By Sophia Bennett on May 28, 2013

Creatives all over the country are scouring vintage shops and thrift stores for pieces to upcycle into the latest fashions.

Blame it on the sorry state of the economy, the crafty bug or consumers’ desire to buy more eco-friendly, locally made products. Whatever the case, “upcycling” is gaining serious momentum in the world of eco-fashion.

Urged on by books, websites and their own creative minds, people all over the country are scouting thrift stores or vintage clothing markets for garments that can somehow be altered to make new creations.

“The trends of recycling and upcycling are definitely growing,” says Adam Brown, Press Manager at Etsy.com, the well-known online marketplace for artisans. “I think more and more people are becoming conscious consumers and producers. As more people are in the market for eco-friendly, handmade products, that growth feeds itself.”

Mitra Chester from Eugene, OR, is one example of the upcycled clothing movement. Raised by a seamstress, Chester has been altering her own clothes since she was young.

“I’m a small person, so it’s hard to find things that fit,” she explains.

Before long, she was using secondhand clothes and materials from flea markets to form her own creations. The family regularly shopped at thrift stores, and Chester worked in resale shops for many years, so she had easy access to raw materials for her designs.

“I like to juxtapose things that don’t normally go together, like turning a sweatshirt into a pencil skirt with ruffles,” Chester says. She also enjoys combining items from different eras, like putting Victorian lace on modern garments.

In Chester’s skilled hands a pink leather jacket may become an aviator hat, a plaid schoolgirl skirt will transform into a man’s kilt and a prom dress could morph into a steampunk-inspired costume. The body of old sweaters become hats and the cuffs are saved for hand warmers.

Photo courtesy of ecoterre.com

“I like to use everything [from a garment] — like using all the parts of an animal,” she says.

Besides designing, Chester owns two resale stores in Eugene, Deluxe and Kitsch. The stores sell secondhand and redesigned clothing, some of which come from Chester and some of which she consigns for other local designers.

Chester recently wrapped up Eugene Fashion Week, which she co-produces with The Redoux Parlour, another local resale shop. Eugene Fashion Week is an annual event that showcases local design talent. The week kicked off with an Eco Wear showcase on Earth Day that featured nine designers who redesign clothing or use eco-friendly fabrics like organic cotton and hemp. Although the focus of that show was clothing made with green products, Chester estimates that at least 50% of the designers who participated in Fashion Week used eco-friendly materials.

Eugene is well known as an eco-topia, but larger companies are beginning to jump on the redesign bandwagon as well. Stampington and Company, which publishes the popular craft magazine Somerset Studio, recently added two magazines focused on upcycling. Altered Couture centers entirely on redesigned clothing and accessories, while Green Craft features craft projects made with secondhand materials.

Books like Little Green Dresses and Sweater Surgery: How to Make New Things with Old Sweaters are inspiring people to turn to their sewing machines the next time they want to refresh their closets.

Chester sees an upswing in the number of people interested in redesigned fashion.

“Any creative field is seeing a renaissance right now,” she says. “Money is tight. People are starting to consider the effects of their decision and who they’re supporting with their money. And there’s an environmental consideration — there’s so much stuff in the world that we don’t need to create more.”

About the author

Sophia Bennett is a freelance writer based in Eugene, OR. Her work has been featured in more than a dozen magazines, newspapers and blogs. She is a dedicated home recycler, an avid thrift store shopper and a huge compost nerd.

Sophia's other professional experience include six years with the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, an internationally recognized leader in the field of nonprofit waste-based business development, and a year as an economic development and recycling coordinator in the U.K. She's volunteered with the Oregon State University Extension Service Compost Specialist program and Willamette Farm and Food Coalition. In her spare time she enjoys cooking, reading, crafts, gardening and spending time with her husband and twin daughters.


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