Going Full Circle
Designers Transform Used Garments into One-of-a Kind-Pieces
By Kim Anderson
On almost every clothing recycling bin, the dreary statistic is in plain view—”the average American throws out 70 pounds of clothing every year and a staggering 85% will end up in a landfill.” These disturbing figures have spurred a resolution among some to find creative ways to avoid discarding clothes. The phenomenon is happening on a cottage industry level and extends all the way up the ladder to some of the largest and most successful apparel companies.
Extending the life of a garment which has been relegated to the trash is not a new idea. In fact, it goes by several names—repurposing, upscaling, reusing, reconstructing, etc. The main premise is to take a used garment which is believed to have finished its life cycle and repurpose it into something usable. A select few are taking it a step further—quietly sneaking the ridden hard garment back into the spotlight and making it into a fashionable one-of-a-kind piece.
Eileen Fisher is not a newcomer to rescuing garments headed to the landfill. They are celebrating their 10-year campaign of the Resewn Collection. The company creates one- of-a-kind pieces out of damaged Eileen Fisher clothes.
They make it easy for customers to recycle clothing with drop offs at all of their retail stores. The items can also be shipped directly to one of their recycling centers. They give incentives by offering customers $5 in recycling rewards for each donated item.
At the store in Irvington, NY, USA, recycled clothes are either cleaned and resold as is, or mended, and sometimes completely deconstructed if they are damaged beyond repair.
Clothes at the Store in Irvington, NY Waiting to be Evaluated, Courtesy of Eileen Fisher
The beginning of Alabama Chanin took a circuitous route. One night in NYC, Natalie Chanin was invited to a fashion party. With not a lot of expendable income, but with a good deal of ingenuity, she took a t-shirt, cut it apart, reshaped it, and sewed it back together. After a positive reception, she had a vision—she wanted to see more one-of-a-kind t-shirts. After pitching her idea unsuccessfully to a few New York manufacturers, she had an epiphany—the stitch she used to sew the shirt together was a quilting stitch just like her grandmother used to sew. So, she headed home to Florence Alabama.
The Wrap Scarf, Courtesy of Alabama Chanin
In its infancy, the company, Project Alabama, created one-of-a-kind t-shirts just like the one Chanin had improvised in her hotel room—removing the neckline and sleeves, changing the hemline and hand sewing it back together with a running or quilting stitch. However, deconstructing and reconstructing existing t-shirts came with limitations.
Still in keeping with the one-of-a-kind mantra, Chanin began a cottage industry of hand sewn garments. Jess Turner, Studio Coordinator, explained how their current business works. When an order is placed, the garment is cut out in-house and packaged with all the supplies needed to complete the garment. The package is bid on by local seamstresses. Once they have won the bid, they purchase the package and a time frame is agreed upon. When the garments are complete, Alabama Chanin buys them back.
Turner explains that every piece is still one-of-a-kind because every gifted artisan’s hand is different—so although they might look similar, they are in fact very different. Turner notes that these incredibly gifted women, who sew the garments together by hand, are independent contractors who have their own business license.
Alabama Chanin has also recently begun a joint project with Patagonia’s Worn Wear Program. Turner says it is a delight to have an affiliation with them. Alabama Chanin up-cycles Patagonia’s recycled down-filled garments into beautiful wraps and scarves by sewing the pieces back together and incorporating organic cotton in the pockets.
The joint effort between the two is extending the lifecycle of each used garment so it can be worn for many more years.
Beyond Retro opened its doors in 2002, in East London, as a retail store focused on vintage clothes sourced from around the world. Beyond Retro has grown to include 13 retail stores scattered across the UK and Sweden, as well as an e-commerce site. They also offer an apparel line made entirely from secondhand fabrics, trims, and hardware.
So how do they accomplish this herculean task? Beyond Retro’s eagle-eyed “pickers” salvage diamonds in the rough from “raghouses” around the world. They pay special attention to color, size, fit, quality, and label. Sorters file through 93 million pounds of clothes per year—only 1 in 1000 garments will be chosen.
Organizing these treasures appears to be a daunting task; however, specially-developed software tracks each unique item that arrives at the facility and documents trend, decade, size, style, and source, among other pieces of data.
Once garments are found and organized, they “deconstruct to reconstruct.” With scissors and seam rippers, they are cropped, chopped, and tapered to make them more modern. Designers stay abreast of the latest fashions, which enables them to expertly transform and update yesterday’s styles into edgy one-of-a-kind pieces.
Tweed Sweater Made with Recycled Material, Courtesy of Antiform
While studying fashion at Leeds College of Art, Lizzie Harrison became acutely aware of the waste generated by the fashion industry. On the flip side of the coin, she also became aware of the local skills and resources which were not being tapped into. In 2010, after finishing a Research Masters with an MA in Fashion and Environment, Harrison launched Antiform.
Armed with a talented team of local designers, researchers, and communicators, Antiform pushes the boundaries of ethical sustainability by using reclaimed materials that are sourced within the UK to design fashion-forward garments.
Hand Embroidery on Denim Shirt— “Uncomplicated Lovers,” Courtesy of Damaja
Stefanija Pejchinovska, a trained architect and avid self-taught hand embroiderer, is the powerhouse behind Damaja. She believes in a mindful approach to life through the reuse of textiles, slow fashion, and slow creation.
Pejchinovska finds vintage materials and clothing deemed unusable to use as her back drop for an innovative line of beautifully crafted one-of-a-kind clothing. The garments and accessories are adorned with Pejchinovska’s skillful and clever embroidery patterns. She also teaches workshops and collaborates with local designers to create a sustainable and ethical fashion environment.
There are a number of companies that are making a stab at salvaging used clothes, materials, and trims to repurpose into useable products. There are a few pivotal players with a pocket full of keen ideas—making one-of-a-kind garments from materials once deemed worthless. Their ingenuity is breathing new life into apparel once headed for the landfill.
About the Author
Kim Anderson received a Ph.D. in Textile Apparel Management from the Wilson College of Textiles at North Carolina State University. She has worked in the textile industry for over 25 years as a designer, product developer, educator, and researcher.