Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Story of Reclaimed Vintage

Call it what you will: upcycled, recycled, reclaimed vintage and the list goes on.  We get a lot of questions about our line of eco friendly apparel so we thought it was about time to demystify the process for you.

How do you design the clothes?

Where do you source your materials?

If you're just cutting up old clothes, why is your line so expensive?

We put together this story to share with you.  It is the story of our line and what goes on behind the scenes . . .
The Design Process

We always need to take our materials into consideration when designing.  Can we re-use the button placket from that dress shirt?  Will this full skirt fit on a re-cut garment or do we need to add seams?

Can we match reclaimed fabrics with new ones?  Will we be able to get enough vintage garments in this colour to produce multiple garments?

Jenn & Siv match vintage scarves with new organic fabric.
The Production Process

Once we've decided on the styles we'll be offering and created the patterns, it's time to start making the clothes!

Our first step in the production process is sourcing materials.  We source all of our vintage materials from warehouses that deal in second hand clothing.  Where does all this clothing come from you ask?  Well after you've donated your clothes to the Salvation Army or Goodwill, they go out on the racks and just like any retail store, these thrift stores need to turn over their merchandise and offer fresh product.  Garments that aren't sold within a certain time frame are packed up and sold off to these warehouses where we source our materials.  The warehouses sort the clothing into different categories: jeans, purses, jackets, sweaters, socks etc.  Sometimes they're even sorted for quality.  The lower quality items are sold as rags for industrial purposes.  Some clothing is exported to countries in Africa and Central America and sold in markets.  Some is picked by North American vintage shops.  Some is even broken down and re-processed into new materials like carpet under padding.

Clothing is sorted and then packed into bales to be shipped off.
By travelling to these warehouses we're able to get larger quantities of the items we need.  Here, we spend the day picking through bins of clothing for the usable pieces.  We generally skip over things that are too stained or worn out.  If something can be mended or parts can be salvaged we can give it a second life.  Because we see so much used clothing we know which types of fabric wear better.  Garments made from rayon and acrylic tend to pill up really quickly while wool and cotton can stay looking fresh for years and years.  Because the process of reclaiming vintage is so labour intensive we want the garments to last so we pick better quality fabrics which are harder to come by.  In a bin of mixed sweaters, typically 8-10% are wool, 8-10% are light cottons while the other 80-84% are acrylic, nylon, rayon and other icky materials that aren't really worth salvaging.  They'll be covered in pills after just a few washes & wears.

Jenn picking through a bin of sweaters for the good stuff!

In addition to hunting for the best fabrics, we're also concerned about colour.  We all have our favourite colours and most of our customers shop based on their colour palette and what they like best.  I know I do. Over the years we've found certain colours sell better than others so this is another step in the process of weeding out the less desirable pieces and finding the real gems.

After we've hauled back our finds for the day further sorting begins.

Garments made of cotton and other easy to wash fabrics are washed and dried at the laundromat while wools are steamed cleaned using industrial equipment after they've been sewn.

Once the washing is done we sort the clothes by garment type.  Pants are folded and stored together.  Sweaters, dress shirts and bedsheets all have their place too.

Many of the garments are measured so that we don't waste larger ones on smaller pieces and then run out later.  We're careful not to mix things up after they've been sorted as this usually takes a good day to a day and a half to get in order.

Now that we're all done with sorting the fun part begins.  We can select the vintage garments that go into making a new reclaimed Paper People garment.  Some of our garments take as many as 5 separate vintage pieces to create.  We're always very careful with the colours we combine.  Each piece is carefully pondered and thought out.  Sometimes vintage garments are combined with new fabrics which means we need a lot of the same colours.

After the selection process is all finished, hand cutting begins.  In regular clothing production, the designer selects fabric from swatches, orders rolls from the supplier then the fabric is spread in layers on a large table and cut with a specialized fabric cutting saw.  Unlike mass produced garments, our reclaimed vintage pieces are cut by hand, one by one.  How will the pattern pieces fit on the garment?  Are there damaged parts that need to be avoided when cutting?

Siv cuts a sleeve from a small sweater vest.
The leftover fabric pieces are sorted.  The tiny ones are garbage while larger ones are kept and made into accessories or donated to local crafters.  Nothing goes to waste in our studio!

Bins of fabric scraps are sorted by colour for smaller items like mitts and arm warmers.
The cut pieces are bundled together, sorted into bags based on thread colour and sent to the sewers.

We use a few different local sewing companies.  We visit their studios on a regular basis to check in on how the work is going.  Sewing quality garments requires years of practice and training.  It is a skill to be cultivated and not just anyone can do it.  Mei-Ling is lucky to have a team of talented sewers working for her.  She keeps busy sewing for many local Toronto designers.  She'd love to hire more workers but says it's hard to find people who are skilled enough to do the job.

The job prospects for a fashion design graduate are rather slim today.  Most hands on production is done overseas.  The products are "developed" here using flat sketches on computers and the drawings along with measurements are sent overseas where the wages are lower.  There they are translated into patterns, then cut, sewn, pressed and shipped back to North America & Europe.

Cat Essiambre and Kelly Henderson are Ryerson University graduates.  The corporate life didn't suit them so they decided to start their own businesses doing special projects and contract work for other designers.  Kelly specializes in costumes for film and television and does contract sewing.  Cat does pattern making, cutting, sample making and contract sewing for many Canadian fashion labels including the high end menswear designer, Phillip Sparks.

Cat & Kelly celebrating after finishing a large production run of Cynthia Dresses!

After the garments are sewn, they need to be pressed (ironed) so that the seams lay flat and all wrinkles and creases in the fabric are removed.  This part can be tricky and it's almost a little like sculpting.  A good pressing job can mean the difference between a garment looking expensive or cheaply made.

Mei Ling presses a dress to perfection.

We just love seeing all the garments as they arrive back from the sewers.  There is nothing more rewarding than seeing all our hard work come to fruition.

The next step is quality control.  Although we've already checked the garments for holes or stains during the cutting, sewing and pressing process we need to make sure that everything is in tip top shape and ready for the rack.

Vintage materials can be tricky and we go over each piece checking for holes and stains making sure no one is disappointed with their garment.  Stains are spot cleaned and holes are repaired.  We're experts at this part.  After all that hard work, how could we let something go to waste?

When all the garments have cleared quality control they are divvied up and sent off to local, independent retail boutiques across Canada.

So for those of you who wonder why a reclaimed vintage item costs so much more than something made from new materials you can remember all the love that goes into that one of a kind piece each step of the way!


  1. A fantastic read, Jen! What a ton of work -- I'm sure you're company will continue to do great things!

  2. thanks for this insight. Could you possibly give me the name of the warehouses you frequent? I'm looking for wool sweaters and would greatly appreciate the tip.
    love your work.