New Threads From Old

ASG member Julie Livingstone tells us what inspires her to re-fashion clothing and how she approaches the task.

I’ve recently been exploring the idea of making new clothes from other people’s cast offs. This was encouraged by the Castaway to Couture contest first run in 2015 by the Australian Sewing Guild, but I had already completed a few projects before then.

There is obviously an ethical reason for this practice, sustainability and all that, but to be honest I find it just fun! There is a challenge in seeing how inspired I can be by limited resources, and flexing those creative muscles is exhilarating and rewarding.

To start, I usually go op-shopping, but I’m not looking for clothes. I’m looking at fabrics, prints, colours, textures, interesting design or construction details, anything that catches my eye as I browse the racks. What the original garment is doesn’t really matter, it might be a man’s business shirt or a child’s dress so long as there is something appealing about it, and that something could be as simple as some attractive or unusual buttons. One bonus of this is that when I find a dress in a really lovely fabric, it doesn’t matter if it’s only a size 8, I can buy it anyway and eke out the fabric with others.

If I find a garment I really love, but which has a hole, stain or other blemish, then I might still buy it, I only need to think about how to work around the imperfection. There might be enough fabric anyway, or I might be able to hide the hole somehow. However, I wouldn’t use parts of a garment which were in very bad condition; I don’t want to put effort into something which might fall to pieces quickly because the fabric was just plain worn out. The exception is denim, which in my opinion looks better with age, but I would probably patch the worn bits somehow.

Once I have something that appeals to me, I’ll look for other garments to go with it. Again, looking only at colour, print and fabric. I’ll usually try and stick with similar weight and type of fabrics, so woven with woven, stretch with stretch, denim with denim and so on, but not always. I’m looking for complimentary colours (not complimentary necessarily in the colour wheel sense, they could be toning or contrasting) and prints that have something in common with the first item.

I’ve referenced a couple of articles and a book at the end of this piece, which go into more detail about what I’m looking for.

In one article Loes Hinse talks about speaking and non-speaking fabrics, although I think of this in terms of speaking and listening. Speaking fabrics are strong patterns or colours, listening ones are more muted. However this is relative, the same fabric might be listening when paired with a more flamboyant one, but become a speaking fabric when paired with a muted solid colour. She suggests buying fabric in groups of three, one speaking fabric to two listening ones. For recycling projects I would extend that to four or five garments, depending on how much fabric you need, but it’s still a good idea to have one or two speaking fabrics and some listening in any one garment.

Kenneth D King in another article also talks about combining fabrics, with a graded system of distributions. The first is monochromatic, then there are various combinations of prints with plains or subordinate fabrics, and also fabrics with a common theme, such as stripes or checks. One thing to consider, whether you are making garments for yourself or somebody else, is the wearer’s ‘flamboyance quotient’. How much are you or they happy to stand out from the crowd? It’s possible to make clothes out of recycled garments in a way that nobody will know about except you, it just means being more discriminating in your choice of donor garments, but if you go all out with colour or print and contrast, you will be noticed!

Generally I’ll choose three or four garments, it depends how big they are and what I am going to make. I have to consider how much fabric I can harvest from the donor garments, and how much I will need to make my new garment. I mostly use commercial patterns for my projects, and a design with a number of small pattern pieces makes it easier to cut out the garment. If the pieces of the old clothes aren’t big enough then I will piece them together, this can be done pretty nearly invisibly, or you might want to make a feature out of the join. I try to avoid too much piecing though, as I think that leads to a garment which looks like patchwork. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the effect I’m after!

Once I have my donor garments, and a pattern, the design process starts. I will look at which bits of the old clothes I want to use, any construction details such as pockets and collars, and plan which fabrics I will use for each part of the new garment. I cut apart the old garments, if necessary unpicking any parts I want to salvage. I don’t throw any bits away at this stage; you never know what might end up being used. I press all the pieces, and roughly allocate all the pattern pieces to fabric pieces, making sure that I have enough, and thinking about where I place the fabrics that stand out, either because of print or colour. I’ll also look at where I can add any design details I’ve salvaged. I might use them in a practical way, using the original pockets in the new garment for example, or just as decoration. I like to do this as it pays homage to the original garments that I’ve used and adds interest to the new one. I’ll even use something small like a label if it’s interesting enough. One example of this is my entry in Castaway to Couture for 2017. The pants I used had a tape stitched all the way around the inside of the waistband. Woven into the tape was the name of a very well-known store in Knightsbridge, so the whole waistband became part of the new jacket, complete with ‘Harrods’ all around it.

Once I’ve decided on my layout, cutting out and construction is pretty standard. Making garments from odd pieces does have a few challenges, but usually nothing insurmountable. By the time I start sewing I usually have a pretty good idea of how the finished garment is going to look, but I’ll make changes as I go along if I think I can improve the end result. When I come to a challenging part of the construction I stop and think about how I want the finished article to look, then figure out a way of achieving that, even if it isn’t the conventional way.

If I’ve chosen some fabrics which are much lighter in weight than the rest, I might underline them with something to compensate, I find that old and much-laundered sheets are good for this. I don’t worry too much about grain lines, which sounds sacrilegious, but I mean that I would use cross and lengthwise grain interchangeably. I try hard to avoid cutting off grain as it does interfere with the way the garment hangs. Sometimes a design decision might need to be made as to colour of thread, if you are stitching together two fabrics, one of which is blue and the other green, which thread do you choose? I might use just one colour throughout, and make it a feature, or swap colours as I work.

Finally, once the project is finished, I’ll wear it with satisfaction. I’m not going to meet somebody else wearing the same thing!

And even after finally, remember, there are no rules!

See more of my work on Facebook, Perth Hills Sewing

© Julie Livingstone 2017


Article by Kenneth D King, Threads magazine issue # 188
Article by Lois Hinse, Threads magazine issue # 110
Wearable Art for Real People by Mary Mashuta, published by C & T Publishing, 1989