Berkshire workshops give old clothes new life


PITTSFIELD — Sewing is, admittedly, a skill — it's not something you can master in an afternoon.

But there are many simple sewing projects that you can master in about an hour, even if you don't have a sewing machine.

There are also a few easy modifications you can make to old clothes to give them some new purpose. (That's not a reference to those staged Pinterest photos of old hoodies becoming prom dresses.) An old sweater can quickly become a pair of new mittens by tracing around existing mittens with about -inch of extra space, then sewing. Sweater arms can become leg warmers with just a little hemming on each end.

If you're looking for something more fun and maybe a bit experimental, Crispina ffrench, who with Chris Swindlehurst owns Shire City Sanctuary in Pittsfield, runs regular workshops with all materials provided. In past workshops, old sweaters became blankets, scarves, rag rugs, etc. via easy-to-learn techniques. From Feb. 27-28, she'll host a sweater dress workshop where participants make and take home a unique garment made with all recycled materials.

ffrench, whose work has been featured by retailers like Anthropologie and is the author of "Sweater Chop Shop," a book of "used clothing alchemy" ideas and methods, doesn't use patterns — she works around existing garments, sewing together squares and rectangles until she's got a unique, aesthetically pleasing item.

Ericka Traven of Williamstown is an experienced sewist who runs workshops at the North Adams Maker's Mill. She makes almost all the clothes she wears, and she's dedicated to mending wardrobe items as much as possible. She looks for clothing and material deals at thrift stores — a big linen tablecloth or a giant, size XXL muumuu-style dress will get you a lot of good material to work with, she said.

"If it's from the thrift store, it's a really small investment," she said.

Practice makes perfect — to be really good at this, you've got to have some idea what you're doing, which takes time.

"You learn more about garment construction each time you play," Traven said.

Both Traven and ffrench suggested turning imperfections in clothing into embellishments — adding a heart patch, or "embroidery that celebrates the imperfection," ffrench said. Traven is hosting a workshop today on visible mending at the Maker's Mill.

It's important to mention the philosophy behind all this mending and repurposing. The new clothing we buy is, with rare exception, produced outside of the U.S. by people — and children — who are poorly paid. We live in a world with finite resources, yet our new clothes wear out quickly, according to ffrench

"Older stuff seems to have so much more quality to it," ffrench said. "Clothing now — the quality of the material and the craftsmanship is not what it used to be."

Recycling existing items and keeping things we do buy in wearable condition is another way to live with less environmental impact. This is the crux of "slow fashion," a term the Makers' Mill uses in describing Traven's upcoming workshop.

"It's important to know where everything we consume comes from," Traven said. "Clothes are sewn by hand. No matter where they're sewn, someone is sewing them by hand."

Get sewing

Interested in learning more about repurposing clothes? Check out one of these upcoming workshops:

• Visible Mending: 1 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 21, North Adams Makers' Mill

For more information: Visit

• Sweater Dress Chop Shop: 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, or Sunday, Feb. 28, Shire City Sanctuary, Pittsfield

For more information: Visit or call (413) 236-9600

• Embroidery Techniques: 7 p.m., Friday, March 4, North Adams Maker's Mill

For more information: Visit

• Potholder Rug Runner Workshop: Saturday, March 19, Shire City Sanctuary, Pittsfield

For more information: Visit or call (413) 236-9600


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