If you’re like me, your shelves and dresser overflow with T-shirts. They’re mostly freebies, collected over the years at fun runs and new-product promotions, and occasionally bought at a rock concert or for charity. They’re all extra large—even if you’re not—and so instead of getting good wear out of them, you’ll sleep or exercise in them for a year or two before tossing them in the Goodwill pile or the garbage.
Hannah Rogge has a much better idea. Her book, Save This Shirt: Cut it, Stitch it, Wear it Now (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2007), features 56 pages of projects that put those old knits to reuse in creative, resourceful, and even retro-Flashdance-stylish ways. Rogge’s guide features patterns to follow that include several shirt styles for men and women, a scarf, a handbag, and sets of non-matching place mats.
A 29-year-old industrial designer with a strong creative bent, Rogge came up with her T-shirt rejuvenation projects out of necessity. By day she works on window designs for high-profile retail outlets like Lord and Taylor on New York’s Fifth Avenue. When do-it-yourself and news shows began filming her work a few years ago, her employer handed out T-shirts (extra large, of course) that featured the company logo and required employees to wear them on camera. Besides looking dowdy, the extra fabric got caught on tools and materials, and Rogge got tangled up as she tried to put window scenes together.
In a fit of pique, she took up scissors and a needle and thread and downsized her T-shirt to fit her slim frame. “The first year we got the shirts, I just took in the sides to make it fit,” she says. But as she got new shirts, “I started to play around with the stitching and the neckline and the sleeves.” When coworkers started to emulate her styles and ask for advice on how to do it themselves, she knew she was on to something. So she turned to her collection of other disposable shirts to see what she could do with them.
"It wasn’t my intention to be environmental; I just hate waste,” she says. “I enjoy making something pretty and useful out of something useless.” And when it comes to T-shirts, in particular, this a good instinct. Clothing is one of the last consumer goods sectors to enter into the public’s environmental awareness. Goodwill estimates it amasses more than one billion pounds of clothes a year. Despite that effort, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that clothes make up the bulk of textile waste found in municipal dumps, and less than fourteen percent is recycled or put to reuse.
And chances are good that environmentally unsound practices went into making those freebie shirts. Based on numbers provided by the US Department of Agriculture, in 2005, cotton absorbed more than sixteen percent of the chemical pesticides allocated for US field crops, though it occupied only eight percent of total agricultural land. Then there are the dyes and wastewater needed to transform raw cotton into T-shirts—a process that often occurs in developing countries where environmental regulations can be lax.
Rogge’s innovations allow her to showcase her own personal sense of style. “I especially like making things with T-shirts that tell your story,” she says. “If you buy a rock concert T-shirt that’s too big, you can give it a personal touch and make it more valuable, maybe even wear it to a club.”
As she began wearing more of her creations out in public, friends, family, and even strangers liked what they saw and asked her to do the same with their shirts—hence the book. “I’d rather show people how easy it is and empower them to do it themselves,” she says.
Feeling intimidated? You don’t need to be a contestant on Project Runway to make it work. Rogge herself doesn’t even own a full-sized sewing machine. She sticks to the basics: scissors, needle, and thread. One design called Fit to be Thai-d is ornate enough to seem overwhelming, but other designs require little more than tracing, cutting, and hemming, maybe adding a button or two. She suggests starting your first project with a T-shirt you don’t care about (there’s a starter T included in the book), so you can get the hang of it before attacking your favorite college shirt. She also has great ideas for turning your leftover scraps into coasters and iPod cases.
But, Rogge cautions, make sure to check with family, roommates, or significant others before taking a pair of scissors to their Ts. She spent one Saturday afternoon cutting up a T-shirt her then boyfriend had brought back from Thailand only to discover that he didn’t want it altered. Driven by guilt, she went out and bought a new, high-end T-shirt for him, then personalized it by patching on the best remnants of the souvenir shirt. “This shirt fit really well, which the old one didn’t, and it had this personal touch that I had added, so he ended up really liking it,” she says. “So I really did save that T-shirt.”
Story by Eileen Gunn. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2007.