A Dollar A Dress? Yes!

A creative blogger shows how learning how to alter clothes gets you new duds for pocket change.

February 22, 2012

There are a scant few of us who don't get a little bit of a high when we put on a new shirt, dress, or pair of pants. But let's face it, in this economy, new clothes are an indulgence few of us can, or want to, spend money on.

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Unless you're Marisa Lynch, a blogger living in Southern California who decided to put her sartorial skills to the ultimate test. For the past year, she's been spending $1 a day on thrift store dresses, some of which are truly atrocious, and turning them into chic, trendy outfits that look nothing like the originals. Not only has she managed to get hundreds of new outfits for mere bucks, but she’s also kept a lot of clothing out of landfills and chemicals normally applied to clothing out of waterways.

Lynch has been chronicling her experiment on a blog titled "New Dress a Day", and on Day 311 of her experiment, with 54 days to go and $56 left to spend, she talked with Rodale.com about her project and how even the least-experienced sewer can learn how to alter clothes to turn them from secondhand cast-offs into fashionable garb.

Rodale.com: Where did you normally go shopping before you started this project?

Marisa Lynch: I've always been the bargain-shopping type. Marshall's, TJ Maxx, that's where I had the most fun, scouring through the aisles and trying to find the things that suited me most. I was never the type to spend hundreds of dollars on things, but I loved going shopping.

But vintage has always been a huge part of my wardrobe. Part of what I loved about this project was the whole process of going to thrift stores, going to garage sales, and taking pieces that people are ready to toss and giving them new life. That element is very exciting for me, plus the idea of using pieces that might not look like anything you'd see in a store now. And for other people to see they can do this too is really cool.

Rodale.com: What gave you the idea to do this?

Lynch: The whole thing started in the summer of 2009. I got laid off from my job and was getting ready to turn 30. So I was sort of in this "what am I doing with my life?" crisis. One day, I went to see the movie Julie and Julia (a movie about a woman who cooks her way through the Julia Child cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and blogs about it), and I left feeling like this woman had brought happiness and inspiration to her life through food. I wanted to feel that inspired.

Sewing was always something I'd done for fun but I never made it priority. And having just gotten laid off, I wanted to put myself first and do things that made me feel creative. But knowing that I'd be on a fixed budget with unemployment and wouldn't be able to go shopping—I didn't want to live feeling like I couldn't do things that made me feel good about myself. So I got the idea for this project. I'd still feel good while still being completely budget conscious.

Rodale.com: When you pick out the dresses, are you looking for certain elements, or do you just buy the craziest thing you can find?

Lynch: I'm attracted to the same fabrics, the same colors, and the same things I'd be looking for at the mall. I might find a piece with amazing buttons or hardware. Pretty much all the elements I'm drawn to with thrift store clothing are the same things I'd be looking for if I were shopping at a Marshall's or Filene's Basement. Then, I'll bring it home, wash it, play around with it, put it on. The ideas usually don't come to me until after I bring it home.

Rodale.com: How long does it normally take you to transform one of these?

Lynch: There are some pieces that are much easier than others. If it's just turning a dress into a tunic, it just means shortening the length, which can take 30 to 45 minutes. But other pieces could take up to a couple of hours, depending on what the "befores" look like. The ones that look the most atrocious take the longest time. The things that don't take me as much time are fantastic. Sometimes, I'm trying to just mix and match, and in 15 to 20 minutes, I'll make a few cuts or even use tape at the hem instead of actually sewing it. I like projects like that, to show people that it's easy no matter what your sewing level is.

Rodale.com: Are there any dresses you're particularly proud of? Any you know you'll never wear again?

Lynch: There are things I think are less inspiring to me, but with every piece, I've been very proud of the outcome and having something brand new. I definitely have some favorites. There was one dress, lavender, that had a very "Dynasty" feel to it, a very '80s dress that was drapey and had long sleeves. It was made from this shiny spandex material with beads around the waist—I was so drawn to the beads. And the way the dress draped, there was something very Grecian about it. I was playing around with it, but nothing was really clicking for me. Then, for some reason, I turned it upside down and started playing around with it a little bit more. In 20 minutes, I knew what my next step would be. I wound up turning it into a top, and it's probably my favorite. I wore it to a party and the people there thought it was great, and nobody had any idea of what the original looked like.

Rodale.com: Do you have any tips for newbie sewers who might want to give this a shot?

Lynch: For people who've never done this, I usually tell them to start off by first looking in their closets. There might be something that's been hanging for years in the back that you know you probably should get rid of but don't want to let it go.

When you first start this, a lot of people are nervous just using a pair of scissors. So start off easy and take baby steps. See if you have a dress that could be shortened into a tunic or top, where it only takes on big cut along the bottom to shorten it up. Or find a shirt with long sleeves that maybe you want to just cut short. That's a great starting off spot. I'd avoid anything made of silk because that can be hard to work with.

Rodale.com: What if you don't own a sewing machine?

Lynch: There are things you can do with a needle and thread, and you definitely don't have to have one. If you think this is something that you're going to be doing more often, maybe it makes sense to take a class in sewing at a community college or watch some YouTube clips on basic sewing techniques. For the most part, hand-stitching allows you to be more creative, and you can even use duct tape to get away with some things, like securing hemlines. But I'll have to say, having a sewing machine makes things much easier. You can buy one at Target for $69, a very basic model that can help you out. But still, it doesn't always have to be the most intricate, most intensive project to make something look great.