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Sewing with vintage fabrics

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

When I started teaching sewing many years ago it was obvious to me that my students would only use upcycled or recycled fabrics. For a number of reasons, economical, ecological and to challenge their creativity.

The cost of fabric many years ago was exorbitant, before all the imports from China. The cost of fabric today in the long run is the same. The quality is poorer and the items sewn do not last as long. I am sure all of you have worn t shirts that after a few washes have small pitted holes in the front.

T shirt with holes

And the cottons sold today are not the same as those vintage 100% cotton sheets that one touches and think of grandmothers and starching and quality.

Vintage cotton shirts and sheets
Vintage cotton shirts and sheets

As far back as I can remember myself I have always bought second hand. It started out as the thrill of finding a treasure and then as a cheap source for very good quality fabrics.

One of the mothers of a student called me last week and said that her daughter wants to sew at home and asked me where she could buy cheap second hand fabrics. I told her that the first place to go was her clothing closet and then her linen cupboard. She said that sounded weird. I told her to take out all the pieces of clothing that she had not worn for a year or didn't like at all. The same for the linen closet. How many sheets did she use? How many did she need. I told her to call me back after a week.

She did and said that her daughter ended up with a pile of 10 t shirts, 4 pairs of jeans, 3 sheets, 5 button down shirts from her father's closet and a dress from her mother's closet. She said that the philosophy of shopping in one's closet was new to her but that she had really enjoyed doing it and they had spent some mother daughter time together cleaning out and folding everything in the closet and talking about fashion and fads.

When they run out of fabric at home the next stop is a trip to the charity stores where they will find very good quality, cheap fabric in the form of sheets and shirts.

T shirts
T shirts

As a rule, other than when they make their purim costumes or their prom dresses I don't allow the students to buy new fabric.

Using upcycled fabric allows the students to experiment via trial and error without thinking of the expense of the fabric while learning. There is invariably "wasted fabric" when the student is on the learning curve. But another's "waste" are our crumbs for patchwork or filling for dolls and pillows.

We really don't throw anything out.


While working we have designated boxes for crumb pieces and for smaller remnants for beads or stuffing for pillows or dolls.

Crumbs and remnants
Crumbs and remnants

My sewing tutorials are based on using thrifted or upycled fabrics from clothing we have in our closets.

The patterns which I teach to draft are based on our clothes that fit us and complicated techniques are simplified so that even children can make these items.

Reversible patchwork vest
Reversible patchwork vest

She is 8 years old and made a reversible vest
She is 8 years old and made a reversible vest

And when refashioning an item I teach to use an existing piece of clothing because all of the elements are already there, the buttons, cuffs and collars and the shirt can be sized to fit one perfectly.

The tutorial for this shirt can be found here

PDF tutorial  - peplum shirt with new collar
PDF tutorial - peplum shirt with new collar

For some free sewing tutorials see here

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I love all of the things you make, the way you are teaching children to learn the value of re-using things, and your sense of resourcefulness. I am the same way except I don't teach. I love shopping in my closet, at thrift stores, etc. It just makes so much more sense to me than buying new, expensive fabric. Thank you so much for all of your helpful hints and sharing your love of fabric.

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