I’ve enjoyed thrift shops, garage sales, and swap meets for a long time. I do like a good bargain; I’m also a scientist who has some environmentalist instincts. And I like crafts! So it’s likely no surprise that I eventually found my way into upcycling/refashioning.
(I am an early-career academic. I’ve spent most of the last decade based in Toronto, but there was also a year of field research in the Pacific Northwest. This blog is purely a spare-time project and has nothing to do with my day job.)
I began knitting in 2008 and sewing in 2011. At the moment, according to my best estimates, I knit at an advanced level and sew at an intermediate one. Good yarn and good fabric tend to be expensive, which means that I’m reluctant to spend a lot of money on them in the first place and then get timid about using them when I do purchase them. For a while this was something of an impediment to my sense of adventurousness in crafting, and that was a problem. Partway through 2011, I began buying old sweaters and recycling the yarn for knitting projects. It didn’t take long for me to work out that one could do the same with pretty much anything made out of fabric.
Experience suggests that I like following knitting patterns and not following sewing patterns. One of the funny results of this is that my knitting terminology (at least in American English) is likely to be accurate and transparent, and my sewing terminology (in any language) is likely to be incomplete, opaque, idiosyncratic, and otherwise irritating to experts. (I intend this more as a disclaimer than anything else. But I’m happy to be corrected if you’re happy to take a minute to instruct.) Essentially, I learned to knit by dutifully following one pattern after another, at increasing levels of difficulty, until I was better at it. Whereas now I’m learning to sew by messing around. And by reading other people’s blogs. My skills are gradually increasing.
My interest in textiles ended up being a bit of an accident, or at least a side-effect. If anything, it all ultimately stems not so much from artistic instincts but from a deep love of mathematics, especially geometry. This means that my knowledge of the fashion industry is laughably minimal. I do have well-developed ideas about my own taste in clothing, but I tend to be mostly unaware of trends. I’m also not much of a visual artist; I do some digital art here and there, but not spontaneously or often. My goal here isn’t to break new ground in design, or lay the groundwork for a future Etsy shop (as far as I know, anyway); it’s just to make stuff I really want to wear, on a budget. Preferably while keeping old unwanted things from going into the garbage.
If you’re curious, here are my general rules for hunting for materials (while digging through the thrift shop, or the piles at clothing swaps):
- Ideally, I want most or all of a project to come from upcycled materials. ‘I made this out of a top, two scarves, and a pillowcase’ far outranks ‘I made this mostly out of a top, but I also had to buy twill-tape and buttons and interfacing and a couple of metres of a contrast fabric’. In other words, I’m allowed to run to the fabric shop and buy twill-tape and buttons and fusible interfacing and a couple of metres of a contrast fabric, but before I do that, I should ensure that I don’t already have something in my stash that would work.
- I typically don’t buy fabric or clothing if I don’t have a sense of the fibre content; I much prefer to know what it is I’m working with. I also avoid animal fibres, mostly because (with the exception of silk) my skin doesn’t get along with them well.
- I don’t buy plus-size clothes simply to harvest the fabric. I feel that people with different body shapes should have equal access to clothes they like. My proportions, at least at the moment, correspond to a U.S. size 4 or 6, and my figure has a pretty classic shape. In other words, I don’t have any trouble finding lots of clothes that fit. Lots. This is a distinct advantage conferred on me by chance; the flip-side is that it’s already harder for plus-size people to find a good range. I’m very eager not to make it even more difficult by removing things from plus-size circulation and cutting them up. Exceptions only for items that are damaged and/or getting thrown out.
- If an item in its intact state strikes me as special or valuable or interesting, I often leave it for a while to make sure no one else loves it exactly as it is. That takes precedence over whatever I want to do with it. If a clothing swap is ending and still no one else wants an item I’m interested in, then I can grab it, but not before.
- I have no qualms about reinventing handmade clothes made by sewing, but – even when the fibre content is stated or obvious – I usually avoid unravelling things that were knit or crocheted by hand. Even if the item is unwanted, I can see the minimum number of stitches and/or hours that went into something that was handmade out of yarn. That makes me very eager not to undo it.
To be clear, upcycled clothes are not the only items in my wardrobe. I do buy lots of clothes used and alter them slightly before wearing them, but I generally don’t bother chronicling those little changes here; they’re too trivial. This blog is devoted to the real adventures: the times where I’ve thoroughly overhauled an item, or jumped in to disassemble a garment without a good sense of what it might turn into, or both. Basically, I’m fascinated by old, worn things turning into exciting new things. I enjoy getting ideas for these exciting new things based on constraints inherent in the original items (textile types, amount of material, colours, etc.). All this means I will very happily read refashion blogs, and occasionally even start one myself.