Tag Archives: repurpose

Diamonds in the Rough

1 Jul
Journals made with recycled wool sweaters

Journals made with recycled wool sweaters

I’m a big fan of reusing old materials to make something new. There is a special sort of satisfaction that comes from taking something ugly or worn or useless and turning it into something lovely and useful.

Thrift stores are always an excellent stand in for a fabric store, offering heaps of wool, cashmere, and cute cotton prints, not to mention buttons and trim. Shopping the clothing aisles for fabric rather than for garments opens up a world of possibilities. Nevermind that a shirt or dress is three sizes too small and has an unfortunate stain when it’s only the fabric you’re after.

From felted sweater journals to recycled wine bottle drinking glasses to baby clothes cut from old t-shirts, I have conjured up many a new item from someone else’s cast off. Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks about what to look for when scouring for materials, and the best ways to get the most out of items to be reused. I hope that some of these might be helpful.

1. Look Past the Ugliness. It is a totally different ballgame sifting through garage sales, giveaway boxes, and thrift stores for materials rather than for actual products. With an eye on the potential of the pieces rather than the whole, you can look past the terribly unflattering cut of that outdated dress, or the water stained pages of a cookbook, or the missing buttons. As an avid reader, I have always scoffed at the volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that seem to line the shelves of nearly every flea market and library book sale. But underneath the faded dust jackets advertising the shortened classics, many of these book covers have fantastic patterns reminiscent of victorian wallpaper, which make great covers for journals.

2. Zippers are never worth it. At a couple bucks each, new zippers certainly don’t come cheap, but I have not found it to be worth it to start pulling zippers out of old clothing items. First of all, the amount of time and labor required to painstakingly rip out the two to three rows of stitches holding a zipper is exorbitant. Secondly, zippers are somewhat delicate creatures, and will seldom stand up to a second life, particularly the ones with nylon or plastic teeth. Instead, I keep an eye out for zippers on sale and on clearance racks, and have occasionally found unused zippers in grab bags of sewing notions from thrift stores and garage sales.

3. All of the other notions are totally worth it. Buttons are easily removable and always worth saving. Easily half of the contents of my button jar came off of clothing items that I cut apart to use for something else. Sometimes I’ll pull off a snap, hook n eye, or other closure if it comes off easily, or is in some way unique. Embellishments can be reattached elsewhere, along with ribbons and rick-rack.

4. Shop in the dress aisle, but otherwise head for the men’s department. When hunting for fabric, steer towards the men’s department for larger pieces. A men’s buttondown will give you a whole lot more fabric than one from the women’s department, thanks to the boxier cut of most men’s shirts, as well as the larger sizes available. Also keep in mind that women’s shirts and jackets are more likely to be tailored with darts and princess seams, that could end up right in the middle of a piece you want to use. However, if it is printed fabrics you are after, head to the skirt and dress aisle, or maybe the children’s department. Just keep an eye on where seams are, and how much of the garment will actually be useable.

5. Look for Wool in March. Even thrift stores have sales, and they, along with closet-cleaning friends and family, will be most eager to get rid of wool, cashmere, fur, and shearling at the end of winter. These are some of my favorite materials to work with, and can often be a little pricier than other materials.

6. Use what’s already there. When cutting garments or other pieces from old clothing items, reuse seams and hems when possible. In the last year, I’ve made dozens and dozens of t-shirts for children cut from old adult shirts. With careful placement of the pattern pieces, I can save the trouble of hemming the shirts, and particularly the tiny sleeves. Plus the professionally made t-shirts typically come with much nicer hem stitching than my machine is capable of. Always save the rib knit used on the collars of t-shirts, and the shirt sleeves of ringer t’s. You will be able to quickly build up a selection of multicolored options for your own knit projects.

Original T-shirt hem reused for elastic casing

Original T-shirt hem reused for elastic casing

Infant Sleep Sack made from Man's T-shirt

Infant Sleep Sack made from Man’s T-shirt                               












I hope that if nothing else this list may help you to see new possibilities when you look at a rack of clothes in outdated fashions or several sizes too small.