Upcycling is the act of recycling what would otherwise be trash into something better. It is an improvement on what was, rather than just re-use. As I mentioned in my last post, craft and production in the domestic sphere have now been commodified to the point that sewing clothes is no longer cheaper than buying manufactured garments. What was once frugal is now an act of luxury, as people tend to work more, and outside the home, for what amounts to less in the current economy.
Upcycling however is a skill that enables an individual to glean materials for what is needed and repurpose them. In the sewing world, it’s like the wildcrafting of clothing production.
When I go to a thrift store, I don’t look for brand names or particular styles, or for correct fit. I rarely enter a dressing room. Instead, I look for 3 things as I pass between the endless racks of a Goodwill or Value Village:
- Fiber Content
I prefer to work with natural fibers for a multitude of reasons. I like linen the best, followed by cotton and wool. Fabrics like polyester leach plastics into grey water with every washing and degrade in really unattractive, un-mendable ways. Rayon warps, shrinks and does all kinds of ugly things.
I like Black, “natural” fiber tones, white and occasionally red. This simplifies my process when it comes to frankensteining a garment together from salvaged textiles. However, if you enjoy a broader color spectrum, keep in mind that you may want to hoard pieces in a few specific colors- for instance if you’re really into teal, get as much as you can (and maybe a few complimentary colors for trim, plackets, cuffs, etc) because it will amount to more possibilities for future projects. Having a bunch of tiny scraps in a rainbow of colors is definitely a look- just be sure it’s the look you’re after. Also keep in mind that white and natural fiber tones can be DYED, making garments in these fabrics universal donors.
3. Size and Cut
While I go through every aisle, I tend to bee-line to skirts, men’s, and plus size. The reason for this is that while you can work around seams, it causes un-necessary bulk and can effect the overall effect of a project. I get large minimalist pieces as often as I can, and I cut out seams, remove plackets, cuffs and waistbands, and try to get as close as I can to a large square or rectangle. Exceptions to this rule are tiered skirts, which make lovely bottoms of dresses, and Suits, which if tailored well have lots of potential for vests and dress bodices and accents on other garments.
The Magyar Crop Top
The Magyar blouse was a style of top popularized during the Edwardian period. Usually it had 3/4 length sleeves which were not set in but rather of the same piece as the bodice, and was a fairly loose tunic made of gauzey fabric, often with vertical pin tucks. Now it’s popular as a boxey, short sleeved T shirt of various lengths and usually made of something earthy like linen or ikat. This project does not require any real measuring, and no pattern- just a tee shirt that fits you comfortably, and a pen.
I made mine a crop top to wear with dirndl skirts, which I sew to fit at my natural waist. You can make yours this fitted or looser, and longer if you like- just keep in mind that much tighter or shorter and it may be uncomfortable to wear, or impractical, due to the nature of the sleeves. If you’re bustier, you will definitely prefer a looser cut for ease of movement. I used the light, cotton lining from a white skirt, which I laid flat and trimmed the seams off of. I made sure to true up edges for ease of fabric management. The most important thing to remember when upcycling is to be neat- create order from chaos whenever possible, and have as many uncomplicated edges as possible. Again, aim for squares and rectangles.
Fold fabric in half, or match up edges of fabric as neatly as possible, and smooth out wrinkles. If the fabric you are using has a right and wrong side, lay both right sides facing out, as you would want them to be if wearing the shirt. Pin in place. Trim away any edges that could get caught or confuse the parameters you are working with- you don’t want to find that the bottom piece of fabric was smaller or irregular, leaving you with chunks taken from your project!
Find a t-shirt that fits you well, and trace around it, leaving several inches both for ease of movement and for seam allowance.
Make a big, boxy “T”. Pin next to lines. Trim just outside this line, because you really do want as much ease as possible.
Trim up and sure edges.
Hand baste along the shoulders and side seams using a loose, simple running stitch.
Turn the shirt inside out and check the fit. Make sure it’s easy to get on and off with plenty of room. The neckline will be baggy.
Turn your shirt back inside out, smooth it out flat, and draw a neckline on in pen, as deep or shallow as you’d like.
Fold in half, and cut, leaving about 5/16″ of an edge.
Sew all seams with a running stitch on your sewing machine.
Turn your top right side out, and press all seams flat. Turn inside out and trim seam allowances down as close as possible, leaving just enough of an edge to maintain seam integrity.
Clip vertical slits into the armpits so that they will press into a smooth curve and not bunch.
Turn back right side out, and press again. On your sewing machine, sew just along the edges of your seam allowances, encasing them and creating a French seam.
The rules say you cannot sew a French seam on a curve, and generally, yes, this is true. However for this project, one discreet slit into the apex of the armpit seam will effectively eliminate any weird bunching or mobility issues. Turn the shirt right side out again.
To hem the edges of the sleeves, just cuff them narrowly, enclosing raw edges and pin before sewing.
For the neck and bottom hem, fold once as narrowly as possible, and then fold over once more, pinning again.
On the neckline this may require some rolling.
Hand finish with a blanket stitch.
Tea dyeing, embroidery, eco printing, the dye, batik, and appliqué are all great ways to personalize this project, or hide mistakes.
For instance, I used very thin white cotton and a blue pen when making this shirt. I tinted it with plant material, black tea and walnut hulls by boiling and baking.
Inadvertently, I caused some blue ink to show through on the neckline and cuffs of sleeves. I covered these spots with rustic, folkloric embroidery of wild flowers I’ve been observing in my new Indiana home, and allowed the randomness off ink bleed to cue an organic effect in my ornamentation.