When Harmony Csuhany is out in public, she often finds herself inadvertently redesigning people’s outfits in her mind. She’d like to save the hood from a ragged sweater, the sleeves from an otherwise ugly jacket, and the bits of fabric from another piece to create one of the unique items full of different colours and seams that hangs in her 124th Street shop, the Frog Kisser’s Den.
Upcycling became a passion when she started working at the store six years ago; and now, as the owner, she takes thrift shop finds and pieces of nostalgia from people’s wardrobes and makes them into new pieces entirely.
She’s not alone – upcycling is seeing an upswing in the local fashion world with seamstresses scouring through piles of used clothing at thrift shops rather than racks at fabric stores.
Lorraine Dezman runs Pondhopper on Etsy, where she crafts upcycled pieces ranging from formal gowns to sundresses. “I prefer to find something that’s sad, lost, or abandoned; something nobody would wear because it has a stain or something like that,” says Dezman.
After starting her side-business eight years ago, she began hearing some negative stories from the fashion industry: terrible working conditions for underpaid overseas workers to produce inexpensive and disposable clothes. “There was no real longevity, no real soul, no meaning behind them,” says Dezman, who realized she could make a small contribution by making outfits from clothes that would normally end up in the landfill. Many of her customers have sought her out for that very reason.
The JJ Wool Company has a workshop with discarded wool and cashmere sweaters lining shelving on the walls – most pieces are shrunken and disfigured but the fabric’s beauty is restored when transformed into mitts, or a skirt or a bag.
Owners Jennifer Mikula and Jan Wallace had people request custom made pieces using clothing with a special meaning. They crafted pillows, and stockings out of sweaters worn by an athlete who had participated in the 1994 Olympics – after he passed away, his ex-wife had requested something be done with the material. When another lady’s stepfather passed away, Mikula and Wallace crafted several blankets from cashmere sweaters he had worn. They also make mittens for winter bridal parties, creating meaningful gifts that last beyond the wedding day.
The nostalgia factor is something Dezman has also encountered. When a customer requested that she create a wedding dress, Dezman was not given many rules for how it would look aside from the request that a special shirt, which belonged to the client’s recently deceased grandfather, somehow be incorporated into the piece. Dezman used the button holes of several men’s shirts, including that one, to create a fitted bodice that can’t be found on any rack in any store. “You could wear one of these pieces and nobody in the entire world would have another one,” says Dezman.
Prior to discovering upcycling, Dezman says she hated sewing – she saw it as a tedious task that required following strict rules laid out in a pattern. But these days, she can craft something entirely unique without any restrictions.