Old Quilts or New Clothes?

An article in Wednesday’s New York Times sparked an online “conversation” about many things: copying in the fashion industry, the value of a man’s work over that of a woman’s, the erasure of the makers of craft as opposed to the sellers of it, is copying really copying if there is a long-standing tradition of the practice, and who actually “owns” a news story.

I’ll say straight out that I don’t pretend to own anything I find online and share here. The news is out there for all of us to find, whether it be the day of the event or, in this case, three days later.

The article in question is titled, “Menswear is on a Quilt Trip” and it is about the clothes by Tristan Detwiler who is making garments using used quilts and other textiles. There’s really nothing earth-shattering about his concept. Anyone who has spent any time at all hunting for old clothes has seen dozens of examples of this practice. I even have an example in my collection, as you see above. The top of these 1930s pajamas was pieced specifically for this garment, but the legs were reused from an old crazy quilt.

But his line has come under criticism not for copying the work of home sewers of years gone by, but because his clothing is strikingly similar to that of a woman designer, Emily Bode. You can compare the garments on Bode’s site to the ones by Detwiler in the Times article. I didn’t link to his site because it’s mainly just photos of him posing shirtless. You can see more of his items on the Instagram account of Diet Prada.

And that’s is where all the discussion about Detwiler’s clothing is happening. You can read the comments for yourself, if you dare. It’s all a big blame-game with so many different grievances that it’s hard to keep track. In fact, I gave up trying.

But one issue that was all but ignored was the use of old textiles. I’ve been to enough flea markets and thrift stores to know that old quilts are not a rare commodity. Almost every trip to the Goodwill bins turns up at least one depression era quilt. Fantastic old wool blankets are common as well. I accumulated so many that I no longer buy them.

Most of these textiles show their age. Wool blankets usually have holes. Quilts are often threadbare. Old table linens are stained and holey. So when I see old textiles in another shopper’s cart, I’m happy to see them being rescued, even though I know chances are they will be cut up to make clothing or home decor items. By the time an item reaches the Goodwill bins, very few options are left for the object. Better that that an old quilt be used to make a fashion statement than for it to go to a ragger.

Still, I’m very uncomfortable with the thought that some historically important textiles could be cut up to make clothing that is sure to be a short-lived phase of the textile’s life. In other words, is anyone going to be wearing these recycled quilt garments five years from now? My guess is no. In the case of a battered old 1930s quilt, it’s nice that it will get a few years more use. But many quilts are valuable and important artifacts. Do the people making the decisions of whether or not to cut know the difference between the mundane and the sublime?

Bode has been in business since 2016, and her aesthetic seems to have been quite influential. There are lots of people who make jackets out of old quilts and recently they have been popping up in my Instagram feed on a regular basis. But it would be giving Emily Bode too much credit to say she was the originator of this practice. I wrote a blog post on Joanne Kliejunas ten years ago. Take a look at her fantastic quilt and linen creations. And what about the unknown maker of my patchwork pajamas?

There really is nothing new under the sun. Well, almost nothing.

I hope you regular readers are not too shocked that I’ve posted two days in a row. I’m hoping to post more often, especially when it concerns current happenings.


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22 responses to “Old Quilts or New Clothes?

  1. Good post, Lizzie. Yes, I recall your writing on this subject and remember these same things coming up. Although that was before the past year’s more-concentrated use of social media. Nothing much is new indeed! (Hope you’re faring well under your “snow blanket” ⛄️)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating topic, and I love that jumpsuit of yours! Will read the linked “controversy,” cautiously, when I have the fortitude.

    You’ll recall my being told I could not purchase an old corset cover after I mentioned I planned to wear it (over an actual corset). The seller told me she would only sell it to me if I promised to copy and remake it, putting the original “in a box, with tissue paper.” Rather than lie to her, I found (more than one) elsewhere.


  3. Cynthia Grandfield

    Such an interesting and contentious subject! I’ve recently made a few cushion covers from pieces of an old discarded and threadbare kantha quilt. The pieces were destined for the shredder and i like to think that by making what i could out of the pieces i’ve not only saved them from their fate but highlighted the beauty of all the undervalued work that had gone into the quilt in the first place. All done with good intentions…!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I always think this when I see people refashioning any kind of vintage fashion or textiles. Especially when I see stuff like Victorian dresses or old designer clothes still turning up in charity shops. We’ve all seen the museum examples of something old and now very valuable turned into something humdrum in a past time.

    The thing is with thoughtful repurposing the maker will say how they judge and source their supplies. Detwiler does not seem responsible to me, too much focus on how supposedly young and good-looking he is, not enough on the sourcing.


  5. Yes, like the internet famous for 15 minutes guy who made a witch’s hat from a Claire McCardell dress.

    It really is all about knowledge and good judgment.


  6. jacq staubs

    I think i identify with Cynthia. I purchased a Ralph Lauren blazer constructed of patchwork menswear suiting pieces – it looked like an old quilt. Made from cutting scraps of their own previously made garments. For mass production it was the obvious solution. Using inherited /purchased pieces -give them a new life. I bought the blazer at SYMS in about 1978.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rebecca Conn

    I used to take apart old clothing and made new clothes for work out of much higher quality fabric than I could afford to buy. My favorite slubbed silk skirt got an extra 10 years or so post-thrift store. I never considered it destroying the textile, just the influencer (designer, business, farmer, warehouse, store, marketing department). How important are most internet influencers? Zero to me… all are in sales to convince folks to over consume and overspend to fill their own pocket. How much of the mountains of textile overconsumption will end in a museum? The half naked young man is selling sex not textiles, a dead giveaway that it is standard American advertising, cuz nothing sells like sex. Buy a car to get laid. Buy makeup to get laid. Buy a sex worker and actually get laid leaves our corporate masters out 😉 Illegal! Immoral!
    I reduce reuse recycle and my home is lovely. I enjoy quilting and most of my quilts are 80% recycled fabric from dumped stashes, cut up clothing, etc. I only buy 100% cotton clothing because it easily recycles into quilts, cleaning rags, and cuts up into compost for my five acre food forest on the side of a mountain (not prime farm land).
    I have been admiring natural textiles like museum worthy gray Navajo rugs made from cream gray brown natural wool… no toxic dyes! A spinning wheel and wool from local sheep and Alpaca. A drop spinner is almost free.


    • I make a lot of my clothes the same way. I’m especially fond of recutting high-quality men’s linen shirts.

      Looking around my office, I see that about 80% of the stuff in here is secondhand.

      And for someone who is selling clothes, The man in question shows an awful lot of skin.


  8. thelaurelbush

    I’m concerned about this becoming the new hipster trend of Nashville transplants with out regard of history documentation. I lost my great grandmother’s quilt in the 2010 flood but I want to make something similar with a Moda reprint replica.


  9. seweverythingblog

    Love your post. All I can think of is that home sewers have been repurposing old quilts into their own garments for decades — since the days when the fashion industry used “home made” as a derisive term. Now the hot young designers think they’ve got something new.
    I think I’ve been hanging around the home sewing diaspora for way too long. But, I do make ALL my own clothes…. a bunch of them recycled materials. excuse me for the babbling comment. 🙂


  10. Olivia Norquist

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I had noticed one company called Psychic Outlaw on instagram that makes quilt coats out of what look like some really valuable and historic textiles. For example, hexagon quilts, crazy quilts, rose applique, and what even looked like an antique jacquard coverlet. All the quilts that were used looked like they were in pretty good condition and I was troubled that they were being cut up. I don’t have so much of a problem if the quilts are falling apart or don’t have much historic value, but when the quilts have more historic value it just doesn’t sit right.


  11. Niki Pasini

    Thanks for sharing your insights!

    Maybe I can give you another perspective on why I find Tristan Detwiler’s work troubling. You mentioned the first issue above: “a pair of scissors in an uninformed hand is a dangerous thing”. It’s disappointing to see quilts cut up by inexperienced hands, and consumed in a mass-fashion kind of way. As objects that are inherently anti-fast fashion, it is sad to see them cut up and sewn into ill fitting and poorly made garments that will inevitably be thrown out.

    But it’s also more than that– quilts have typically been made by women, and particularly in America, women of colour. We might never know the women who made these beautiful objects, and there is no way to credit them or give them renumeration for their contribution. Their life might have never been recorded, there is likely nothing left of them in this world, except that quilt. Mr. Detwiler has said that he has a deep respect for the provenance of each quilt. While I don’t think I’m the person to decide whether or not Mr. Detwiler can cut up these quilts (who is?), I think it’s important that we keep this in mind.

    My last point (which you also mentioned above) is that patchwork clothing isn’t a new idea. There are many other artists doing beautiful work similar to this. It’s frustrating that they would choose to feature an artist who is less skilled and less talented (in my opinion) merely because he is a young, handsome, white man. Why not feature one of the thousands of other teenagers who were ‘thrift flipping’ on TikTok last year? Why not talk about TheThriftGuru, a young woman who has been cutting making patchwork sports jerseys and hoodies? I would argue that her work is a much more interesting interpretation on the trend. Why not talk about the women of Gee’s Bend? Why not interview Mr Detwiler but also interview a modern quilter to see what they think about quilts being cut up? Perhaps one of the quilters in the guild he has worked with.

    All in all, the situation just feels disappointing and one sided. It’s not that Mr. Detwiler doesn’t deserve attention, but that perhaps other people deserve it more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well said. Until the craft revival of the 1970s, and the resulting quilt-making craze, 20th century pieced quilts were associated with making something to use out of necessity. I can’t tell you how many quilts I’ve found at the Goodwill bins where the filling was another, older quilt, or an old holey blanket.


  12. What amuses me is that people like Detwiler think they’ve come upon something unique. If Detwiler would go to a quilt show he would see hundreds of women wearing pieced and quilted garments. Making clothing out of quilts is a fad that comes and goes. When it is no longer a trend the designers will go on to something else.


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