Today we’re going to talk refashioning clothes, the ins and outs and whys. I get bored with my clothing. Doesn’t everyone? Sure, I’ve been wearing some classic pieces for years, but as styles change, my creativity bursts and I suddenly want new clothes. I like turning my wardrobe over and starting fresh. I like playing with fashion. There was a time in my life where I bought a lot of new clothes, but I can’t ethically and morally justify it knowing the true cost of fast fashion on the environment and the people who create it. And I can’t afford to buy lots of new ethically and sustainably made stuff either.
So, I remake my clothing. And it’s awesome. I get new clothes without spending money (usually) from old clothes. I always have new-to-me clothes. And the best part- I flex my creative muscles.
I’ve noticed though, over the few short months that I’ve operated this blog, that many of the most sustainably-minded people I know are scared shitless to mess with their clothing. For some reason, the fear of refashioning clothes and royally f*%#ing it up means that many people have closets full of clothes waiting to be freshly revamped, but instead, the clothes end up collecting dust for years before being tossed in a bag and schlepped off to the thrift store. Sound familiar?
That’s why today we’re going to demystify refashioning clothes for beginners. And all this week on Salvage & Stitch we’re going to focus on fashion. From clothing swaps to remaking your jeans to fit the latest style, I’ve got you covered this week. But first, in case there’s any confusion, let’s look at why you should consider remaking your clothes (or at least stop buying new ones!).
Fast Fashion = Major Suckage
I’m not telling you about any of this to shame you or make you feel bad, but you gotta face the facts: The average American throws away 81 pounds of clothing per year. IN THE GARBAGE. That’s 26 billion pounds of textiles that end up in the landfill every year. If you didn’t just spit your coffee all over your screen in horror you must teach me your stoic ways, because that number legitimately freaks me out. Sorry to start your blissful Tuesday off by talking about clothing waste. It’s no fun, but that number haunts me in my sleep.
Now that we’ve got that scary stuff out of the way, and you’ve repoured your coffee, let’s sit back and relax for story time. Once upon a time, I worked in retail. I was young, college-aged, and LOVED clothes. Because I didn’t grow up with a ton of access to new clothes, having an employee discount was like Christmas every day. I couldn’t wait to work retail in college. I shopped until I dropped, to quote an overused cliche. We even got free clothes because some of the retailers I worked for encouraged us to wear the clothing we were selling and would gift us merchandise.
My conscience was well and good until I took a new job in the stock room. It paid a little bit better than being on the floor, and it meant I didn’t have to talk to hundreds of people every day, which as an introvert was great. But that’s when I started seeing the clothing through new a lens. It was my job to unpack the boxes, individually unwrap the clothing, steam it, and put it on hangers to go out to the floor. Or fold it, or do whatever was required.
Each garment came wrapped in plastic. Once I found cockroaches at the bottom of a box. More times than not, we were shipped hundreds of the same item, and when fifty percent of the merchandise didn’t sell in a super sale, we’d package it up and ship it back to the company distributor. The distributor would then decide what to do with it. Some companies donate their new stuff to thrift stores, but more often they are destroyed or thrown away. We also regularly trashed the following items:
- Damaged clothing
- Mannequin accessories (you know, like the special shoes they wear)
- Last season’s promotional items
- Broken jewelry
Maybe it was being buried in the same shirt for too long only to see it thrown away, but working in fast fashion hurt my soul. For the first time in my life, I had access to all the clothing I ever wanted, but I felt disgusted by it. My job literally revolved around encouraging people to buy crap that they didn’t need and throwing crap away. Because I didn’t grow up with this buying mentality, it all felt extremely wasteful.
I love clothing, but I have a love-hate relationship with the fashion industry. On the one hand, I love how much creativity is generated by an industry that employs thousands of creatives. On the other hand, it hurts to see how much waste the industry generates. And don’t kid yourself into thinking that stuff biodegrades. Stuff in landfills biodegrades like never.
Fast fashion sucks for everyone who makes and sells our clothing at the bottom level.
I’ve never worked in a sweatshop, but from every documentary, photograph, and youtube video I’ve ever seen, it looks pretty crappy. The workers are paid pennies to sew cheap garments in horrendous working conditions with little regard to their health or well-being. When the workers start to organize the company just ups and moves their factory to another country with cheap labor, leaving communities just as poor as they were before the factory arrived. Oh yeah, and thanks to human trafficking, some of the workers aren’t even paid at all! Pretty horrible right?
Sweatshops produce a crazy amount of waste. The dyes released into waterways from factories turn rivers electric blue and make the water undrinkable. The chemicals released into the water make local people sick, make it impossible to farm, and if that’s not enough to disgust you, the chemicals contribute to birth defects. The toxic chemicals unleashed onto the clothing to make it stain resistant or color safe add to the health problems experienced by the workers.
Then there’s retail. Take it from me, retail workers are poorly paid, poorly treated, broke, and stressed out. Working retail requires you to be a model, a customer service rep, a sales rep, a therapist, and a maid in one job, and usually pays $7-$9 per hour before taxes. Sure, you can make way more if you find a job with a commission, but it’s very stressful and you’re basically competing against your coworkers for your paycheck. And they will totally fire you if you don’t make your sales quota, I’ve seen it happen. Customers treat you like garbage and you’re expected to smile and thank them. Sexual harassment from customers, managers, and other employees happens on the regular. And you have to stand for hours at a time, sometimes in heels.
I don’t mean to shit all over retail. I had some bad experiences working retail, but I also had some positive ones and I met some interesting people. I’m thankful that I worked jobs that gave me the awareness that I have today, especially around fast fashion. Some people also love it and make a career from it. But it’s definitely an industry that needs a lot of improvement for workers.
How Can We Fight Fast Fashion?
There are so many fantastic ways to individually combat the fast fashion cycle: thrifting, clothing swaps, vintage shopping, repairing your shoes and clothing, and investing in locally made clothing. You can also buy ethical and/or sustainably made fashion. But refashioning clothes is my favorite method. I remake everything from shoes to underwear, skirts and shirts, and dresses. Jeans aren’t even safe in my household, I remake those too.
As mentioned, I’ve noticed that most people get really freaked out at the prospect of refashioning clothes. They think you need professional sewing skills to do it. To be fair, I have worked as a professional seamstress and I’ve been sewing since before I could read, so this stuff doesn’t scare me one bit. But, you don’t even need to own a sewing machine to do most quick clothing refashions. If you have access to glue and can sew on a button, you can refashion. I mean, check out these shoes I remade. No sewing involved!
To me, all clothing has potential, as long as I like the material. Some stuff, I don’t remake on principle. If I like a jacket but think it would work better for my friend, I’m more likely to pass it along. But if I think I can remake it and I have a project in mind, you better believe I’m going to try. Everything in this image I’ve remade at least once:
The jacket I purchased in 2009, and in 2013 I bleached it. For the purse, I lengthened the strap by adding some braided cotton rope. The hat, I change out the band as needed. None of these refashion projects required sewing, but they all ended up pretty nice.
Some stuff doesn’t require a ton of work, just a quick adjustment like this black velvet Esprit dress I scored at a local vintage shop. I took up the shoulders half an inch because it gapped in the back, and now it’s perfect. I did this by hand, by the way, without a sewing machine.
And for more refashion inspiration, here’s a little collection of tutorials and pieces I’ve already added to this blog. Some of these tutorials are super easy, even if you’ve barely used your sewing machine before.
How To Get Started Refashioning Clothes
Whether you’re a skilled seamstress or a complete beginner, I find these tools 100% necessary to have in your remaking arsenal:
- Fabric scissors
- Fabric glue
- A Glue gun and glue sticks
- Needles and thread
- Straight pins
- Safety pins
- A flexible tape measurer
- A ruler
You probably have half this stuff at home already. Pretty cool huh?
Find your clothes
Next, you’re going to want to go through your wardrobe and find all the clothing that you hate, that you never wear, and that you just wish was different. Separate it out into piles of:
- Potential (my favorite)
The “potential” pile will be all the stuff you plan to remake. Maybe you like the fabric of a blouse, but hate the cut. Maybe you finally those old jeans should be shorts. Awesome. What about those sandles? They need a ribbon.
I keep all of my “potentials” in a basket near my sewing machine. I try refashioning clothes in the basket relatively quickly because I’m not into my clothes sitting around not getting worn. But some stuff I’ll save and reuse years down the line.
Pro Tip: Make a Plan
Never remake something without a plan, that’s how mistakes happen. Whether you draw your plan up or write it down, have some kind of roadmap before you just go in and start chopping up your clothing.
But be adventurous! That’s how you learn. I didn’t learn how to be a good seamstress by holding back and shivering as I held my scissors. I’ve epically screwed up some clothing. Like, horrendously. That’s actually how I got so good at clothing repair, fixing the mistakes that I’d made after getting too excited.
If you really mess something up, you can always turn your screwed up piece into a rag, or even better: remake it into something else AGAIN.
Do I Need A Sewing Machine?
I remade clothes for 2 years in college without a sewing machine. My machine was in California at my mom’s house, and I was in Massachusetts. So no, you don’t need a sewing machine, but it helps. Here’s why: Sewing machines make sewing faster, easier, and more durable. You open yourself up to a lot more remaking potential with a sewing machine.
Most people jump into buying a sewing machine by googling the best brands and spending a boatload of money on a designer machine only to realize they have no idea how to use it. Overwhelmed, they sell it or donate it, convinced that sewing is hard. Before you do that, I suggest you check Craigslist, garage sales, and/or thrift stores for an older used machine. If it has the manual, even better, though you can probably order the manual from the maker. Make sure the machine works and can at least perform a zig-zag stitch. Then hand the seller your money and rejoice because this is the only machine you’ll really need.
I own two sewing machines: a new Singer and an old Kenmore. I learned on the Kenmore and I still use it for 90% of all my sewing projects. It’s the sewing machine in the photo above, and you can see that it’s been through some times! I take it periodically to get cleaned and have maintenance done. Bottom line: a good machine will last you for life.
The same rule applies for a serger: My serger is ancient, but it runs fine. Many people don’t enjoy threading sergers and will tell you that the only way to avoid a mountain of frustration is to buy a new serger. While my serger can be a pain to thread, it’s really not that bad. I don’t change out the thread colors that often.
What are you waiting for? Go raid that closet!
Now that we’ve covered some basics, go raid your closet and get creative refashioning clothes you already own. You can use the tutorials that I’ve linked to on this post or on my site, or get on Pinterest for some inspiration. Also, if you want a peek into what inspires me daily or what I might remake, follow me on Pinterest.
And if you run into any trouble, let me know and I’ll try to help you out. Cut into something at the wrong spot? Got too crazy with a glue gun? We can solve it together.
And finally, what are some things in your wardrobe that you plan on remaking?