Do you want to turn bedsheets, tablecloths, curtains or other thrifted fabrics into beautiful sustainable dream clothes, but don’t know where to start? Read on, I have collected the best tips I’ve learned so far on my own bedsheet journey in this blog post. The dress in the photo above is made from a vintage duvet cover and has a bedsheet trimming. Everything, including the bag, the shoes and the earrings, was found in local thrift stores. It doesn’t get much more sustainable.
1. Bring your imagination.
First and foremost you need to show up at the thrift stores with your own imagination and creativity. That’s why I love this so much. When you go to a second hand shop you never know what you’ll find. That is very different to how we are used to do our shopping. You can’t expect to find a specific pair of blue shoes or the latest trendy Gucci bag. Instead you have to be able to see one thing and imagine how YOU can turn it into something entirely different. Even if this doesn’t come natural to you, you will learn by practice. I must admit it does take a bit of practice, but most things do. The good news is, it’s very affordable so all you have to do is start.
Another important thing you need to do is to show up regularly, as you never know what will be in the thrift shop from one day to the next. One day you will find true treasures, and next time you go, nothing. To stay true to the environment, my time and my money I don’t just drive around to thrift shops daily. I try to make a habit out of going when I’m out driving anyway. For instance if I’m out grocery shopping, driving the kids swimming, visiting a friend living in another city and so on, then I will check out the thrift stores in that area.
2. Become a bedsheet collector.
Although my husband dislike it and thinks I’m a hoarder, I buy things even if I don’t have an immediate plan. I do this so I have ‘something to work with’. Sometimes a piece of fabric will speak to me straight away, and I’ll get a brilliant idea, but I also need plain or sparkly/fun fabrics to mix and match with and to help spark my imagination when I get a bit stuck. This could be fabrics for trimmings like the crochet lace on the dressing gown above, fabrics for boarders, linings, belts or facings etc. As you may have noticed in the top photo of my stripy bedsheet dress, it’s that plain yellow bedsheet trim that takes the dress form ‘nice dress’ to ‘stunning dress’, at least in my opinion. So I’ve learned that if I see something that I think could work in the future, I buy it for my creative stash, not just for the sake of hoarding it. This takes practice as well, but as you work with it more you will get the hang of how it works best for you. You may very well find your own ways to be creative. The most important thing is to just start with a couple of bedsheets and then play. Things are often very cheap in thrift stores, so if you buy something and then realise you will never use it, just give it back. Then if nothing else you’ve supported a good cause. If you want to read about how to use silk neckties as trim click here.
3. Quality control.
While I’m in the shops I try to scrutinise the fabrics I pick out the best I can. Lighting is not always perfect for this, so it can be difficult to spot everything. Here are some tips:
Tablecloths often have stains, and right in the middle. Look at the stains, how many are there? Can you work around them? Do you think you can wash them out? If there are to many stains and you don’t think they will wash out, leave it unless it can be used as a fun trim. The good thing about tablecloths are that the fabric is not worn thin from use or sunlight, so you should be able to use the whole cloth, apart form the stains if there are any. I find that very often the stains have settled in from being washed/ironed several times and you will have to work around them. I had to do just that when I made the yellow tablecloth dress below. Keep in mind that the fabric may have a pattern or a print that you want to match up, because that will require more fabric. For my yellow dress I ended up ignoring the print matching as I decided it was fairly irregular anyway. That’s a matter of personal taste wether or not you will want the print to match. I don’t like to waste huge amounts of fabric to match up let’s say a floral print, so unless it’s really necessary I don’t always match up prints. A lot of table cloths are 2.6 x 1.3 m which is a fair amount of fabric to work with. It was enough to sew that yellow shirt dress, that has quite a lot of width. And I had to avoid two candle wax stains in the centre of the tablecloth. That being said, I had absolutely no fabric what so ever left. Not even enough to make the dress shields I wanted.
Duvet covers are often worn and thin at the top, but are not very often stained. The stripy duvet cover dress at the top is made out of only the middle of that duvet cover. If you leave the top of the cover out you will often have 2,5-3 m of fabric to work with, which is very often enough for a dress. If you find new covers you will have 4 m, and that is a lot of fabric to work with. Make sure the quality of the fabric is not too thin and see through unless you want it to be. Many modern duvet covers are very thin and often poor quality fabric. Another thing with newer duvet covers is that they are sometimes 50% polyester, 50% cotton. So if you don’t like wearing polyester check the label, because often duvet covers are a very well camouflaged soft blend. I have been fooled a couple of times. On the other hand polyester make fabrics a bit stronger, so you decide what you prefer. Personally I choose more accordingly to the colour and the patterns, not so much the blend. I do prefer pure cotton, but sometimes blends works fine as well. As a side note I never use pillow cases unless they are brand new. They are often greasy on the surface and it can’t be washed out in my experience.
Curtains can be fragile and faded by the sunlight, so check how strong they seem before buying them. They are not often stained and they can have the most exquisite patterns and prints. Do consider if the fabric is something that you will actually wear as many curtains nowadays can be a very artificial/plastic-y blend or even 100% polyester. If that is the case they are not worth wearing because that sort of curtain fabric was never intended to be worn close to your body like for instance the bedsheets. These very artificial types of fabric are also very difficult to sew. That being said there are some beautiful jacquard cotton curtains worth investigating and buying.
4. Spot removing.
If a piece of second hand fabric has too many spots I often leave it, or if I really love it, I will think about how I can maybe make sure the spots will be at the bottom of the hem, or on the seam allowance, or the facing (depending on what type of spots, of course). Be creative. Maybe the fabric can be combined with something else. Otherwise leave it, it’s not worth the hassle. You can also smell the fabric. If it smells like it’s been lying 10 years in a damp basement, don’t buy it, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of the smell.
I’m not easily put off by reusing other peoples things, but I always, as in always, wash the things I buy in a thrift store before I use them at least once. If at all possible I wash fabrics on a 60 dg cycle, with a prewash. Otherwise I wash them at 40 dg. and very often twice. I use spot remover on spots, vanish if necessary and washing powder for the actual wash. I don’t treat these fabrics as gentle as I normally would treat fabric I bought in a fabric shop. I do want them CLEAN, and if they can’t cope with being washed, I throw them out. I would not have worn them unwashed anyway. It hasn’t happened yet because most of the fabrics I buy are cottons or blends that washes fine. As I mentioned before the lighting in the shops is not always the best. Therefore I have discovered that a good way to find all spots/holes is to iron all thrifted fabrics not folded, this way I will be forced to have a close look at the entire piece of fabric. I have spotted small hole this way that I would not have seen otherwise until under the sewing machine light.
If you can not bear the thought of wearing someone else’s used fabric don’t fret. I find that very often you will be able to find items still in the original wrapping and still with a price tag from the shop where they were bought. These buys are of course always super buys. Brand new, not worn thin, stained or faded. So if you find it difficult to wear used fabric, you just have to be more picky when you buy thrifted goods. There are a lot of brand new things out there, it just takes a bit more effort and time to find them.
One of the things I love the most is when I find something true vintage. Like when I found two beautiful vintage duvet covers with an exquisite crochet trim. The fabric was a lot thicker than new duvet covers and pure cotton. The only thing was, they had been washed many times and in Denmark that means a lot of residue limescale in the fabric that made them a bit stiff. To soften them up, I added 2-3 dl of clear vinegar to the prewash (no soap) before giving them a regular wash 60 dg. Another great thing about the vintage duvet covers were that they were sewn with cotton thread, and that makes them perfect for dyeing. Be aware if you dye something that polyester thread will not get the same colour as the cotton. So I decided to change the colour, and two white covers and two packets of Dylon ocean blue dye went into making the beautiful summer dress below. For this dress I was also only able to use the middle piece of the covers as both the top and bottom was worn thin. To get enough width in the skirt, I used both covers as they only had the crochet trim on the front. So I do have the back of the covers for another fun future project.
5. Be Creative.
When you are working with thrifted fabrics, you will literaly have to work with what you’ve got. This is the great part and where all the fun begins. It will force you to be creative, think out of the box and try out things you might not ordinarily have tried out. Just from the shear fact that you will have to sometimes, to have enough fabric. Think about how you can place the pattern pieces. Check if you can turn pattern pieces upside down to save fabric, something I would not ordinarily advise you to do with other fabrics. This can sometimes work as long as you stay true to the grain line, either vertically and horizontally. You may also mix one fabric with another fabric, a piece of lace, an old silk necktie or other sorts of trimming that you can easily find in most thrift stores. As you can see in the photo below I have use the border of the tablecloth for the bottom of both the sleeves and the coat. To get enough fabric for the sleeves they had to be cut sideways on the fabric (as the table cloth had that boarder on all four sides), and it works in this case because the pattern on the tablecloth is symmetrical and therefore it doesn’t show that the sleeves are sideways. Be creative with design features, and come up with new great ideas. For me there are no rules when the fabric cost next to nothing. You’ll get to try out all sorts of crazy stuff, and that is where you learn a lot.
When working with thrifted fabrics you can feel free to test you creative skills, sewing skills, colour coordinating skills, you name the sewing skill you want to improve. Some of the things you create will work out beautifully, and make you feel so proud, giving you a great sense of achievement. Other things will not turn out as good, but they will have taught you valuable lessons. You will have had fun and you don’t have to cry over spilled milk, because you haven’t wasted a lot of money. Trying and testing things are actually also how it works when you sew in other fabric. I have trained with a few designers and they were all doing a lot of ‘trying out things’. I learned a valuable lesson back then. Testing things, trying thing, doing the actual work several times is what will give you experience. Mistakes or accidents will sometimes make the most innovative and stunning outfit. Other times it will end up in the bin, not everything will turn out as you thought it would, and it happens to everybody, even the big designers. But to do your trying and testing in thrifted fabric is a lot more fun than ruining an expensive piece of french lace. But be aware that you will probably eventually begin to feel the same way about a thrifted fabric. I already have some duvet covers I saved for something special! Still I’m more willing to take changes, and try something new when I use bedsheets or other thrifted fabrics. Besides the obvious reason to be more sustainable by using perfectly good fabrics that have already been produced, it also sparks your creativity. The photo beneath is showing a suit I made for my daughter out of a duvet cover and a fairly thick sheet. It’s one of those outfits, where it just all worked out perfectly, and it turned out even better than I imagined. – Just from what we were able to find in a couple of thrift stores.