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Sewing: To Up-cycle or Not?

In general terms, I applaud up-cycling, recycling, using what you have instead of buying more. I also believe in the rights of the individual to do whatever you want to with your own private property. You want to buy a cake just to smash it? Fine by me! So why do some up-cycling sewing projects make me happy and others make me cringe? Does it depend on what the original source was, or more on what the resulting up-cycled item will be used for?


For example, I have mixed emotions about the idea of cutting up luxurious pure silk hand-screen-printed scarves. Over the past year, a small independent business called Comfort Objects ( has been getting a lot of attention. The maker, Lina Sander Johansen, a Danish textile curator and designer living in Paris and known for her quilted jackets, (and gorgeous Instagram feed) takes vintage scarves by the French design house of Hermes, and up-cycles them into accessories, most notably elasticized hair-bands:

These “Hair Clouds” come in two sizes, and sell for upwards of $160:

Now I suppose my thinking is not the norm, because what caught my attention this week (and prompted me to write this post) was a thread in a Facebook sewing group (which I will not paste here) . The gist of the discussion was the retail price these were selling for, and isn’t that outrageous, and anyone can buy a hair-scrunchie at the dollar store so isn’t this highway robbery, etc. (NOTE: in case you were unaware that scrunchies are making a comeback from the ’90’s, Etsy has tens of thousands of them for sale starting at $1). To me that’s irrelevant: it’s a matter of the economics of supply-and-demand. Of course nobody NEEDS a $100 hair accessory! They WANT one. It’s a frivolous purchase, like Starbucks.


Instead, my reaction when I first heard about “hairclouds ” last year was: “Really? She’s cutting up Hermes scarves?” My mind immediately went to the scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” when Emily is hit by a taxi while carrying shopping bags, each filled with stacks of the ubiquitous orange Hermes boxes, and thousands of dollar’s worth of silk scarves go flying up into the streets of New York.

(This scene was made up for the film; in the book Emily’s boss, Miranda, keeps stacks of pure solid white Hermes scarves in the office closet, grabs a fresh one every morning and basically discards them like Kleenex.)


These scarves are EXPENSIVE. They are made of the finest quality silk twill, from silk cocoons harvested in Brazil, and the fabric woven in Lyons, France. They are meticulously designed by artists all over the world, and perfectly precision-printed.

The average Hermes scarf has dozens of colors, and each color requires a separate hand-painted screen, as well as a separate chemical formula for each color of the paint:

This is a GREAT READ:


The hems are hand-roll-stitched over a giant tailor’s ham-type of pincushion, with fine threads dyed to match the border (one of a defining characteristics of an Hermes scarf is that the print never goes over the edge; each design has a solid border and is printed absolutely on-grain):

An Hermes scarf will never go out of style, you can wear them no matter how much your weight changes, they take up next-to-no room in your closet. They are the ultimate European “look”: the French girl buys fewer-but-better-quality clothes than we do in the U.S., then varies her daily appearance with accessories. My European MIL has literally hundreds of silk scarves, and wears a different one every day.


So back to the scrunchies, or “hair clouds” as they are now called. Sure, you CAN chop up Hermes scarves to make whatever you want…but should you? What if you have a zero-waste philosophy, as Lina does, and use even the smallest scraps to create belts? Does that help?

What if you only use worn out scarves? Maybe with stains, or cigarette burns? (I have no idea if the scarves being used are in good condition or not.) What if you used lesser-quality scarves…would that matter? Thrift shops tend to have plenty of stock in machine-hemmed polyester scarves…is the Hermes label the whole point?


Full disclosure: I cut up stuff to up-cycle-sew all the time. I’ve been up-cycling vintage wedding gowns for years. And I’m fully aware that this makes many people very uncomfortable. Think of the scene in the film “27 Dresses” when Tess is having her dress fitting at Amsale, and her horrified older sister Jane says “Today you’re just some bitch who broke my heart and cut up my mother’s wedding dress. ” Ouch!

The point was, Jane would have worn their mom’s dress the way it was, or maybe slightly altered. Instead Tess had the entire thing dis-assembled and used only a tiny bit of lace as trim on her completely-different new gown . Do you cut something up for another purpose, if it has value the way it exists now? Especially if it has sentimental value, and Tess knew that it did (Jane kept their parent’s wedding photo on her desk.)


I would never, ever, cut into a wedding dress that could be used “as-is” or modified to a more modern gown. I purchase wedding gowns from thrift stores. If a gown on the rack is current in style, if I know that most brides today would wear it, I leave it. I only buy the dresses that are 20+ years old, and honestly my favorites are the over-the-top extravaganzas from the 1980’s that people laugh about:

Some of my wedding gown up-cycle projects are custom orders, when people ask for their family-heirloom dress to be made into something new. In that case I make absolutely certain that the client is 100% positive that nobody in the family has any interest whatsoever in wearing the dress, and that everyone is in agreement that the dress will be best used as a new garment.


But again there’s the point of “What is it being made into?“. If I tell a client “I can turn your mom’s vintage wedding dress into your daughter’s First Holy Communion dress”, they think that’s a charming idea. When I ask if it’s okay to use the leftovers to make preemie bereavement gowns for donation to hospitals, for parents whose babies are not coming home from the NICU, they think that’s a noble idea. Same original gown, different emotions.


So what do you think?

  • Would you have the guts to cut up a wedding gown?
  • How about a classic designer silk scarf?
  • Is there anything you would never ever cut up?
  • What matters more: the original garment, or the up-cycled purpose?

Happy (usually!) sewing,



  • Lynn

    I’ve been slowly tearing apart my wedding dress since we found it in the basement. I will probably use the body for christening or premie gowns and the lace for something else. I couldn’t stand it just being thrown out and decided to repurpose it.

  • AA

    My MIL volunteers at a charity shop and puts aside things that are too damaged or hideous to sell, but not cotton enough to sell as rags (ie, the stuff the charity would normally send to landfill). The stretched old band shirts and singlets I turn into shopping bags and give back to the charity to sell. The rayon, polyester, nylon lace, etc get sorted and stored until a purpose presents itself. I make costumes for the local amateur theatre and you never know when someone is going to need an orange floral 60’s headscarf or an edwardian lace-festooned blouse. When it comes to cutting into things, I don’t research the labels to find out what they originally cost – it’s landed on my cutting table as the last resort before landfill so I have no guilt whatsoever! When needed, I buy things from the charity shops to remake for the theatre as well, I have no qualms buying gowns or other clothes that would be worn by others – they get kept, looked after and re-used many times by the actors, maybe even having a longer life than if someone else bought them for a special event and never used them again. I am also a horrific hoarder of scraps – they eventually become appliques, doll’s clothes or crazy quilts. I guess I would cut up a silk scarf if I genuinely believed that it would get more use as scrunchies – some people don’t like to wear scarves. I think I’d be more likely to use several scarves together to make a dress, though, silk scrunchies must slip out pretty easily!

  • [email protected]

    That’s awesome! I’ll bet there are thousands and thousands of wedding dresses in basements and attics, hoping to be worn again and truthfully it’s probably just not going to happen. Better to give the dress new life and a new purpose!

  • [email protected]

    I love this! Sooooo many opportunities to breath new life into somebody else’s discards. Theatre groups are definitely always on the lookout for vintage and truthfully one costume might be worn many more times than the original outfit so bravo! I’m feeling better about the scrunchies thank you… MIL has drawers full of silk scarves (literally hundreds) and wonder if any of her offspring will want them. From now on “no guilt whatsoever”!

  • Sarah

    As a child of the 90’s I’m still in shock, and quite frankly, denial that scrunches are even making a comeback! Don’t think I could bring myself to chop an Hermes scarf that was still in good wearable condition.

  • [email protected]

    I guess everything comes around again in fashion but yes absolutely I was surprised too! I keep thinking of this quote from “Sex and the City”: “I loved it… Except for one huge problem. You have your leading lady running all over town wearing a scrunchie. A SCRUNCHIE!” Nobody in Manhattan would be caught dead wearing a scrunchie anywhere other than gym class. Maybe now that they are pure silk it’s different???

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