The floors and couches of Sheri McGovern’s apartment are covered in a rainbow of sweaters: sweaters made of cotton stripes, purple cashmere, and argyle wool are piled in suitcases throughout the room. Instead of a bowl of fruit, her kitchen table is layered with a cutting mat, and a tower of multi-colored threads sit a few feet away from McGovern’s most valuable tool, a four-string serger.
Using these tools, McGovern transforms used sweaters into A-line skirts, complete with matching leg warmers and headbands. Along with dozens of other hobbyists and entrepreneurs, she is part of a growing trend in Central Oregon called upcycling: the art of taking something old and transforming it into something new.
“I went to fashion design school, so I love fashion and really wanted some new clothes but couldn’t afford them,” McGovern said. “I found a sweater in the closet I was never going to wear again and the idea was born for a sweater/skirt. Now I sell dozens of them a month.”
While McGovern had years of professional training, she believes that learning to upcycle clothing is open to everyone with the desire and patience to learn how to sew and some simple training in pattern making.
Allison Murphy of Utilitu Sew in downtown Bend suggests taking a beginning sewing class or two before diving in and investing in your own machine. Her sewing shop and classroom, which she opened up this fall on Hill Street, features four top-of-the-line Bernina sewing machines for students to hone their skills. When first learning to sew, students may experience a number of technical difficulties as they wade through the process. Working with an instructor on a high-quality machine will reduce frustration and lower the learning curve.
“We live in a time where it is so easy to get things instantly; to just go to the store and pick something up,” said Murphy. “People are not used to taking the time to do something, but sewing takes a lot of will power and determination.”
Murphy supplies students with full sewing kits, items that they can eventually acquire themselves at her shop or other sewing stores in town such as Morrow’s Sewing & Vacuum Center. These include tools like dress making shears, seam rippers and flexible measuring tape. And while buying the right equipment will help beginners be more successful, Murphy insists that sewers should not become overwhelmed by all of this at first
“You don’t need a machine with a million stitch options to make a cool dress,” Murphy said.
Once your basic tools and basic skills are acquired, the creativity begins. There are plenty of places to find clothes that are begging to be transformed into something more contemporary. While thrift stores and the Goodwill are a great first stop, also consider things like clothing swaps, your mother’s or grandmother’s closet, and yard sales.
Upcycling doesn’t stop at remaking clothing. Consider checking out antique stores, places like Pak It Liquidators in Bend, or even the dump for ideas on remaking furniture and other household items.
And sometimes inspiration might literally be in the trash. Tracy Curtis of Ballokai is the mother of the 20-year-old Sister’s singer/songwriter Laura Curtis. One afternoon, she spied her daughter’s used guitar strings in the garbage, plunked them out, and made them into earrings.
Curtis has also used her creative vision to remake burlap coffee bags into stylish totes that she sells online, in local boutiques and in the Pearl District in Portland. She gets the majority of her bags from the Sisters Coffee Company and because plantations are constantly changing their graphics and styles, no two totes are ever the same.
“I think the upcycling trend is a result of people acknowledging that the planet is not in good shape and we need to do something about it,” Curtis said. “It is about asking our selves how many different ways can we use the stuff that we just waste?”
Sara Wiener of Sara Bella Upcycled uses plastic bags, food wrappers and banners to create tote bags, dresses and hats. To date she has saved 35,800 bags from going in the landfill, and the tag line on her website is “Making beautiful products out of garbage!” Using only an iron and a sewing machine, she fuses together plastic bags and creates practical things her customers can use for years to come. It took her five years to perfect her process, but instead of patenting it, Wiener teaches the process to others through workshops at Central Oregon Community College and Bend Parks and Recreation District.
“My philosophy is, the more plastic bags I can use, and teach others to use, the less will end up in the landfill and our waterways, killing fish and birds,” Wiener said.
Whether you are just getting started upcycling your own creations, or are ready to start peddling your wears on Etsy.com, Murphy recommends taking the extra time to craft something well-made that may be loved for years to come.
“Upcycling isn’t just remaking clothing—it embraces rethinking all things that have been used to death in their current form, just begging to be reincarnated into something useful, witty and resourceful,” she said.
While there are scores of high-end instruments that will eventually make your sewing life easier, here is a list of must-haves for beginners:
Scissors, a separate pair for cutting paper and fabric
Pins and weights for cutting patterns (weights can be as simple as a soup can)
Tape measure and a clear plastic ruler
Marking tools like a pencil, chalk and water soluble markers
Hand sewing needles and machine needles
All-purpose polyester thread
Easy to use sewing machine
A simple pattern
There are scores of books on upcycling techniques in bookstores, the library or online. A quick Google search for upcycling ideas reveals a long list of blogs and project ideas ranging from making a wallet out of bike inner tube to turning jeans into tote bags.
Goodwill, Restore, Pak It Liquidators, thrift stores, antique shops, relative’s closets, the garbage, the dump
Inspiration and Finding Your Style
It is important that you are making things that you are going to love and want to wear or have in your home. When considering what kind of clothes to upcycle, Murphy recommends being both confident and honest with yourself. Try new things, but think about what styles look best on you. Sheri McGovern, who crafts sweater/skirts is a great example. She is also affectionately known around Bend as “dancing lady” because whenever there is live music, she is always upfront, dancing to the music. The skirts she makes skirts compliment her free spirit, high-fashion sophistication, and slender figure, all at the same time.