My first foray into upcycling (sometimes called refashioning, repurposing or recycling) was my great-grandma’s antique sewing table. I loved its curvy legs and hand-carved edging, but the top was an unseemly mass of scratches. Inspired one day, I covered it with a cut-up poster (mosaic-style) that had once hung in my college dorm room and shellacked the whole thing for an antique look. Voila: a totally unique and beautiful piece that’s still in my kitchen today, years later. I’ve also converted a rarely worn H&M jacket into a vest to keep up with the urban safari trend, and created a charm bracelet out of a boring bangle and solo earrings. Each time I felt accomplished—that I had created something nobody else had.
From high-end stores like Barneys, which turned donated denim into designer fashions (this year, Gap is launching a similar initiative) to the veteran do-it-yourselfers on the craft site Etsy, old stuff is being made new everywhere you look.
Designers in Refashion
Ashley Watson founded her now-booming handbag business on the reuse concept. Utilizing vintage leather jackets, Watson makes her one-of-a-kind bags using inspiration from the lines, wear patterns, zippers and pockets original to the coats. There are purple-seamed saddle bags, perfectly worn-in brown leather duffels and unique clutches. Watson says she finds that previously loved textiles have a life all their own. “There is something really beautiful about a new piece having an inherent history that you just don’t get from new materials,“ she says.
Orsola De Castro, the founder and curator of London Fashion Week’s Esthetica sustainable showcase and the designer behind the label From Somewhere, has been reusing “factory second” fabrics (high-quality conventional textiles from large design houses that would normally be sent to landfills) in her designs since 1997. Most recently, she’s partnered with Speedo to upcycle unused swimsuit material into evening dresses and blouses, including remnants from the LZR full-body Racing Suit, worn by Michael Phelps and other world record-breaking swimmers during the 2008 Summer Olympics. “We’re using not just their unsold swimwear, but some of their waste at source, damaged rolls, and fabrics from obsolete lines,” Ornella says.
“The [result] is very hot cocktail wear.”
One of a Kind
There are also companies that will help you refashion your own cast-offs, even if you’re not the crafty type. Resole America began as a California company of “85 hippies working two shifts a day” resoling tennis shoes, according to the president of the company, John Bradley. Today, Resole has repaired the soles of all kinds of kicks, like casual, outdoor, western, dress, salsa/dance and sandals. “It was primarily just a fascination with keeping old faves on the road,” says Bradley. Visitors to the website can check out the styles they fix, print out a UPS label, and have their refurbished shoes back in 10 business days or less.
Meanwhile, Alabama Chanin’s cadre of seamstresses across the American South create couture pieces from discarded T-shirts and cotton fabrics. They also carry a line of housewares (cane-back chairs are turned to denim-backed chairs), making the case that almost anything can be created from what’s left behind.
Sweater to a Scarf, Sans Knitting!
Through felting, you can morph an old sweater into a scarf. “The felting process shrinks the knitting and changes the structure from knit stitch to a dense piece of fabric you can cut into,” explains Leigh Radford, author of Alterknits Felt (STC Craft), who gave the directions below.
1. Choose a machine-knit 100% wool sweater that’s non-machine washable (check the label).
2. Use a washing machine (top loaders are best) to felt the sweater. Choose the lowest water level possible, add 1 tablespoon of laundry detergent and set to agitate with hot water. You may have to run it through the agitation cycle twice. Do it until the visible stitches become a solid piece of fabric, then let it run through the rest of the wash cycle.
3. Throw it in the dryer for a regular drying cycle or let it air dry.
4. Once dry, you can cut it like any fabric: Decide on the width of your scarf, then cut panels. You can make it as long as you like by sewing lengths together (try a zig-zag stitch) and try scalloping the edges. Leave some of the visible characteristics, like ribbing and pockets, for added character.