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News / Life / Lifestyles

Sisters’ business recycles sweaters into dresses while helping homeless

The Columbian
Published: January 1, 2015, 4:00pm
2 Photos
Leslie McMillan, who with her sister created a business called Sew Sisters, uses old clothing to create new apparel, such as this dress, at her home in Vancouver.
Leslie McMillan, who with her sister created a business called Sew Sisters, uses old clothing to create new apparel, such as this dress, at her home in Vancouver. Money from sales of her clothing is donated to the Seattle charitable group Facing Homelessness. Photo Gallery

When Vancouver resident Leslie McMillan took early retirement after a rewarding career as a lobbyist with the pharmaceutical giant Merck, she knew she wanted to do something more “right-brained,” and the Portland/Vancouver upcycling concept caught her attention.

“My sister and I both like the vibe of something that had a gentle life and making something beautiful out of it,” said McMillan. “We started with blankets, which was labor-intensive, and morphed into skirts and scarves.”

With the help of her sister, Dana Williams, who lives in California, Sew Sisters was born. McMillan can be found routinely scouring the racks of Value Village for just the right colors, patterns and material, which feeds her shopping bug in the process. She buys in bulk and exchanges sweaters for other options if she has trouble matching them up at home.

Sew Sisters makes sweater dresses for women and young girls out of natural fibers or natural fiber blends, as well as cashmere scarves from gently-used cashmere sweaters. McMillan homes in on the ugly sweater because she’s found that a sweater that’s no longer in fashion is the perfect skirt for her dresses. She tends to use a solid sweater for the top and coordinates that color with a patterned lower portion.

The sweater dresses are popular this time of year, accented with tights or leggings and boots, but Sew Sisters also has a summer line with more lightweight, short-sleeved dresses and men’s Hawaiian shirts repurposed as sleeveless blouses finished off with men’s ties.

On its own, Sew Sisters is an intriguing concept — repurposed clothes that might otherwise not find a second life — but it is also a perfect analogy for McMillan’s true motivation.

About four years ago, Rex Hohlbein, an award-winning architect in the Seattle area, for reasons that still escape him, invited a homeless man to his office for a cup of tea and conversation. In that time, Hohlbein learned that the man’s name was Chiaka, and that he was a brilliant artist and writer who suffered from bipolar disorder that caused him to leave his family and young children.

Rex is the husband of McMillan’s college roommate, Cindy. Shortly after meeting Chiaka, Hohlbein shared his encounter with McMillan. His passion so overwhelmed McMillan that she gave him $400. With the help of Chiaka and another homeless artist, a T-shirt was designed and the sales from that T-shirt turned McMillan’s $400 into $2,000.

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Although McMillan is now retired, she’s used the generosity of her former employer’s Merck Gives Back program to parlay her subsequent infusion of profits from Sew Sisters into another $2,000 for Hohlbein’s organization, called Facing Homelessness. His widely successful “Just Say Hello” campaign encourages people to reach out in a simple and humane way.

At a recent Shorty’s Garden and Home Ladies Night, McMillan’s dresses were a hit.

“The gal from (Navidi’s Olive Oils & Vinegars) was wearing one, and another gal just attending walked in wearing one,” McMillan said. “I did really well at that show.”

McMillan focuses on area winery events for dress sales. The next event is from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17, at English Estate Winery, 17806 S.E. First St.

She also hopes to represent Sew Sisters at the well-attended Recycled Arts Festival in Vancouver in June.

“There’s people who want to hear the story (of Facing Homelessness) and are motivated to buy (a dress or scarf), and there are other people who just want a cute sweater dress,” McMillan said.

Williams would like to start an Etsy shop for their line, and McMillan is working on a showroom in her garage, but she sees Sew Sisters’ up-cycled clothes being a fun addition to an in-home wine party, as well. Regardless, proceeds will continue to be funneled to Facing Homelessness.

McMillan said “It’s remarkable what he’s (Rex Hohlbein) doing. It changes lives.”

For more information on Sew Sisters, e-mail Leslie McMillan at auntchippie@icloud.com. For more information on Facing Homeless, go to facinghomelessness.org.