.
click to enlarge A creation by Nancy. - PHOTO BY JOHN SCHLIA
  • A creation by Nancy.

Topolski uses a machine for some of the sewing, but prefers to do as much of it by hand as she can, favoring a crafted aesthetic over a mass-produced look. But the beasts are sturdy, and can be cleaned in a washing machine. "I like making things that are heirloom quality," Topolski says. "I want them to be the kind of thing that will be passed down the generations."

The price point for the Foundlings ranges from $30 to $90, depending on size and complexity. Topolski says while she knows some people buy them for children, some buyers think they're too nice for little kids: some adults keep them on couches as funky throw pillows.

"I had someone buy one for her father, who had just had heart surgery," Topolski says. Post-op, patients are told to hug a pillow when they cough, so that they don't strain their healing muscle tissue. "I thought that was the neatest idea."

Another family gave two Foundlings to two autistic children, and told Topolski that the big-eyed expressions have helped the kids develop the use of their eye contact. "I really like that kind of thing, when I know it's serving more of a purpose than being a decorative item," she says. "But as long as they make people happy, I like that."

In addition to the Foundlings, Topolski curates a collection of vintage finds, which she offers in her Second Seed store on She says she prefers items from the 1950's and 60's — Kodak camera, clothing, fabric, housewares, artwork, and all manner of oddities — because many things were of better quality then.

This shop, and just about everything Topolski does, falls in line with her re-use mentality by encouraging others to give a second life to quality items, rather than supporting new manufacturing. Topolski is interested in growing her vintage business, and in "getting things to the right people, instead of things going into a landfill," she says.

click to enlarge Creations by Nancy. - PHOTO BY JOHN SCHLIA
  • Creations by Nancy.

Topolski also occasionally creates artistic window displays for Thread, which recently included a colorful, 40-pound skirt made of hundreds of her (now grown) children's small toys attached to a chicken-wire form. Her daughter subsequently wore the item during a Fashion Week runway event.

Other Thread displays have included a big painted-cardboard boat, with fishing poles sticking out of it, each bearing a fish made from patterned sweaters suspended on the lines, and a picnic scene overcome by swarms of bugs made from tons of Kodak slide film that Topolski found at an estate sale.

Nancy Topolski

Find Nancy Topolski's creations at Thread (654 South Avenue, 232-7110, and online at Her vintage offerings are at

Topolski will be one of three artists tabling at a craft fair at Joe Bean Coffee on Sunday, December 14.

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