The Cheap Thrills of Thrifty Fashion

Last night, our three-year-old night owl conked out at 8:00!! Daniel and I did a little dance of glee and launched into an evening of companionable adult pursuits, which of course included sorting through our wardrobes, getting out the winter clothes and putting away the summer ones, and deciding the fate of unwanted garments.

What? That’s not your idea of fun and excitement? Well, you’ve got a point, but you have to realize that this sorting process includes my flinging off my clothes at unexpected moments, to try on other garments, so that adds to the romance. We had a lot of fun doing this job in parallel and getting to have a conversation that wasn’t interrupted every 14 seconds by jabbering about trains or demands for more cheese. (The kid ate literally a quarter-pound of colby-jack yesterday! Apparently he has some sort of cheese deficiency.) Also, we were able to sort the clothes into many piles, without anyone coming along to show us The Way He Usually Does It.

We wound up with a lot of piles because we forced ourselves to give up some clothes that we really don’t wear anymore, and each item had to be categorized according to what shreds of usefulness we believe still could be wrung out of it.

Both Daniel and I like to make clothes last as long as possible. The trouble is, when a garment has become shabby-looking or uncomfortable or somehow less appealing than other items, it winds up in the back of the drawer all season, not getting worn. Both of us have a strong instinct to hang onto things in case they might come in handy, and that often serves us well, but it’s possible to take it too far.

For example, two years ago I bought three long-sleeved knit tops at Target because they were on sale and they came in such nice colors. I think I did try them on but had Nicholas with me and wasn’t paying close enough attention to the fit, and I think they then shrank a little when washed. At any rate, by last winter these tops were tugging on my shoulders, discouraging my elbows from bending, and creeping up around my neck…but the useful colors and relative newness kept me from replacing them: “I can’t buy that; I already have a royal blue long-sleeved top.” Last night I put those tops on the yard sale pile. They’ll go to someone who is the right size for them, and I can have tops that fit me!

And I don’t have to buy them new. Today I’m wearing my “new” sweater, which makes me very happy; it’s exactly the kind I wanted. I got it at Goodwill. I still have sweaters I got at Goodwill when I was in college 14 years ago. I still have a sweater I inherited from my grandma 20 years ago, and I have worn it regularly every winter since then.

When you wash all your laundry in cold water and line-dry it, things last. Some things last a really long time. If you stay the same size (or nearly so), then you wind up with a lot of clothes that are 10, 15, 20 years old. This has its advantages: Your old familiar clothes are broken-in to your shape and weathered to cozy softness. On the other hand, you can wind up bored with the lack of novelty or looking frowsy because all your clothes are fraying at the edges. If you enjoy shopping, like I do, then you wind up buying new (to you) clothing and cramming it in next to things you can’t bear to part with, and after a few years you’re discovering that you own garments you’d forgotten all about because they got buried. (Two good methods of preventing this problem are to live in a very small home or to move every two years. We’ve abandoned those approaches for good reasons, but sometimes I miss them!)

Some clothes that are still wearable, in theory, are just not going to be purchased by any yard-sale shopper. Nobody wants to buy someone else’s stretched-out socks worn thin in the heels, even if they aren’t worn through and are a hard-to-find shade of green; you might be able to ditch them on the FREE STUFF! table, but only if somebody stops by who has a need for cleaning rags or a yearning to make sock-puppets.  These clothes always make me think of the folktale about the man who “wore it and wore it until it was all worn out” and then cut it down and made a smaller garment. There’s got to be some way to use them…

Say you have a nice soft knit shirt whose collar and hems have stretched out so that it looks sloppy. Cut them off. (Use really sharp scissors, not the ones you use to cut paper.) Now you have a hemless shirt that makes a comfortable inner layer under sweaters, where a collar can be too bunchy. If you get too hot and wind up exposing that shirt, you can tell everyone the Flashdance look is back in style! Alternatively, a hemless shirt is very comfortable as a pajama top. The cut-off bands of fabric can be used as hair bands, sleeping-bag ties, cable ties, or to hold vining plants in place.

Daniel brought out from storage two old tie-dyed T-shirts that he hadn’t worn in years because they were falling apart but that he couldn’t part with because of their cool patterns. One of them turned into an undershirt, as above. The other was so worn that it looked like Swiss cheese around the shoulders. I cut off that part and all the hems and seams. Then I spread out the usable fabric and cut it into 9-inch squares. (If you spread the fabric on carpet, you can press the edge of the ruler into it to make nice straight lines to cut on–no pencil or chalk needed!) After using up all the large areas, I cut the rest into pieces of whatever size was convenient–most about 5″x9″. The squares are 5 new, cool tie-dyed, very soft handkerchiefs for Daniel. The 6 odd-sized pieces will go into an empty tissue box next to our bed, to be used like tissues but washed and re-used.

Old socks make great hand puppets. Just give them some clothes–made of scraps from other old clothes–to cover the threadbare parts. I put my nicer-looking discarded socks into the bin of Girl Scout craft supplies and will look for an opportunity to suggest that my troop make sock puppets!

The rest of the old socks went into the rag bag, to be used for dusting and polishing things. Having a good supply of rags means we can throw them away after a cleaning job, rather than trying to get them clean and not send them back to the clothing drawers by accident.

Daniel had spent most of Saturday mending clothes, some of which he’d been wearing routinely even though they were falling to shreds. Last night he found that many of his winter clothes needed work, too. He held up his plaid flannel bathrobe and said musingly, “I think I can fix this,” and I started rolling on the floor laughing because the robe had an enormous T-shaped rip in the lower rear portion, which last winter made him look like he was wearing a hospital gown, and which was now held together with a binder clip! It looked ridiculous, and seeing it brought back memories of how he looked in it last winter, and it was just preposterous to imagine trying to salvage it. (He did, though! He had saved the silly matching flannel bag–unsuitable for any other use because of the enormous scratchy tag sewn to the front of it with two rows of firm, tiny stitches–in which the robe had come from The Gap. He cut a patch from the bag and used it to reinforce the robe and sewed up the rips with the sewing machine. It now has a strangely puckered spot, but it looks like an old bathrobe again, instead of like something a homeless person would wear.)

We cast aside many items that had been with us for years: The sweatpants Daniel got for Christmas 1996 from our then-housemate Curt, made of black poly-cotton that held together really well but stretched to a shape appropriate for someone with a much larger butt and no calves. Those weird socks designed to make you look like you have shoes on, if your feet are shaped like shoes or at least are the right size for the socks, which mine are not. The cotton batik dress, missing its belt, cast off by one of my uncle Carl’s friends when I was 12, which I used as a summer nightgown for 20 years and found convenient for breastfeeding because all the fabric at the sides of the chest has crumbled away. We put in our time with these garments, but now we’re done!

We spent our evening marveling over old clothes that have served us for years and still look great, putting aside things we hope will find good homes with other people, getting excited over beautiful “new” hankies, planning yet more mending, laughing at the things we’d kept too long, modeling possible new combinations of old clothes, and winnowing our wardrobes to things we’ll actually wear. We completed a chore, but we also spent time together, reminding ourselves how well our values match. We refilled our drawers and closet with clothes that are mostly far from the cutting edge of fashion, and we felt rich. We spend so little money on clothing, yet we have so much, enough to keep us warm and comfortable for weeks between launderings, and so many interesting and colorful garments, each one with its history and accumulating memories. We are determined to make the most of what we have, and last night we laughed at some of our sillier attempts to squeeze value out of every garment…but we laughed, too, because it’s working, because we are swimming in an abundance of great stuff.

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2 thoughts on “The Cheap Thrills of Thrifty Fashion

  1. Pingback: Washing Plastic Bags « The Earthling's Handbook

  2. Pingback: Line-drying Laundry « The Earthling's Handbook

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