Finding new life in old clothes, accessories
By KIM KILBRIDE
Tribune Staff Writer
For $3, a pair of pierced earrings can be turned into clip-ons.
Those old suit pants hanging in your closet can become walking shorts fit for the office for about $10.
Got another $10? You can have brand-new heels put on that pair of dress boots the puppy chewed on years ago.
These days, the budget-conscious are increasingly choosing to recycle clothes and accessories.
Rather than buying new things, they're having items they already own — perhaps pieces that have been lurking in the back of the closet for years — reworked or repaired.
And the cobblers, seamstresses and jewelers they hire are happy to have the business during an otherwise slower time.
Bringing the shimmer back
Cara Matheis, of South Bend, recently hired Ali Oesch, owner of One of a Kind Jewelry, based at the Farmers Market in South Bend, to rework a pearl necklace she received from her parents when she turned 16.
It was too long to fit most of the necklines of her tops. So Oesch made a short necklace out of it and with the pearls she removed was able to make a second long necklace that also has garnets.
"It's beautiful," Matheis said. "I couldn't have dreamed up anything better."
Oesch said she indeed has seen an increase in demand for the kind of services Matheis requested.
"Repairs are kind of big right now. ... (People) are bringing in old stuff that was their grandmother's, like costume pearls, costume-ish jewelry," she said.
While the heart of Oesch's business is creating unique pieces of jewelry, at a time when traffic is down, she said she's happy to help devise new uses for jewelry her customers already own.
The types of requests she's been getting vary, she said, from a woman who had the buttons from her father's firefighter uniform turned into a bracelet for herself and her daughter, to someone else who had three strands of antique crystals made into a bracelet and a necklace.
"Sometimes, I just get a big bag of beads and (the customer) says, 'Rework it.' "
Oesch, who also has booths at other area farmers markets, said one of the most popular services she offers these days is her transformation of pierced earrings into clip-ons.
It costs a mere $3.
Even a pair of stud earrings, if they're sterling silver, she said, can be turned into clip-ons by bending the post into a loop.
"That's something the women love," she said.
Of Oesch's prices for repairing and reworking jewelry, she said no one has complained yet.
"I haven't ever had someone say it wasn't worth it," she said, "because they're getting something they love back. ... Making people happy helps my business. It extends it."
Jodi Gregory, with Sorg Jewelers in Goshen, said there has been a lot of repair and redesign work going on in the finer-jewelry realm, as well.
"People who like their (own) stones are switching from yellow gold (bands, chains, etc.) to white gold," she said.
From diamonds to birthstones, she said, customers are taking some of what they already have and asking for it to be set into new pieces.
Others are simply having broken pieces fixed.
"We're doing a large repair business now," she said. "I do see people holding onto things."
From dated to fabulous
Kathy Friend is a local wardrobe consultant.
One common mistake women make, she said, is looking at their clothes closets as though they have no options.
The first step in recognizing how you might be able to alter some pieces you already own, she said, is to organize your closet — first by items like pants, tops and skirts — then by color.
Then, she said, "experiment with what you have and don't be afraid to think outside the box. If you put it on and it doesn't feel right, then start over."
She's recently worked with women who've had nice shirts with long tails cut into shorter jackets.
They've taken dress pants and hemmed them into walking shorts.
And old tapestry blazers have become colorful, chic bags.
"Another client had a beautiful silk blouse that she'd spilled something on the sleeve of. We just had that made into something sleeveless," Friend said.
For another recent client, Friend changed the buttons on her jackets, blazers and coats.
"This really freshened them up," she said.
They also took some sweaters, cut the sleeves off and added zippers down the front and turned them into vests.
And, they took an old suit jacket, added a contrasting fabric inside the arm so that when the sleeves are turned up, the pretty design is exposed.
It adds a real designer/boutique touch, she said.
For Friend's part, she does the consulting work and comes up with ideas for revamping her clients' wardrobes.
Seamstress Cathy VanBruane does much of the actual sewing.
VanBruane, of ABC (Alterations by Cathy), in Mishawaka, said she's been busy this summer doing wardrobe alterations for clients who bring in everything from one item to an armful.
Popular requests include turning full-length pants into capris (this costs $10), shortening jacket sleeves to three-quarter length and adding a slit to a skirt.
"I've been sewing for 32 years," she said. "There's always something that can be done to make (customers) like it (their clothing) again."
Joyce Hittesdorf is a Carmel, Ind.-based seamstress who has been in the business for 45 years.
She's currently the president of the Association of Sewing and Design Professionals, which has some 475 members across the nation.
The bread and butter of her business had always been custom bridal and special-occasion work, she said.
"But, it's (recently) done a little switch based on the economy," she said. "I have higher-end clients, yet I still have had a lot of them bring things in (for alterations) that they may have pitched in the past."
From seamstresses from all over, she said, she's hearing the same thing.
She attributes the uptick in her wardrobe alteration business to both an increased frugality among customers, as well as a desire to be "green."
Common alterations that some people might not know are possible include removing shoulder pads or making suit jacket shoulders smaller, she said.
Wider-leg pants can easily be narrowed.
And, as VanBruane pointed out, dresses and jackets with full sleeves can be converted to three-quarter sleeves.
"If you just have that little nip or tuck done, it makes such a difference," she said.
In the past, Hittsesdorf said, she would likely have turned down such small jobs. But these days, with the other part of her business being slow, she wouldn't dare.
In fact, after more than four decades behind a sewing machine, she's thinking about shifting more of her business to fixing and reworking pieces vs. making new ones.
"I get such a kick out of what a minor little alteration will do to make a garment look better," she said.
Restore your footwear
Steve Kulwicki is the owner of Alex's Shoe Hospital in South Bend.
"We've definitely noticed it (an uptick in business)," Kulwicki said recently. "The repair end (of business) has picked up quite a bit."
Many of those who come through the door these days, he said, are first-time customers, people who may have previously never thought twice about trashing a pair of slightly worn boots in favor of buying new ones.
Cobblers' work runs the gamut from regluing loose soles ($5 to $6) on shoes, for example, to putting brand-new heels on women's dress boots ($10), to changing out eyelets and other hardware.
Kulwicki also does a lot of luggage and purse repairs.
Many customers, he said, seem surprised at the new life he's able to breathe into their items.
"A lot of people seem to think it (shoe repair) is a dying business," Kulwicki said. But fueled recently by a new desire among consumers to be both thrifty and green, "it's not," he said.