Monday, September 21, 2009

Refashioning Fashion: the Forties and Today

Unsung Sewing Patterns is a blog you really must check out. It looks at "utilitarian" clothing patterns from the early to mid 20th century, or as the writer puts it, "the less fashionable side of home sewing." She's introduced me to several pattern gems that speak to my nerdy little desire to know all the nitty-gritty details of the history of home sewing.

For instance, take a look at the blouse and jumper pattern above. It looks like a run-of-the mill 40's pattern that you could easily find on eBay, right? Well, Unsung Sewing Patterns reveals a thrilling hidden side to this pattern: there are actually instructions included for making the blouse out of a men's dress shirt and making the jumper out of an old dress. See the cutting layouts below:

Isn't this fascinating?

Of course, this sort of clothing makeover was de rigeur during the Second World War, the era of rationing and "Make Do and Mend." I have a sewing book from the 40's that offers similar advice.

What's interesting is that there now seems to be a definite return to these thrifty ideals of the 1940's. Sewists and crafters are interested in refashioning old clothes for two reasons (which are pretty obvious, but I'll point out anyway): first, to be economically responsible, given our current financial crisis and second, to be ecologically responsible, given the damage we've done to the environment. And, oddly, men's dress shirts are usually the item being refashioned. Sewing Green is a recent craft book release that shows you, among other things, how to make an apron from an old men's dress shirt. Countless tutorials on the internet show you how to make tops, dresses, and even laptop cases from shirts.

I'll admit that I'm a bit reluctant to jump on this bandwagon. First of all, I don't have piles of old men's dress shirts lying around! Secondly, I'm always adding to my fabric stash, which, I know, is just needless consumption of its own. But I hope that by not always purchasing from mass retailers, I'm at least doing a little bit of good.

And, also . . . I hesitate to admit this, as I fear I'm gaining a reputation as a major snob. But some of the refashioning projects on various "hip" crafting websites seem so slapdash to me. Why bother turning an old shirt into something different but low quality? It just seems like the idea is "take this old thing and cut it up and throw some fabric paint on it and ta-da! Green sewing!"

I guess my point is this: the idea of salvaging usable fabric from worn items is an excellent and important one, and one that speaks volumes, historically and culturally (just look at any quilt from the early 20th century, usually cobbled together from worn-out dresses and shirts). But I don't understand the idea of refashioning for refashioning's sake, and that's what some of the green trend seems to be about to me.

What do you think? I am more than eager to be called out on my snobbery, so please: have at me!


  1. I don't think it's snobbish to look at things for what they are. I feel the same way about a lot of crafting/sewing "refashioning" projects I've seen. I can see how someone just getting interested in making things on their own can feel a great sense of accomplishment by doing some of the projects you mentioned, and it's a great way to get the "let's make stuff" bug into your system. But, I've seen vary few of these projects that I would want to make, let alone wear, for myself. On the other hand, I do have an abundance of unwanted men's dress shirts, among other bits of clothing, which I got when the "free store" in the community my parents live in shut down because nobody used it (ridiculous!). I have boxes of nearly new things made with perfectly good material that needs to be used for something. For instance - a pair of men's wool pants, in perfectly wearable condition except that they looked like capri pants on my 6'7" husband, which I've completely taken apart and hope to make a pencil skirt with the wool. The reason I do this, it's Free, not $25/yard like the identical fabric I saw at JoAnns yesterday... I've taken in/taken apart old plaid/dressy men's shirts to make shirts for myself - perfect for wearing to school, as I'm a very messy art student, and would hate to ruin something that I spent good money on, yet I can still look like myself and not just wear crappy t-shirts like many do. If the fabric is too worn to make something I'd be willing to wear in public, I use it to make a muslin of the things I sew - again, free. So my sort of 'refashioning' is closer to the 40's idea, and closely tied into the fact that we have no extra money to spend of fabric/clothing right now, and there are no good fabric stores around anyway...

  2. The only thing that I've refashioned is a Neiman Marcus cashmere sweater that I bought at a garage sale for $5. It fit me for about 2 minutes and I gained some weight, but it was too good to throw out. Finally I cut it up and used wool knit I had to make it into a color blocked, wearable favorite sweater. But cut up my dh's shirts? I don't think so. First of all he tends to wear them till they are only fit for rags, so at least I have soft cotton rags. Secondly, like you, I have yet to see any of these green projects that I'd wear. Besides how many men's shirts are all that interesting as fabric anyway?

  3. I was thinking about this same thing. Yesterday I ran across a thread on one of the forums I visit where the poster was cutting plastic grocery store bags into yarn to knit into dresses and bags. It just seemed really cheesy and unnecessary to me. I mean really, do you see yourself carrying a purse made from cut up plastic grocery store bags. That said my daughter is very rough on her jeans and usually tears the knees out. We have cut the legs off of a pair and added fabric and lace to make a very cute skirt.

  4. I totally agree with you! And I don't think it's snobbery -- but then again, a lot of crafting I see I really don't care for, it often seems to be done just to "do it" if that makes any sense. Not to belittle any feeling of accomplishment a person has for finishing something, no matter what it is. But I see a lot of things that seem very gimmicky that won't really be used. Although you never know. I think if you want to do something that really helps recycle/reuse, then you ought to be making something that will see some real use and replace something you *would* have bought, not just be a new extra thing you don't need.

    As for men's shirts -- I have been sorting a lot of my older sewing books (40s-50s, mostly) which have loads of refashioning ideas (my favorites are the ideas for re-using uniform fabric once your husband has gotten some civilian clothes) and they mostly seem to recommend that men's shirts should be turned into underthings for either men or children! Now that would get a lot more mileage out that leftover shirt fabric!

  5. I once made a really snarky coment about refashioning clothes out of pillowcases and how I thought it was an AWFUL idea and a waste of a nice pillowcase and a great many people told me I was a snob and worst of all, the author herself (!) made a comment and said I was just so wrong. But I still agree with you and for what it's worth I'm not refashioning any men's shirts into anything but dustcloths. And stealing the pearl buttons for my own nefarious purposes.

  6. Well, once again I have to agree.

    I've tried to repurpose things into something fabulous and it always seems to be one giant FAIL. I knit & felt the coolest bags but when I try to felt sweaters and make something from cute I've had some other disasters as well that I won't bore you with.

    I know people who make gorgous things from thrift store finds, but I'm just not one of those people. I do better starting from scratch, be it knitting, sewing or any other crafty endevor.

    There's nothing snobby about enjoying and/or making something beautiful.

  7. There are valid refurbishment crafts I can think of: turning a wedding gown into a christening gown (future family heirloom!), or a moth-eaten cashmere sweater into a hot water pillow or tea cozy - useable! And I'm all about refurbishing to make a garment wearable again. Last year, before I started sewing, I had a tailor alter my Mom's circa 1983 Pendleton plaid wool suit. There's a picture of her wearing it with me on my first day of preschool, and it's such a quality suit, that I didn't want it to be given away.
    If an item is something you actually want to wear or use, I'm so in support of refashioning, especially if it has sentimental value. But I think your point is why refurbish an item into something junky or marginally useful just for the sake of "recycling"? I've noticed the trend, and don't see the point either.

  8. I do the refashioning thing, but I don't think it's in bad taste. I usually scour the local overstock/damaged clothing store for interesting fabrics--I really don't have extra money to buy fabric by the yard, but this is a way for me to buy UNUSED fabrics at a super discount.

    I also carefully evaluate all my own clothing before throwing it out. I'm interested in children's clothing, so I can usually get a couple of uses out of an old dress of mine (that I probably don't fit into anymore). Anything that isn't suitable for wearing is something that I may use for practice with the patterns I make.

    However, just because something refashioned does not make it pretty and profound. Doing it right requires a combination of inventiveness and an eye for aesthetic.

  9. I don't refashion but I do re-use my husband's old shirts - first the buttons all go into my button tin (I now have hundreds - when am I ever going to use them all?!). Then I use the fabric as muslins when testing out bodices. I've also used them for pocket linings on trousers, neck facings and the like...

  10. For me, part of the challenge of refashioning is that it takes a couple tries to get it right. Just as with scratch sewing where you can progress rapidly from that first skirt or project that you make, often the first couple refashions are not going to go perfectly as planned, and it takes awhile to develop an intuition and the skill for making refashions that match up to a commercial pattern. I view a lot of these refashion sites as partially process-oriented, partially community building, and partially inspirational. You may not personally like the end result, but they may have used a certain trick you hadn't thought of, and it certainly pushes you to be creative in how you see everyday objects and clothing.

    For me personally, thrifting and altering thrift store finds is how I can justify buying nicer fabrics for other projects. To each his own, I suppose.

  11. [I should have clarified, how I financially justify the prices of nicer fabircs that I use in other projects. Or, recently, nicer yarns.]

  12. I like your way to question sewing and consumption. First, I love this forties blouse refashioning idea! I saw some similar upcycling on burdastyle a few months ago, it was very neat, simple and pretty.
    I agree with most of the commenters: turning a junk into another junk (such as a twelfth apron, except if you're collecting them) isn't responsible neither brilliant.
    But they did the same in the forties! I went to an exhibition in Paris were cinema archives demontrated ridiculous things, such as hats made of newspapers or wood chips. I admired the ingeniosity of these women, but not always their chic (even if it's one of my favorites fashion eras). I think the same goes for contemporary refashioning.

  13. I wonder if part of the "refashioning mistakes" we see all over the internet are the products of people with crafty blood but no real sewing knowledge. I know that before I started learning how to sew properly (from a book, from a friend, from well-written blogs) I made a lot of similar refashioned-but-still-unattractive items.

    I see things that young girls make on sites like and think that with a little training in good sewing and fashion techniques, they could be designing amazing outfits. Now, people who know what they're doing and still make ill-fitting skirts out of old t-shirts have no excuse :) but I hope that many of these refashioners can someday join the ranks of dedicated sewers and designers.

    Personally, I love to re-use old fabric because I feel it's such a waste to throw it out. But that's one reason I'm getting into quilting-- it turns ugly old clothing into lovely new quilts, both functional and artistic!

  14. Just because you can make a dress from a tablecloth doesn't mean you should. And I don't want to wear pillowcases, but I would totally wear a silk blouse cut from some old 80s silk dress. Why not use a billowing skirt with stunning fabric as raw materials? Recycling fabric is a good thing. Making clothes from your kids from your own stuff also is a thrifty idea. But I speak as someone who made a top from a skirt once, and a girl's dress from the hem of a woman's dress so the mom and daughter can match.

    And every now and again, someone does it right. Like a lady whose blouse cut from a men's shirt makes me drool, only of course I can't find the lousy link. She cut and sewed herself a fitted blouse so beautifully from pieces of a men's thrifted print shirt...

    But that, Gertie, is what I think you're talking about. Quality in your crafting and pride in what you finish. Making things you want that fit well instead of things you just ...can.

  15. Back in the 80s when beautiful perfectly preserved vintage clothing (40s/50s/60s) was in great supply in thrift stores, I refashioned a LOT of stuff. I cut and hacked so many beautiful irreplaceable vintage things into oblivion that when I think about it now, it makes me a little ill. I'm sure I looked great at the punk rock show, but now I wish I still had those beautiful pieces in ONE PIECE.

    If somebody wants to repurpose something that has been used beyond usefulness, (torn jeans into skirt, etc.) that makes sense to me. However, re-making something perfectly usable, just to DO it, blows my mind. I always think: "Yeah, you're glad you cut up that mumu to make purses now, but just wait 20 years!" Lol!

  16. While you know I don't mind calling people out on their snobbery, I can't do it in this case.

    I really really want to get behind the idea of refashioning, and to that end have even taken the Wardrobe Refashion Pledge for LIFE. But I have yet to complete a refashion that I'm really satisfied with. But I haven't caved and purchased new clothing yet (well, once) and I don't plan on it. For me it's about thinking through what I really need in my wardrobe, and not buying on impulse. If I want something, I have to figure out how to make it. (By the way, the refashion pledge does not rule out purchasing new fabrics and sewing clothes from scratch).

    For me it comes back to the slow vs fast fashion. If you are going to approach a refashion with care and diligence that's one thing. But if you're just turning something that you would have thrown away into something that you'll only throw away later because you didn't do a good job, well, what's the point?

    On the other hand, I think any refashioning encourages a creative way of thinking, and that is always a Good Thing. And after all, failure is a big part of success.

  17. I normally re-use clothing for my younger set. I have used a man's shirt to make a sundress for myy youngest and then my dh whit polo shirt with a yellow stain in the middle to make my youngest a white knit shirt (it's on my blog - it's so cute!).

    I also have been known to re-cut pj bottoms for my other 2 dd! I have also made blue jean skirts with left over jeans (with too many holes) and fabric.

    I do it when the fabric is cute and my kids like it.

    But I don't do it on a normal basis. And not to be "green" - I do it because I don't want to spend more money at times - and why waste the fabric (if it' nice)?

  18. I couldn't sleep and was thinking about your post, Gertie. (Don't worry, it wasn't your post that kept me awake ;-)) And I must say: I'm not sure where I stand on this subject.

    In a previous comment I already established that I am a snob too. And I love the feeling of quality fabric in my hands and the look of a well-made gown can make me drool. On the other hand, I do admire the creativity of many people online, who seem to make fun little items from.. well.. almost nothing! Inspired after reading a couple of blogs like that I even tried to jump in myself; I made a frock-y thing-y from a sheet that once was my grand-mothers. Yes. I Know. And I have to be honest: I didn't wear it again.

    Ofcourse, when you look at really, really good fabrics, there is something to say about refashioning. I can imagine that some clothing items from years ago were made with stunning and good quality fabrics, fabrics you would have to pay a lot of money for these days. So who know, if someone could refashion an old model with gorgeous fabric into something more fitting for that person, I can surely admire that.

    Last point (did I even make a point until now?):I guess when you don't have a lot of money and decide to make something yourself with some found or given fabric, you'd probably be better of than when you'd shop in some of the mass-production-stores these days. In both situations the fabric can fall apart any day, maybe, but in the case of sewing yourself you have a better chance of neat workmanship.

    I really should go to bed now :-)

  19. I don't think you're a snob for saying it at all. I refashion items, mostly dresses that I have either grown out of love with or dresses that wear out in the bodice (so I make it into a skirt usually, or sometimes a shirt) and I feel that I'm getting more use out of an item that I loved for a long time. I do agree that some refashion projects can be slapdash and ugly, but I feel the same way about some sewing projects. If you don't put the effort into making something nice in either situation, you get something that looks it.

  20. I'll be honest, for the price of the items at my local Goodwill I can go down to the fabric district and buy new, unstained, not holey fabric for the same price or less.

    I'm also a fan of the old adage "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

  21. I think that that pattern is really wonderful, and I can imagine my grandmother, when she and my grandfather were first married, with a little kid, saving to buy a house...making herself a shirt from one of his. But, that is a different kind of refashioning than you see today. That was refashioning by skilled sewists who may have been looking to save some money on materials.

    Modern refashioning is something altogether different. This will be an incredibly long comment, but the other week I took my niece to the bookstore. I have been teaching her how to sew, and had told her she could buy a sewing or craft book. I waited for her to bring her pile of "maybes" to the cafe, and a few minutes later, she came back with 3 or 4 books. One of them was a book with 20 refashioning projects in it, but as she was looking at it she would point out to me "Aunt Missy, they didn't even HEM that!" or "Aunt Missy, all they did was cut a bunch of holes in a t-shirt...that's not sewing!"

    But that is really what I see with a lot of refashioning projects. It's quick, it's dirty, and it looks "happy hands at home," and I spend a significant amount of time trying to make my projects not look sloppy!

    So while I can appreciate that vintage pattern, given that it is a product of its time (probably a time that WWII rationing was still fresh in people's minds), I don't have that same appreciation for most of the modern refashioning projects that I see.

  22. Its not being snobbish to not refashion. Many items that can be refashioned, because they are damaged and can be repurposed and Still look good are great. But to take a perfectly good item and make it into what turns out to be a "craft project" that looks and fits like junk afterwords is worthless. It really just depends why you are or would want to refashion something. In the day and age that book was written it was hard to get fabric, so taking something our of you husbands closet who was gone and wearing uniforms made sense, or taking curtains down, etc.Its too far for me to consider using my bedsheets or pillowcases- thats just shabby and not shabby chic by the way. Today, you have to really think about the piece you are considering changing. To use old shirts for bodice muslins makes sense. My husband wears his shirts out to rags almost. about all they are good for is dusting or a muslin.
    and if you have teens they aren't usually interested in repurposing because they want the "new" style- you know the one we wore 20 years ago-little humor there.
    Even thrift stores have fabric where someone has emptied their stash and sent it there. There are many options to find fabric and if you shop the major chains ie jo-anns and hancocks, they offer enough coupons if you look you can almost get something for nothing. Unfortunately i like to shop the speciality stores and seriously miss being near the garment district in LA where i would go with friends and load up on stash to hold you for a few months for hardly anything.

  23. I don't disagree with what you're saying. I too think a lot of the "green" projects exist just for the sake of being "green" without there actually being a need for them. If you're going to the trouble of making something, have it be something that you will love and use all of the time, don't just make it for the sake of having a feel good moment about yourself. Interesting post!

  24. I guess I am a snob too!! I also like fabric too much consider refashioning things. Oh well, at least we can admit it!

  25. I'll admit that I am one who refashions on a quasi-regular basis, and up until about the beginning of this month, I spent over a year pledging over at Wardrobe Refashion. I've been haunting the thrift stores since I was a young teenager, and so for me a lot of what I like to do is take something where I'm drawn to the fabric, but the fit or style isn't necessarily what I'm looking for, and make it to look better on me. In many ways, I can get creative with a refashion in ways that I can't with new fabric--I don't know enough about draping to be able to make it work with a couple yards of fabric, but I can take apart a men's shirt and pin and drape it on my dummy into a blouse. (In that case, it was also about $150 cheaper than the Anthropologie blouse I got the concept idea from.) It also often provides a way for me to salvage my own sewing fails--one of my favorites to date was taking a pair of capris that looked awful on me and a couple of matching solid-colored t-shirts and turning it into a beach coverup dress. So for me, at least, refashioning can be a very good thing, and if done right, can result in some nice-looking clothes. I do realize, however, that for a lot of the people who do it, the results do look rather slapdash, either because they don't have the skills yet to make it better or they just don't care. I hate most of the t-shirt refashions that are out there--honestly, my parents wouldn't have let me wear a lot of the more severely deconstructed/skimpy styles, and now they're just inappropriate for a girl in her late 20s (especially in the workplace). Not to mention they just look messy. But as someone else already pointed out, at least that's getting some people interested in sewing that might not be otherwise. Hopefully with time and developed skill, those projects will clean up too. So I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing-- just depends on the context. Besides, sewing with new fabric can turn out some crappy results too (as my most recent sewing project has been, sadly, and is going to have to result in some refashioning to try and salvage my silk charmeuse.)

  26. I think refashioning an old shirt for either baby garments or dust rags is great! If you can make something useful out of old stuff it's great home economics and also great for the environment. But yes, I too, have seen a lot of ugly remake ideas out there, so I guess it's all down to personal taste. As usual. ;-)

  27. I'm with you. If they want to look all "happy hands at home" that's fine with me, but you won't catch me doing it. You know, I think that's the same issue I have with the Snuggie--it just looks thrown together.

    I think cutting down adult clothing for children's clothes is a good idea, but try to coordinate colors and make it look like something you would be willing to spend money on.

    Just because you have refashioned something and it's "free" doesn't mean it needs to look like the dogs dinner.

    Another thing I've noticed about refashioners--they seem to be allergic to patterns. Having talked to some of them I have sussed out two reasons for this. First, they just don't know how to sew and patterns are downright intimidating. Second, using a pattern is cheating somehow.

  28. Most of the time my "refashioning" is more in the lane of making alterations to thrift store garments, like shortening an ankle length skirt to a wearable length. When I've tried to make something completely new it turns into "improvisational sewing" which means there are more problems than there need to be and it doesn't turn out as well if I had planned ahead.

  29. I agree with you on this one. I think refashioning has a place. I, too, cringe a bit seeing some of them. Now that being said, some are truly ingenious. I for one see the worthiness of a man's dress shirt in good condition, the material is usually good quality, stain resistant sometimes, and if broadcloth, a good weight for kids clothes, as the 1940 books illustrate. I take little used shirts of mine and cut them into shirts for my 8yo in one of her TNT patterns. Why waste good fabric in good condition? But I do not believe in refashioning everything.

  30. I agree on this one too... I fully support people who refashion things for a creative outlet, or because they like to make kitschy cutesy things made from seconds. I've tried the thrift store shopping of garments with some vague hope that I'll know what to 'turn them into' when I get home... only to give them all away again because it just wasn't my thing. I'd rather invest in quality fabric and make something tailored, from scratch. Whatever works for the individual, I say.

  31. I completely agree about the slapdashyness seeming pointless. In fact this is what gave me the motivation to start selling my handmade repurposed items because I realised that most of the time things actually looked worse once they were 'upcycled'. I wanted to show that it's possible to use recycled materials and still be a perfectionist for details. I don't necessarily want people to know that my items had a past life!

    I think it would be a shame if people were put of repurposing items they or their friends no longer need because it seems like its going to end up looking less appealing than a brand new item. I don't think this need be the case!

  32. I hope you don't mind, but as this post got me thinking a lot I actually mentioned it on my own blog:

  33. I agree katy. Its not snobby when you can look at a project and see that it won't be practical. I've felt a similar way when looking at "refashioning projects" I personally can't afford to buy new fabric at $10 a yard for a simple shirt I want to make, so I use a dress that was given to me by a friend (which was pretty wierd as a dress but the fabric was cool.) Some people have the knack for re-fabricating things, while others don't. Hopefully someone can come up with a good resourse for those of us who need some good ideas and don't have any vintage sewing books!

  34. I'm so glad to have found your blog. Awesome stuff!

    It's funny because I was just looking at $3 thrift shop men's dress shirts - I wanted to add a collar and cuffs to a black sheath dress I'm working on. I'd love to do some projects like this. However, I wouldn't do a reuse project if I knew the project wouldn't get any use in its second life. I see all kinds of projects on other craft blogs that claim to "reuse" old things, but they merely make them into kitsch/clutter, and I can't really stand that in my space.

    Thanks for the refreshing viewpoint. I'm looking forward to reading more!

  35. I agree with what you are saying. I do like to refashion, though. I have to admit that my refashioning is not to save the world, though. It is to save money! And, I often refashion NEW things. As in I buy an inexpensive tank top and fabric and then turn it into something else....because I still want to look fashionable and love what I am wearing, but I can't afford to spend like 60 bucks or whatever for a shirt! I will cut up old clothes for the fabric though if it is still in good condition.

  36. Unfortunately, I do think you are being a bit of a snob. First of all, some people create for the sheer joy of creating (not to achieve perfection or a skill), second of all, we are all at different talent levels, and thirdly, the people who refashion often do so from a passion as strong as you have about skillful sewing...they truly feel they are doing good for the world. Try not to look so much at the clothing you see, as the heart behind it. By the way, I love your blog so I hope I don't sound snarky.

  37. I don't think you are wrong about the sloppy looking projects around but on the other hand there are some that look amazing. I guess I am becoming more of a snob myself, although I cannot forget that passing through the "sloppy" look was a necessary phase as my skill increased to a point where now I want my projects to look as good from the inside as they do on the outside. Skill, I might add, that I wouldn't have at all had the refashioning fad not hit me at the perfect time when my kids needed new clothes on the cheap. I doubt that most people stay in the sloppy
    phase too long, I think most either learn to do better or lose interest.

  38. I live in small town in Canada, in the province of Quebec. (I am french speaker so sorry if I make mistakes when writing in English.) Here it is a real desert for great fabric shops so I buy almost all my supplies online from the USA. Customs and shipping fees are expensive, so I need to be creative and reuse old clothes. For an example, I always use old shirts to cut pockets and waistband lining for my sons' pants. I sewed pants for the boys in my husband's pants that did not fit anymore. I recently bought cotton flannel sheets to make winter shirts for my husband and my sons. I received compliments from the teacher of my elder about these shirts. I want all the clothes I sew to be good quality and I don't use fabric that is worn or stained, only the best ones. In also keep buttons and zippers that I cut from old clothes before I throw them away. Maybe it sounds strange, but for me it is a necessity if I want to continue to sew clothes.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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