If you’ve ever donated clothing to a resale store, you may have wondered, “What happens to the clothes that don’t get sold?”
Most likely, they’ll end up in a landfill, along with the other 11.3 million tons of clothes discarded annually in the United States. That jaw-dropping statistic has spurred skilled stitchers to give at least some of those textiles a second life.
“I’m part of this awesome creator-maker tribe,” Pati Nadgwick Jeffers of Vancouver said. “Between resale and the makers, we’re going to change things. We’re going to inspire others to love the planet we live on. We just have to keep making those small choices to make an impact.”
Through her business, Somethin OUTTA Nothin, Nadgwick Jeffers makes new shirt jackets (aka “shackets”) from secondhand flannel shirts and T-shirts.
It’s something she was doing long before it was trendy or environmentally conscious. She started thrift shopping when she was a young woman in the 1980s to save money and find T-shirts that expressed her love for punk rock. It wasn’t until she saw Molly Ringwald’s character in “Pretty in Pink” design her own prom dress from secondhand togs that Nadgwick Jeffers realized upcycling could be just as countercultural as loud guitars and mohawks.
Nadgwick Jeffers said she dabbled in upcycling for decades until Michelle Smith, owner of Battle Ground’s Haute Madre resale boutique, nudged her into entrepreneurship. Now Smith sells Nadgwick Jeffers’ original creations in her store. Smith often gives unsellable shirts to Nadgwick Jeffers, who sews graphics and slogans from T-shirts onto flannel shirts to make statement pieces for her customers.
“I make clothes that express their innermost person, like whether they’re a car lover or love the band U2 or just have something sassy to say. I love that they can wear it and nobody else is going to be wearing anything like it,” Nadgwick Jeffers said.
She calls her process “marrying”: matching complementary colors, patterns and textures. She makes items that reflect the season (think red-and-white flannel with a vintage Santa graphic) or declare an interest (dogs, horses, sports). She also makes custom clothes for people who want to use particular pieces with sentimental value, like shirts that belonged to a loved one who’s passed away.
Nadgwick Jeffers, 52, works at a pharmacy to make ends meet as Somethin OUTTA Nothin continues to grow. In addition to selling at Haute Madre, she markets her clothes through Facebook and at Ronald Records, downstairs from Kindred Homestead Supply in downtown Vancouver. She said she has a cadre of collectors who save real estate in their closets just for her creations. Nadgwick Jeffers believes they’ll stand the test of time because they’re made to be cherished, the antithesis of fast fashion.
“It kills me to see people go out and buy an outfit for just one night. Why would you do that when you could make smarter choices and sustainable choices?” Nadgwick Jeffers said. “I have flannels that I took out of my dad’s closet when I was a kid and I’m still wearing them. I guess I’m kind of a hippie in my mindset. I would rather upcycle something and make it new again.”
Endless supply of fabric
Vancouver resident Stacey Silber, 52, owner of Do Over Designs, first tried making new clothes from castoffs 11 years ago. (Coincidentally, both she and Nadgwick Jeffers graduated from Columbia River High School in 1989.)
Silber said she was inspired by the upcycled outfits she saw online at Pinterest and Etsy and decided to give it a try. She opened her own Etsy shop, etsy.com/shop/oreomocha, selling skirts with a pop culture bent made from T-shirts. She also found a steady stream of buyers at the First Thursday market in Portland’s Pearl District and at Portland’s popular Saturday Market, where she was a vendor for nine years.
She eventually quit her job because she could make more money selling upcycled clothes. Now she sells online and travels to juried art festivals in Washington, Idaho, Utah, California and Arizona.
She buys used clothes from the bins at Goodwill outlets, where donations are sold by the pound before Goodwill volunteers sort and price them for purchase at Goodwill stores. She goes to Goodwill once or twice a week to search for fabric and brings friends with her. They have a standing date for what she calls “Wednesday Binsday.”
“It’s an endless supply of materials,” Silber said. “I’ve been making one-of-a-kind for 10 years now and I’ve never made the same skirt twice.”
She finds the process of pairing one thing with another to be deeply satisfying, but it’s also time consuming. She never uses a pattern but cuts each panel or segment by hand and thoughtfully arranges the disparate elements into a cohesive whole.
“It’s not just sewing. It’s finding the materials and then washing everything and then sorting everything and then matching everything up,” Silber said. “That’s the fun part, but that’s also the part that’s 100 percent me. I can’t hire someone to do that because that’s my eye.”
Although her main product is skirts (which she has sold as a vendor at Vancouver’s Recycled Arts Festival) she also makes ponchos from old sweaters, pants from T-shirts and reversible bucket hats using fabric from sheets and Hawaiian shirts. She saves her more complex, sophisticated pieces for art shows instead of selling them on Etsy, like the coat she recently made from scraps of black denim lined with exquisite black and gold silk.
She said she found the bolt of silk years ago at Goodwill and was hanging onto it until the right project came along.
“It’s so much fun to find this stuff,” Silber said. “I think ‘What can I do with this?’ There’s somebody out there that’s going to want that piece because it speaks to them in some way.”