Can Upcycled Clothing Help Save the Planet?

This is a guest post by a fellow Asheville-based upcyled clothing refashionista. Her name is Julia McDowell of Perpetual Muse Designs, and here is her story.

Saving the World, One Fabric Scrap at a Time. . .

I work from home alongside my amazingly supportive husband and 3 yr old son. We live in our beautiful converted school bus home in the majestic mountains of Appalachia. It is my mission to create an upcycled clothing and accessories line comprised entirely of re-purposed materials.

In my work you will find everything recycled, upcycled, reclaimed, and salvaged. Why? Because already on this earth there are enough materials floating around in the fashion stream to create, then re-create again and again without ever buying new.

upcycled clothing - leg warmers
Upcycled leg warmers by Julia McDowell

The environmental impact of the apparel industry is enormous and most people are unaware of this fact.

We buy new clothes every year. Roughly 20 pieces of clothes per person per year are manufactured from new textiles. Often these items are created in foreign factories using cheap labor forcing humans to work in unsavory conditions just to feed their families.

These items are then shipped long distances using precious fossil fuels and then are sold in corporate chain stores that offer very little variety. The average American woman wears an article of clothing just 7 times before it is cast away to Goodwill or into the trash or donated. Then the cycle begins again, buy new, wear 7 times (or less), trash/donate, repeat.

As mother and planet-lover this bothers me tremendously and that’s why I make upcycled clothing for a living. When people ask me what I do I like to say that I am working on saving the world, one fabric scrap at a time. It makes them smile.

Why Thrift Stores Are Not The Total Solution

Now don’t get me wrong. Thrift stores are wonderful places. I have frequented them all my life. But they are clearly not the solution to the huge problem we have with discarded clothing.

Many people are squeamish about buying something second hand and frankly, sometimes it just seems easier to buy a cheap item of clothing at a store where you’re already buying groceries and household items.

And that leads to this shocking fact:

Only about 20% of items donated to thrift stores gets recirculated through the community.

When a thrift store acquires too much inventory, because people are always “donating” unwanted items, they have no choice but to put the surplus that doesn’t sell into a landfill or sell it to for-profit textile recycling companies.

I love the idea of textile recycling. I am not against this idea. These companies use unwanted clothes to make carpeting, insulation, rags, and toy stuffing.

However, a lot of the donated clothes have perfectly reusable fabric that can be made into amazingly unique new clothes!

Upcycled clothing - patchwork skirt
Upcycled patchwork skirt by Julia McDowell

A Vision For The Future of Upcycled Clothing

I have dedicated my creative self to the journey of collecting unwanted textile items (mostly from my friends who are cleaning out their closets) disassembling them and composing something fresh, mind blowing, and timeless.

My sewing journey began as a teenager who didn’t quite fit into everything so I began altering and embellishing my own clothes to make them something unique and that I felt good about wearing. I was known for my “different” look in high school.

After a while I fell out of sewing and into other young-adult endeavors. It wasn’t until pregnancy that I picked it up again. I was depressed looking at the typical maternity clothes and lack of personality or style found within them.

I remembered back to the many late nights as a 16 year old at my sewing desk making beautiful creations from the drab and unexciting clothes my friends were wearing. So, my husband (my best friend and biggest fan) got me a new sewing machine and that is where Perpetual Muse Designs was born!

How Upcycled Clothing Follows Nature’s Example

Nature is built as mosaic, even down to our tiniest DNA. We never see monotonous fields of anything in its natural state. Rather we see a scattering of color and texture. Think of a forest and then think of a planted field of corn. This is what most inspires me and my art. To embrace the spectrum, the bits and pieces that make the beautiful whole.

Upcycled clothing - bloomer shorts
Upcycled bloomer shorts by Julia McDowell

In my art you will find anything and everything recycled. Some of the best materials are those which are going to be discarded. The majority of my work is made with fabric from clothes that were going to be thrown away, rejected from donation bins.

That said, I don’t really stick to a particular kind of fabric, I like to mix it up. I might throw in some knits with corduroy or silk with canvas and denim. I’ve never been very good at following the rules, and I never will be. So, because each piece that I create is comprised of so many little bits of fabric, most items are one of a kind. It would be very challenging to make something repeatable, but I like it that way.

Each creation tells its own story!

Please feel free to check out my Etsy shop and send me a message if you have any questions. I absolutely love to make custom orders so feel free to inquire about that too!

Julia McDowell, Perpetual Muse Designs

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