Sewstainability: Craft of Upcycling Gives New Purpose to Old Material

Sustainability-focused brand, Outerknown, launched Project Vermont, a small-scale collaboration of Vermont handcrafters that give life to materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Together they’re paving the way for a new and much more intentional paradigm of apparel otherwise known as, slow fashion.

What happens to discarded clothing? Hopefully, it's donated, but what happens to the articles that don't find a second life off a donation rack? The simple answer: many clothes end up in our landfills, polluting our oceans with harmful dyes, or, if all else fails, literal tons of clothing go to the incinerator, which, of course, leads to a greater carbon output and threatens the environment even further.

Regardless of how the material gets to where it eventually lies, the garment industry is under extreme scrutiny for its environmental impact–whether that's from its massive output now rebranded as "ultra-fast" fashion or the toxic chemicals, it takes to produce some inks and patterns. The price of fashion is more than what's listed on the tag. In fact, fashion accounts for 8-10% of global carbon emissions and nearly 20% of wastewater. While these are scary statistics, there's a company on a mission to correct what's already out there. Outerknown, a sustainably-focused clothing brand that prioritizes circularity based out of California, is on a mission to find other makers and doers passionate about sustainability. In a series of small-town connections that only real Vermonters can understand and a lifelong devotion to upcycling and handcrafting, Project Vermont was born.

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What Is Project Vermont, And How Did It Start?

In classic Vermont style, Project Vermont started very humbly at Lise-Anne Cooledge's kitchen table, where she would sew away when her kids went to sleep or were at school. It was there she would take discarded clothing and breathe new life into it. What began as a creative exercise in turning discarded items/clothing into functional products led to something much more intentional and certainly less wasteful. Lise-Anne gathered ill-fitting clothing and/or any other miscellaneous materials she would need to create her sewing projects at Goodwill. She began assembling bags with discarded belt buckles and old denim; finding sweaters with holes that would later become her infamous sweater mittens; scrapping old material from other projects to build dog beds or blankets, and so much more. But, it wasn't until she was connected with Outerknown in early 2021 that she was able to upscale from her kitchen table.  

Outerknown, like much of the internet at the time, saw Bernie Sanders wearing his mittens at the 2021 inauguration. These mittens were crafted on a pattern that Lise-Anne and her former sewing partner, Jen Ellis, created. After watching how these simple sweater mittens encapsulated the internet, Outerknown decided that the people behind these mittens needed a bigger platform to create on. While this is quite the origin story, Lise-Anne doesn't attribute it to how she started, "I've done a lifelong of handcrafting/upcycling, trying to repurpose and happen to make the mittens. I think Bernie was the spark that led to the connection," she explains to us inside Outerknown's Project Vermont location in St. Albans. Lise-Anne checked her email to find thousands of messages from people all over, and somehow through a series of synergetic connections, Outerknown's CEO, Mark Walker, and Lise-Anne were connected by a neighbor of hers who does business with them.

After six months and many conversations between Outerknown and Lise-Anne and her husband, Scott, they realized just how aligned they were. By 2030 Outerknown has outlined strategies to become fully circular, and with the help of Lise-Anne's intentional sewing and sourcing of materials, they knew they could get there together. It was more than mittens between these two seemingly different parties; Lise-Anne says, "I think it's about Outerknown's ability to be open to something like this and our ability to think that we could have commonality with a sustainable clothing brand and do something together that could be really productive." It was bigger than both Outerknown and what would later become Project Vermont, really. It was a matter of better business and, ultimately, a better world. They found that they spoke a lot of the same language, and the commonalities amongst each other were so strong that Outerknown took a chance on a small-town Vermont handcrafter.

Handcrafters Create Community And Celebrate Collaboration

Lise-Anne found a location in the heart of the small downtown of St. Albans, VT, where she brings together seamstresses and handcrafters from the community–a characteristic that both Outerknown and Lise-Anne felt strongly about because they believe starting locally creates a harmonious relationship between business and community right from the start. When a business is put in a community, and then the community works within that business to build it, it gives the people more stake in it and assembles an alliance towards growing and supporting it. Lise-Anne goes on to say, "in a way that keeps the community thriving too. People have jobs. They don't have to drive down to Burlington for their job or drive far away. A lot of the women walk here." Many of the seamstresses that work at Project Vermont are retirees that have found a new community of crafters. Together they build a wholesome hub spot for visitors to get a glimpse at what goes into the making of a bag, mitten, or dog bed, to name a few of the available items to purchase. 

Inside the maker space/storefront is not just any typical retail shop filled with clothing racks adorned with new digs. Instead, the storefront greets passersby with a wall of beautifully upcycled bags in the window, and upon entering, there's a quick realization as to just how small the shop really is. A self-proclaimed "tiny house retail shop," Lise-Anne explained as she gave the tour. The moveable racks make for a transitional space that parts to an open-concept, fully functioning back room where customers can see several prep tables set up with measuring mats on one side of the room and Singer 301 sewing machines set inside sewing tables on the other. 

The studio/maker space is much like watching food cook at a hibachi restaurant, but instead of watching the chef make the food, it's the seamstresses sewing the dog bed you're about to purchase. Immediately, you'll notice how connected everything is as you peek behind the retail racks and see the same material from that dog bed is also on the shirt on the rack, adding yet another layer of sustainability, knowing that nothing goes to waste. It's a new kind of material magic when the curtain gets peeled back, and customers can witness the marriage between the production of a garment to where it sits on the rack.

When a business is put in a community, and then the community works within that business to build it, it gives the people more stake in it and assembles an alliance towards growing and supporting it.

When people can make the connection that there are hands that touch these garments and can actually see behind the door, it lends itself to a newfound respect for the people working and a better understanding of what it takes to construct the article they're about to buy. Customers get a glimpse into the sewing process, further showcasing the authenticity of the product. There's no question about greenwashing when you can see the deconstructed jeans getting sewn into the new product directly behind the racks. And on the flip side, it also highlights how invaluable every person is on all steps of the process–from the cutters to the preppers, to the sewers, to the people that help sell the product in the front–all of these pieces have to be successful in order for the entire system to work.

Unlike other traditional stores, Project Vermont also has plans in the works to support the community even further by offering more than retail purchases, an unconventional approach to business. Offering classes and even tutorials on how to darn socks or hem shirts puts the responsibility in the hands of the consumer to continue the trend of circularity and upcycling–a welcoming shift to the current buy-and-discard-when-satisfied retail model. Project Vermont can offer guidance to anyone or any businesses looking to continue sustainable business models, and they're even open to collaboration with other like-minded folks. 

What makes Project Vermont so special is it's not just a retail space that's exclusive to Outerknown's style and product line. It's a coalition of passionate crafters looking to circularity. From the get-go, Outerknown's philosophy is we can accomplish more together and couple that with Vermont's inherent desire to work together to find solutions for shared problems, and they're bound for glory. Outerknown has built pockets of partnerships all over that facilitate and pilot innovative business models that challenge traditional and unsustainable systems within the apparel industry. A lot of thought and conversation goes into changing these systems, including how we can adapt in a time where many businesses are living with one foot in the future of sustainable models and the other foot in the reality of what's available now. What a lot of it boils down to is ethics and goals and how we can move toward this vision of a better tomorrow. And, is that movement always forward, or is it okay to move laterally or even go backward? 

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Machines And Materials Built To Last Through The Ages

Sometimes, a well-built machine isn't one right off the shelf, and that's definitely the case with the Singer 301 sewing machines. The Singer 301s were built in the 1950s, and while they're 50+ years old, they will certainly outlive any modern-day machine. These small but mighty collectibles "were designed for the user that's not gonna be able to run out to the store and get parts or call someone to repair it," Scott explains as he opens the Singer 301 that Lise-Anne calls "Frankenstein" for its mismatched, recycled parts. These Singer sewing machines were designed prior to obsolescence and provided a wonderful base to working off of and repair as necessary.

The inside of the machine has a few metal gears. All it takes to clean is a little dusting, and as long as you're lubricating with oil as you go, it's an easy task. There's something about a simple design; while it may not be the fastest or the most powerful sewing machine, it's designed for durability and long life that any of the modern plastic sewing machines could hardly compete with. When machines and materials are designed to last longer, manufacturing processes can begin to change in a way that doesn't require businesses to produce as much. And, in doing so, it allows for better quality products to come to market. The Singer 301 sewing machines are a wonderful reminder that we don't always need to buy brand new to accomplish the task at hand, and that's the same with the materials that Project Vermont sources.

The Singer 301 sewing machines are a wonderful reminder that we don't always need to buy brand new to accomplish the task at hand, and that's the same with the materials that Project Vermont sources.

Sourcing materials is the start of any project for Lise-Anne. Many of the articles that she sources come straight from the community, working with local churches and other donation outlets in the area, while other materials come from Outerknown's discard pile, damaged but still usable stack, or end of bolt (last remaining fabrics on a bolt or roll) fabric, which is where the collaboration between Outerknown and Project Vermont really begins to take shape. If there is a damaged piece of material from Outerknown's collection, Lise-Anne and her crew work to visibly mend the material if it is not overly damaged. Basic embroidery stitches are used to create an eye-catching pattern/line of thread where the damage once was. Visible mending showcases the love and care that goes into each unique piece. And using Outerknown's end-of-bolt fabric for other projects keeps waste low when Project Vermont can upcycle it into something new.

While sourcing material can be a creative process combining both locally sourced materials Lise-Anne collects with Outerknowns scraps, she is always brainstorming new ways to obtain and places that have bulk materials for them to use. One of the biggest roadblocks that Lise-Anne and her crew run into is changing the path of recycled clothing and gaining access to larger quantities of these discarded materials. If it comes down to it, Outerknown can tap into their network and source material for them, which has been a great help in not only creating new garments that others will love but also achieving Outerknown's circularity and sustainability goals. For example, when Lise-Anne first began crafting her bags made from discarded denim pants, she would use old belts for the handles, but as she and Outerknown began collaborating, they wanted the straps on the bags to be more uniform, so Outerknown sourced military webbing from a factory that had excess. Using the power of a larger, more established brand like Outerknown to help a smaller subset like Project Vermont is how we can begin to tackle huge problems like the climate crisis.

Importance Of Brands Investing In Small-Scale Projects

Power comes in numbers. While there are plenty of large-scale businesses out there doing their best to transition into more sustainable systems, sometimes, it needs to start small, and it can prove to have a lot of benefits. Collaboration can change the world. Gatekeeping information can be the difference between a solution and a continuous broken problem. When these collaborations form, it also provides an opportunity to tap into a new and larger audience. That means more information expressed to a larger group, helping push the environmental movement even further in the right direction. Finding companies or people aligned in missions can encourage more innovations, better quality products, and insights that wouldn't otherwise be available. It could be as simple as implementing a small-scale reuse and repair program within the business model or pioneering compostable clothing; the options are endless when we work together. 

No matter what stage of the sustainability journey businesses and/or individuals are on, they can bring their own insights, "we don't all have to be one type of circularity… you know, there are all different ways that are gonna get us from here to being fully circular," Scott explains. Offering the knowledge and networks each party has can create meaningful change, and shoppers are expecting that with their purchases now. Consumers don't just want you to tell them the business is sustainable; there needs to be actions behind the words. As consumers begin to see and trust a company is doing its due diligence for the planet, it continues to build community and better business.

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Business Takeaways
  1. Find commonality. Whatever relationship you intend on building–garment related or not–can you find commonality amongst each party involved? Finding where the connections between each entity meet and where each can benefit from that relationship are important to growth and change. Focusing on how/where they plan to move forward from their current position on their sustainability journey can create a promising starting point.
  2. Be flexible. You might have a vision as to what it looks like, but it's important to adapt as things change. The ability to pivot is a skill that is practiced and can be the difference between something that comes to fruition and something that doesn't. As always, there must be some level of stability, but too much rigidity doesn't allow for unplanned growth to flourish. Changing directions happens. Planning for the next year and also the next week might be completely different approaches, but both are valuable in certain scenarios. 
  3. Enhance community. While not always necessary, location is key to success. There are many interactions that happen in the downtown St. Albans Outerknown because of people's curiosity about a new store in town. People will come in that wouldn't always have gone searching for a retail space like Outerknown's Project Vermont. Being open to the public forges new alleyways of collaboration and allows for anything to happen. Having a mutually beneficial relationship between business and community brings a magical connection that supports everyone involved, and who doesn't want that?