Sarah Bird's home studio is so alive with color it's hard to believe she had to resuscitate each and every hue in the rainbow.
Shelves overflow with a color wheel's worth of old wool and cashmere sweaters that Bird felted in a washing machine so she can cut and sew them into one-of-a-kind hats, scarves, slippers, baby booties or, perhaps, a flower-shaped brooch or hair clip.
The delightful wearable objects are second-chance art. Each sweater was a castoff, discarded by America's throw-away society. Bird, a self-taught fiber artist and stay-at-home mother of two sons, bought some of them at thrift stores or garage sales. Most, however, came straight from what she calls "the bottom of the textile food chain."
Every so often, Bird hops in her car and drives solo for about 250 miles to the geographic heart of the American rag trade. She parks at a huge warehouse along the Mexican border in Laredo, where bright yellow Bobcats beep and lurch amid one-ton bundles of excess clothing from thrift shops. The clothing is sorted according to fiber and style for destinations in developing worlds.
But plenty of clothing is deemed worthless for trade, even at pennies per pound. Bird picks through this trash pile.
"It's a huge mountain of clothing," she says. "It's hard work. It's not for the faint of heart."
She brings as much as 80 pounds of clothing back to her solar-powered home in Central Austin, washes it with petroleum-free, biodegradable detergent and tumbles it dry, usually at a laundromat.
Bird goes to the border by herself because her husband, Chris Purkiss, is a full-time special education teacher, and most people she knows don't share her enthusiasm for garbage bin diving.
"I'm a salvager," she says at her kitchen table while wearing a cabled vermilion sweater rescued from a thrift store. "I used to Dumpster-dive incessantly. I would take people on Dumpster-diving tours."
She might be the only University of Texas graduate with a degree in biology and a master's in business administration who uses a new bread machine resurrected from the trash behind an upscale cookware store.
This year, Bird is one of 13 new artists invited to be part of Austin's cherished Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. The show runs from Dec. 11-24 at the Austin Convention Center. Her recycled textile designs have been featured in other local holiday fairs for the past few years, but the Armadillo is her only show this year.
She also has a Web-based store on etsy.com to sell the reconstructed clothing and accessories.
She's too busy to go to a coffee shop at this time of year, so she drinks a banana and yogurt smoothie made by her husband.
The long-time producer of the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar sought out Bird. Bruce Willenzik, who put on the first Armadillo bazaar in 1976 and continues in that job today, said Bird's has a growing reputation as an exceptional artist creating quality work.
"We kind of put the word out in the art community that we were looking for up-and-coming fresh talent creating a stir in Austin," he said. "We heard she was the one to look for.
"We love her attitude. She's just fun to work with," he said.
"We all struggle in life, but it comes out in making us better artists. It makes us more creative. If you have no adversity in life, you don't learn creativity. She's one of those people who just rises above.''
In 1993, Bird and her then 2-month-old son Mason were leaving a thrift store in the heart of the Sixth Street entertainment district when they were struck by a car in a crosswalk. Bird was hospitalized for a few days but Mason suffered severe head trauma.
Mason, now 16, cannot walk or talk because his brain injuries resulted in severe cerebral palsy. He lives at home, attends Rosedale School for special education and requires 24-hour nursing care, which is provided by a care team paid through state and federal programs for people with disabilities.
Bird's art "is sort of my sanity, my happiness," she says. "My studio is my happy escape zone."
Her small backyard studio, snug against a fenced area with 10 chickens, has windows that face the back of the family's house. She can sit at her sewing machines and see Mason, whose tall bed faces a large window. Her youngest son, Wyeth, a second-grader with very good penmanship, often comes to the studio to visit and play.
Bird, 42, grew up in Tulsa, Okla., and studied one year at Brown University before dropping out to work in a leprosy clinic in a remote area of Liberia for 18 months. In 1989, she moved to Austin (and soon was mistaken for Austin's other Sarah Bird, the acclaimed novelist and humor writer).
Bird landed in a neighborhood east of the University of Texas, where an unreconstructed hippie neighbor taught her about treasure hunting in trash bins behind expensive stores.
"I was feeling scandalized by how much we waste when I came home from Africa," she says.
She focused her interest in castoff textiles into making wool rugs. About six years ago, on a lark, she cut and sewed some felted sweaters into whimsical hats for her nieces as Christmas gifts. Her proud husband took them to school to show them off and came home with a message:
"Guess what? I sold those and I need you to make 15 more!"
"It's kind of grown from there," Bird says.
She considered growing her textile art into a larger business by supplying retail stores with a steady supply of wearable art. She knows how to make that move with her MBA skills. But taking that step would have taken away the joy of art, she says.
For now, she'd rather percolate plans to take the tiny scraps of wool and cashmere left over from her garments and figure out how to agitate and return them to raw fiber so she can make felted wall hangings.
In Sarah Bird's world, sheep and cashmere goats just keep on giving.