Why Antique Quilts, Feed Sacks & Tea Towels Reign in Upcycled Fashion

Upcycling is no longer just a trend—the idea of reuse has saturated the fashion industry for the better. This more sustainable method of production also often means pieces from your favorite designers can feel even more special, as each upcycled creation is usually truly one of a kind.

As the past few seasons of designer upcycling have evolved, there’s been one major trend that’s emerged both on Instagram and the runways. Right now, there’s a unique group of fashion brands with big followings that are repurposing specific vintage materials such as feed sacks and tea towels to make new pieces of clothing. Take, for example, Selina Sanders, who makes custom tops out of vintage tea towels, or 3 Women, which creates pants and tops out of feed sack bags and tablecloths. Psychic Outlaw is another brand crafting coats out of what were once antique quilts.

There are plenty more examples—including Chopova Lowena, which is well-known in high fashion circles. For spring 2021, the brand looked to upcycled tea towels, using them to make skirts and tops. “We have always loved vintage English tea towels,” explains Emma Chopova, one-half of the designer duo behind the brand. “I think on one hand, they are beautiful and have vivid colors. But they’re also humorous and very nostalgic for Laura [Lowena]. We are always looking for textiles which we can source a good amount of, and tea towels have been on our radar for a while.”

Selina Sanders, who almost exclusively works with tea towels to create custom tops and dresses from one-of-a-kind antique textiles, was inspired to start her line from her personal collection. She first migrated to the United States from the Philippines in the late ’90s, and her mother had an upcycled linen clothing business in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “She would wake me up at the crack of dawn to source at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in LA, or at a local rag house,” she explains. “I was drawn mainly to the fun graphics. I would find every opportunity to pick one up in my many travels overseas, when I worked as a designer for a number of American national brands. It didn’t matter if they had specifically a direct connection to my own life or experience, I simply collected them because I thought they were pieces of art.”

Sanders started her business during the pandemic. At the moment, she only releases new pieces on the third Friday of every month—but when she does put them up for sale, they sell out in minutes. She first decided to make upcycled clothing after having “a few things in my possession: my sewing machine and a shed full of vintage textiles,” she says. “I decided to make myself a top using a Bermuda Flowers souvenir towel, paired with a quilt top from the ‘90s.” The look was inspired by YouTuber Beth Jones’ hashtag, #AprilShowersBringMayFlowers. “I tagged her when I was in the process of making the top, she offered to wear it and share it with her followers, and the next thing I knew, women all over the world wanted a top like hers.”

3 Women, founded by Crystal Early and Natalie Mumford, releases pieces on a drop basis, with most options selling out day of. The designers take custom orders for pants and tops made from feed sack bags—resulting in one-of-a-kind masterpieces. “In a sentimental nod to Crystal’s family, our first jacket was made using a 1950s rice sack, saved from her family’s Chinese frozen food business, Dragon Foods, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada,” explains Mumford. “Using family heirlooms to create custom clothing is a special way to preserve and carry on one’s family history.”

Often, Early and Mumford make pieces to order by taking customer measurements—which seems to be an intrinsic part of this new wave of pandemic fashion upcycling. “Although we’ve been designing clothing using vintage textiles for a few years now, it wasn’t until the pandemic that people really took notice,” adds Mumford. “With time for reflection, people are more mindful about their spending. They want to feel a connection with the pieces they buy and the companies they support.”

If you’ve seen the quilted coat trend while scrolling through Instagram—think Bode—you can thank Psychic Outlaw, the brand making custom, one-of-a-kind coats from antique quilts as well as quilts that customers supply. Rebecca Wright started the brand in January 2020, right as the pandemic was beginning. “That may have something to do with our luck of taking off around March 2020,” she explains. “With people picking out quilts and working with me to have something special made just for them, it gave them something to look forward to during a scary and uncertain time.”

Given all this, it’s no surprise we’re seeing tea towels, feed sack bags, and antique quilts turned into clothing. It’s an uncertain time, and using utilitarian textiles during revolutionary or scary eras has been a historical fixture. Just think about wartime fashion in the US, when women made feed sack dresses during World War II. “The repurposing of feed sacks has been going on since the Depression era, and we’re honored to carry on this practice of resourcefulness and creativity in our sustainable fashion designs,” adds Mumford.

As fashion trends shift, upcycling will only continue to evolve into a more creative practice on the runway and on the streets. “We hope that the pandemic has made people more aware of the environment, but also of the people and communities which construct clothing and give less power to fast-fashion,” says Chopova. “I do think that one-of-a-kind clothing is becoming more sought-after and mindsets are slowly shifting—I really hope that becomes even more true.”

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