As a fabric connoisseur, I like the concept of upcycling because fabric to me is like precious gold and diamonds to a jeweler. When I touch luxurious Italian silk and feel the softness of Spanish bouclé tweeds, I am fully aware of the many labour hours that go into weaving these beautiful textiles and in sewing the final garments. I understand why some fabric costs are higher and I can tell the difference between Haute couture and fast fashion ready-to-wear. The price point argument set aside, all clothing was made by someone somewhere. When I see the clothes purchased in heaps and discarded so effortlessly, as if all the work that went into them means nothing, I get frustrated.
Upcycling in fashion involves taking old or used clothes or fabric and making beautiful garments out of them thereby giving them a new and hopefully more glamorous life. With determination and creativity, it is possible to make a stunning garment out of gently used clothing. I have recently made a trip to Value Village, one of the larger Canadian second-hand stores near me, in search of some interesting ideas for a potential upcycling project. The thrift stores in North America may be different from Europe, but the shopping strategies are the same. Let me share my ideas for finding beautiful fabrics in the thrift stores with you.
#1: Know what you are looking for before you enter the store to avoid impulse purchases.
As with any fashion collection, look for some inspiration first and you can even create a moodboard to get an idea of the general colours and textures that you like. Don’t go into drafting a pattern yet, because your choice of fabric will ultimately dictate the design. Are you going to make an upcycled evening gown, a glamorous day dress, or an unusual trench coat? (Alternatively, you may already have a pattern in mind, in which case you just skip this step. Pull the pattern out and read the fabric suggestions before going shopping.)
#2: Shop alone or with a friend who shares your vision.
I personally prefer to shop alone when I am looking for ideas for my design projects because at that point I am focused and I am in my creative zone. But if you have a generous friend who shares your vision and knows what you are looking for, she/he can be your second pair of eyes in spotting a bargain. (Don’t forget to show your gratitude and take your friend for lunch afterwards.)
You and your friend can go to different parts of the store so you are not looking in the same spot and don’t feel bad if you want to go back and take a second look. Sadly, there are just so many clothes and it’s easy to miss a great find. If you frequent the same store often, you will probably notice the days of the week that the new items are put on the shelves and you can focus on shopping on those days only.
#3: Don’t look for your exact size, but for one or more sizes bigger.
The bigger the size, the more fabric you get to play with. The clothing section in the thrift shops here is usually huge, and some of the items there are brand new or worn only once, like wedding dresses. Look through the clothes in the dresses, skirts and tops sections. Although tops don’t have much fabric, you can still use them for patch pockets, decorative welts and accents. And what about using those for couture appliques and trims?
Are there any fully functional long zippers or even corsetry boning pieces you can use? Those items are expensive if purchased brand new. At this point you have to have an open mind, look past the dated garment because you are not buying it to wear but to use it for something else. Focus only on the fabric and how its colour and texture fit your vision for the upcycled garment.
A gorgeous guipure lace with beading (and lots of it!!!) all along the hem of a voluminous large-sized wedding dress which will give you plenty of material for lace trim or applique. On the right is an inspiration: upcycled wedding dress from Alexander McQueen Spring 2020 runway.
On the left is a medium size dress with overlapped blue spangles from top to bottom. On the right is your inspiration: a lovely day dress with beaded collar and sleeves from Chanel Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2017 runway.
On the right is a lovely velvet dress with a 12” zipper on the side and a metal belt. On the left is an inspiration: a blue velvet dress by Burberry from their Fall/Winter 2020 runway
#4: Look for interesting prints, weaving patterns and/or fiber content.
Always refer back to your mood board to stay on target in terms of your general colour theme. The sophisticated weaving patterns like jacquard and velvet are not that rare, and if you are lucky you can find some gorgeous twills and satins in the wedding/evening dress section or sumptuous knits in the women’s tops. And the more natural the fiber content in the piece, the better. Find the garment’s care instructions which will tell you the exact fiber content. 100% silk or 100% linen items are rare, but you can still find those.
On the left is a large size dress with vertical rows of bright silver spangles on netting. These spangles would be great to use in gold work embroidery as well. On the right is an inspiration: a dress with generous embroidery throughout from Chanel Fall/Winter 2017, runway
Also, check out the belts and scarves section. Many scarves are 100% silk or silk/cashmere mixtures. You can upcycle a wide silk scarf into a dress bodice, a beautiful summer tank top or sleepwear.
#5: Hidden treasures in the drapery section.
Depending on your project, you may find amazing yardage of fabrics in these sections. The store associates hang the fashion fabrics in this section. Unless you are an expert, you wouldn’t know if the fabric is made from natural fiber or not. Assume it is all polyester blends, trust your hand instead and feel the fabric. Is it rough and cold or silky and wonderful against your skin? Would you like to wear a garment made from this fabric? If in any doubt, put it back.
#6: Most importantly, set your budget.
And finally, be focused or you’ll end up picking up useless trinkets instead. Have a definite budget in mind. Are you going to spend $20 or $50? Your $4.99 and $8.99 purchases add up quickly, so hold your purse tightly and keep track of your items. You will have to make decisions on the spot because if you come back to the store tomorrow, the clothes you liked may not be there. Ask the store clerk about their return policies in case you change your mind.
About the Author:
Elena Tran is a Canadian dressmaker and an entrepreneur passionate about haute couture sewing using
beautiful fabrics and notions. After her career as a college administrator and mathematics professor, she
pursued her interest in sewing and opened an online luxury fabric store baudekinstudio.ca. She is
constantly learning and improving her craft. Her training includes lessons with the legendary couture
instructor Angelina di Bello (Montreal, Canada), dressmaking program at Mohawk College (Hamilton,
Canada) and online needlework courses at the Royal School of Needlework (London, UK).