Thursday 14 April 2016

ReVision: Making the Most of Thrift Shop Fabric Finds

Home sewing used to be commonplace. Before we could simply pop down to the store and buy things it was the way we provided our families with clothing and household linens. Even after retail goods became accessible, it remained the frugal and practical choice for a very long time.  Home sewn clothing and linens were less expensive than those made commercially.

That is not the case any more.  Store bought clothing has become so inexpensive that it is now considered by many to be an almost disposable item, while fabrics, patterns, and sewing notions have steadily increased in price.  Fewer and fewer people are learning to sew. What was once an essential life skill has now become a luxury pastime.

I like to sew - a lot - but I'm on a very tight budget.  I'm also very mindful of the environmental and social costs of all of this "throw away" clothing so, for me, the best way to satisfy both my desire to continue sewing and my wish to reduce waste is to make my projects from fabric sourced at thrift shops.  

Here are a few of the fabric items I buy at thrift shops, together with some suggestions on how they can be used:

  • Sheets and pillowcases.  These are my favourites.  They come in all sorts of nifty prints and they provide a lot of fabric for very little money.  One full sheet will provide enough fabric to make a dress for an adult, or a lining for a jacket, a backing for a quilt, the fronts for three or four baby blankets, or numerous children's garments.  A single pillowcase will make an adult sized skirt, or an apron, or a small child's dress, or a shopping bag, or a couple of tea cozies.
  • Towels.  Frayed or faded towels are still useful.  They make excellent filling layers for pot holders, oven mitts, hot pads for the table, ironing board covers, and hot water bottle cozies. Towels in good condition can be used to make bath robes, bed pads, bibs, or hooded towels for babies.
  • Jeans.  Denim is super durable, easy to work with, and fashionable.  The upcycling possibilities are endless. There are far too many to list here but if you pop over to Pinterest and do a search, I'm sure you'll find projects enough to last a lifetime.
  • Pure wool items.  Look for coats, suits, blankets, and sweaters. I felt (shrink and thicken) almost all of the pure wool items I find.  Felted wool can be used to make new garments, handbags, slippers, tea cozies, mitts, children's toys, table pads, place mats, and rugs.
  • Linen.  It's getting harder to find pure linen these days because it's less commonly used for household items than it once was. If you find good quality linen intact, you've found a treasure.  If it's stained or has small holes in it, buy it anyway.  You can still use it.  I often use linens just as they were originally intended - sheets table linens, and runners - but I also make them into summer garments and christening gowns.  If they're damaged or stained beyond repair, I'll dye them or tea stain them and then salvage the usable pieces to make baby clothes, or cushions, or to use in piecework.
  • Hand embroidered and crocheted goods.  Knowing as I do how much labour goes into making them, it always makes me a little sad to see these items in a thrift shop. Saving them makes me feel like a superhero.  :)   I use even the stained and torn ones, incorporating the usable parts into baby dresses, baby blankets, cushions, and piecework.
  • Knitwear.  Thrift shops are full of commercially made sweaters that are in good condition but no longer fashionable.  Don't be afraid to buy them and cut them up.  They can be made into hats, scarves, mitts, arm warmers or leg warmers, and restyled into vests or incorporated into new sweaters or coats.  They can also be used to make tea cozies and mug cozies.

Once you've purchased your thrift store fabrics, you need to prepare them for use.  Because bed bugs are becoming increasingly common, I keep a box of black trash bags in my car trunk.  Before I carry my thrifted items home, I transfer them directly into a trash bag and knot it tightly shut.  From there, you have a variety of options:

  • You can leave them in the tightly knotted trash bag for 6 weeks or so to ensure that whatever might be on the fabric has suffocated.
  • You can wash them in hot water and dry them on your dryer's hottest setting.  This is the option I most frequently choose.  It ensures that the fabrics are clean and that my finished product can be safely laundered. Fabrics that don't survive the laundering process can be used to stuff pillows or toys, or they can be dropped off at many recycling depots.
  • You can pack them in individual plastic bags and put them in the freezer for 3 weeks.  This may seem very odd, but there are some things that do need this special care.  I recently bought a length of beautiful silk at the thrift store.  It would never have withstood the hot wash/hot dry treatment I give most of my fabrics.  Putting it in the freezer is a gentle way to kill any critters that might be lurking within its folds, and faster than the black plastic trash bag method.
  • It's important to note that if you use either the knotted trash bag method or the freezer bag method, your fabrics will still need to be washed and dried before you use them.  Hand washing and line drying are fine.

If you're like me and buy a lot of materials, you'll need to sort them once you've prepared them for use.  I store mine in plastic totes that are labeled by material type.  This keeps like materials grouped together, keeps them dust free, and makes them easy to find.

Now that I've learned to source and prepare thrift shop fabrics, I can sew to my heart's content.  The biggest challenge now is to find projects for all the material I have on hand.  ;)  Care to share suggestions for upcycling projects in the comments?  I'd love to hear from you.