Fabric on a Dime

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Wool and linen out of season can easily cost $25 a yard. With a bit of patience and a little research you can glean thrift stores for material. Wool skirt with a touch of spandex from Goodwill: $6.99. Pure linen skirt: $6.99. Black leather jacket: $9.99. I was even eyeing a gorgeous fur coat of hideous design for $14.99; since the warm weather has set in I decided to hold off. Add a seam-ripper and an afternoon of NCIS episodes later you have raw materials. Seam-rippers have a bad reputation. But you are not undoing hours of your own hard work, you are rescuing precious fabric! (Pre-serged edges are another bonus).

True, you are unlikely to get a 45” wide expanse of untouched fabric, but don’t let that stop you. Since materials were expensive and labour was cheap, old clothing was repurposed whenever possible; often multiple times. Their looms were not very wide to begin with, resulting in garments that used fabrics conservatively. For example, the wool used in the Bocksten cloak was woven on a loom 23.6 inches (60 cm) wide.

It’s best to start out with some projects in mind so you don’t stand around wondering what you could make out of that wool skirt. An idea will inevitably occur to you and you’ll end up spending more money than you originally intended, defeating the purpose entirely. Unbelievable as it may be, I have little to no garb. So I was looking for some contrasting linen for edging on a T-tunic or possibly side-less gown, wool for a chaperone or ideally a pair of hosen, and leather for turn-shoes.

Ideal clothes for this are plus-sized with as few seams as possible in colours appropriate to your persona. I start off in the dress section and run my hand along the rack, stopping if I see or feel something that might work. I do this to cut time because finding the fiddly little tags can be annoying, if they are even intact. With some experience you can identify wool, linen, and leather by sight, feel, and even scent. (Just don’t try sniffing those boots to see if they’re really leather). Remember that you will not be wearing the product as is; so while you may not wear that coral dress cut like a potato sack, it’s perfect for your needs.

The bedding section is worth a look, but don’t get your hopes up. It’s mostly cotton. Unless your persona is Middle Eastern, it was late period, rare, and expensive. White cotton sheets are perfect for undergarments if they are thin enough, and no one should be seeing your underwear, anyway. If you make your own patterns, then they are indispensable for muslin mockups.

Do not feel guilty about dissecting your finds because you will be giving them a home whereas they might have languished indefinitely between the polyester bellbottoms and the scary acrylic ‘80’s sweater. When I purchased my most recent haul I told the cashier that a bag was not necessary as I was just going to cut them up. She was surprised until I elaborated upon their destiny. Then I pointed out the worn seams on the leather jacket and told her not to mourn it.

Save the zippers, buttons, and other notions for modern projects. If you are especially ambitious, save every scrap for appliqué work and/or stuffing pillows. After tedious seam-ripping, wash and dry the separated pieces according to the tag’s instructions. Just because they were pre-owned does not mean that they have been pre-shrunk, I have seen many clothes in thrift stores with the original tags attached. After that you can start laying out your pattern, just watch your grain-lines.

Here's what the wool skirt looks like deconstructed: