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Upcycling Workshop: A New Source of Fabric

I’m wandering down a brick lined side street, confused and lost. Without data enabled on my iPhone, I stare down at my paper map and I wonder if I am even in the right part of the city. The large block of apartments immediately in front of me signals I can go no further. Turning on my heels I notice a breeze blocked garage tucked in the corner. White washed, except for the painted face of bat woman, her red eyes urge me to enter the black door to her right.

This is Laneway Learning in Central Melbourne, one of their many centres all around Australia that offer cheap, fun and accessible workshops on a whole range of topics. Founders Tom, Kim, Mark and Lucie set up this not-for-profit organisation in Melbourne in 2012 for people to try a taster at a subject without committing to a full term of evening classes. Priced at AUS$16 (apx £9) I thought it was worth a try.

I booked my place on a shirt upcycling workshop on the Laneway Learning website, advertised as part of the Sustainable Living Festival that is taking place in Melbourne this month. As a keen upcycler, I wanted to learn some new techniques and meet like minded people during my 10 days in this very cool city. Not knowing what to expect, I’d entered into a compact, deconstructed class room. Insulation fibres poking through the ceiling eaves and the month’s class schedule chalked up on a black wall, the decor is perfectly suited to Melbourne’s street style. Skye Bennett, the organisation’s Melbourne Manager welcomed me in as she plonked an overflowing box of men’s formal shirts on one of the large tables filling the room. The shirts, donated by Carl Nave especially for this evening, were a conservative blue and white but I spied a piece of purple gingham poking out and claimed it for my own.

With a burst of energy, our teacher for the evening, Gaye Naismith rushes into the front of the class carrying a dress makers dummy and a bag of textiles. Gaye set up her School of Sewing and Upcycling in 2015 with an emphasis on sustainable sewing and textile upcycling. With a whole range of classes at her Footscray school, she volunteers at Laneway Learnings to introduce students to new techniques.

There are around twenty of us in the room all holding onto our shirts in anticipation of what new outfits Gaye is going to create from one simple item. ‘Men’s shirts are an amazing source of fabric’, Gaye tells us as she demonstrates what can be done with a little ‘wrapping, reconfiguring and some cutting’, no sewing machines required. Or quite a bit more skill is needed to re-create the halterneck top Gaye wears made from an old shirt by Australian Designer Ellie Mouke.

Louise Angrilli is an avid fan of the Great British Sewing Bee. An amateur sewer, Louise came along to experience the part of the show she loves best, where they deconstruct a garment to make a new one. In the photo above she is modelling a new skirt she made by simply buttoning two shirts together and tucking in the sleeves to make pockets.

Sally came along today to gain ideas on how to upcycle this beautiful bark cloth shirt she picked up at an Op Shop. I hadn’t heard the term before but Sally explained it is short for an opportunity shop, a charity shop or thrift shop. We got chatting about our passion for buying vintage fabrics, her motto being ‘one out – four in’ sounds good to me. Gaye’s advice on altering Sally’s shirt was to shorten the sleeves and remove the collar to give it a more feminine shape.

Inhibitions soon forgotten, everyone was buttoning each other up in an assortment of cotton shirts. Picking up a pair of scissors, I chopped the collar off my shirt and fashion it into a dress, buttoning it up at the back and re-forming the sleeves into a belt. ‘You need to release your avant garde fashionista doing this sort of thing’ Gaye chuckles to the class. ‘So many existing fabrics in the world goes into landfill, the stats are outrageous’. Like me, Gaye had attended the ‘Wardrobe Crisis’ Sustainable Fashion discussion panel at the Sustainable Living Festival on Saturday and the global issue is just starting to reach consumer awareness. ‘Set yourself a challenge to spend a year only wearing outfits made from men’s second hand clothes’ Gaye suggests. I certainly had fun in this hour long class and learnt some new upcycling ideas but I think this shirt dress is going to need a bit more work before I can wear it out in public.

The Gaye Abandon School of Sewing and Upcycling holds many classes in Footscray, Melbourne on sewing skills and upcycling tips. Gaye recommends the book Stylish Remakes by Violette Room.

Closer to home, I’ve attended a similar class at Fabrications in Hackney and they have many more on their schedule for this year.