Save money, save the planet, express yourself

Posted: Sunday, December 05, 2010

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on local textile recycling. Part one appeared in the Empire on Nov. 14.

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Libby Sterling / Capital City Weekly File
Libby Sterling / Capital City Weekly File

On a quest to explore the various ways of recycling clothing and textiles, the first article in this series introduced the concept of refashioning clothes as a way to remake old clothes into new clothes. Refashioning is not a new concept, but lately more people are finding creative and frugal ways to be in style without buying cheap, mass-produced clothing each season. In this article, two Juneauites and one Michigander offer their stories about refashioning.

Alteration value

While traveling in Michigan this fall, I met Katie Wise, a recent graduate of Kalamazoo College who uses her sewing skills to save money and reduce her ecological footprint.

"I don't like to see textiles wasted when you can get so much use out of them," Wise said. "By restyling clothing, you acknowledge that clothing has value."

In her closet, Wise displayed a dress she sewed out of an old curtain and a stylish jean skirt made from an old pair of jeans. Her current project involves updating a shoulder-padded '80s suit into a sleek business jacket.

"It's amazing how you can turn something horribly ugly into something fashionable," Wise commented.

In Juneau, thrift shop enthusiasts Temple Schneeberger and April Rebert couldn't agree more.

"Ninety-eight percent of what I wear is either secondhand or refashioned old clothing," said Schneeberger.

The two friends point to another reason for refashioning.

"When you buy new clothes, you don't know if the person who made it received a fair wage or good working conditions. It might have been made by a child or in a sweatshop somewhere," remarked Rebert.

"When you transform clothes or repair old clothes, it's a better deal for everyone," Schneeberger added.

From the economical point of view, the benefits of secondhand and refashioned clothing are a budget bonus.

"Why by a $30 shirt new when I can go to the thrift store and get a perfectly good one for $1?" asks Rebert.

"You can buy good quality clothes and still save enough money to pay your bills, pay rent and stay out or get out of debt," pointed out Schneeberger.

For instance, an elegant black evening top cost Schneeberger $1 at the Salvation Army. Since it was several sizes too small, she "removed the side panels and sewed them closer to the edge, which only took 15 minutes." Schneeberger also worked her magic with a $2 wool coat with sleeves that were too short. She unhemmed the sleeves and moved the buttons forward to better fit her body.

"It took 30 minutes, but it was well worth the time. I've worn this jacket for two years now," she said.

Schneeberger said such alterations are easy for anyone to learn.

"You just need to know how to take out a seam and sew a straight stitch with a machine," she said.

Thread's impact

In Michigan, Wise cites environmental concerns as another reason she refashions. The raw materials for most cotton and soy fabrics come from plants whose seeds have been genetically modified. The plants also require significant amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, which add to their environmental and human impact. Synthetic textiles are usually petroleum-based products. Even so-called "eco-friendly" textiles that are made from natural fibers, such as bamboo, have been processed in a chemical bath to make them soft and wearable.

"Cashmere, which is popular now, is destructive to places like Mongolia, where goat farms are stripping the soil in already ecologically marginal land," said Wise.

By learning where the raw materials for clothing come from, consumers can make decisions that can reduce the ecological impact of the clothes that they wear.

"For someone who can't afford to buy organic cotton or high-end wool products, the next best thing someone can do is opt out of buying things new," said Wise. "Simply wear the things you have as long as you can, or buy used things and make them work for you."

Wise herself has not needed to purchase new clothes in six years. Similar to Schneeberger, her clothes are repurposed old clothes or refashioned thrift-store purchases.

In the past, designers made high quality clothes that could be worn for years, even decades with proper care. Today, clothing is designed be purchased on impulse and worn for a short time before it goes out of style or becomes quickly worn out. Depending on a person's body type, the clothing may not fit properly either.

Back in Juneau, Rebert believes that true fashion involves the participation of the wearer.

"Every time you buy something at the store, some designer somewhere is doing the designing for you," she said. "When you go to the thrift store or refashion clothing, you're the creator and you decide what's right for you."

For Schneeberger, "It's fun to use fashion magazines like Vogue as inspiration. You can alter things you find at the thrift store to make it look like it came off the runway."

Speaking of runway, one of Schneeberger's repurposed creations was featured on the catwalk at Juneau's annual Wearable Art show - an evening gown made out of rags.

Even people who don't own a sewing machine can try their hand at recycling and restyling clothing.

"Instead of throwing clothes out, save them and then get together with other people for a clothing exchange party," suggested Rebert.

The long, dark winter nights are also a great time to get together with other people for craft nights.

"If you know someone who does have a sewing machine, get a group of friends together and do a potluck/crafty night," Schneeberger said. "It's a fun way to get a project done while hanging out with great people."

In Michigan, Wise reflected on her experiences.

"Refashioning is a way of giving new life to the clothes that you already have and of rethinking the role of clothing in your life."

• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau. She can be contacted at Lisa Davidson, Jim Penor and Kathy Ward contributed to research for this article. Refashioning experts from near and far share their stories

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