After the last tutorial, I realized I was running dangerously low on long pieces of scrap leather for Kali. If you haven't seen my last few Instructables, I'm building a walker based on the Goddess Kali. Time to head out to the thrift store!
If you like the idea of re-modding a mobility scooter, check out the Jazzy Peacock Instructables. If you want to know why I re-make walkers, wheelchairs and mobility scooters, find the answers and the full group exhibit at Opulent Mobility. To find out why I re-use, re-purpose and re-make, take a look at Dreams by Machine. Or just read on.
These are the tools needed to turn thrift store leathers into fabulous new materials!
Safety razor blades
Lint roller or roll of masking tape
Cleaning rags (elderly t-shirts are great)
Unscented lotion or leather conditioner
A solid work surface
And the satisfaction of tearing things apart to turn them into new creations.
Step 1: Meet the Materials
I got 7 leather garments from Sun Thrift, all in great colors for Kali. In order, they were: a 90's style brown leather coat with faux snakeskin accents, a metallic grey blue blazer with a fabulous paisley lining, a lipstick red single button blazer, a black leather belted car coat, a maroon 3-button blazer, olive green suede Capri style pants and a long black suede skirt.
The pieces were mostly outdated but not fancy enough to be "retro-chic", and several of them had stains and small nicks. That's enough to have them languish in the corner for ages and eventually end up in landfill. That was good news for me and my budget! Since I was at the thrift store on one of their sales days, I got 30% off everything too.
Check out your local thrift stores. Many of them have sale days, or rotating sales where one color of tag will mean an additional 30% off the price. Sometimes you can get that information online, but usually you need to get to the store and check it out in person. It's worth the time to do a little research. With just a few questions, you can find out when they restock, when the best sales days are and what charities they're affiliated with. Hey, you can combine errands and bring in your donations on restocking days. In the US, you get tax deductions for your charitable donations (I'm not sure how that works in Australia or in the Eurozone) and you can find great bargains before they get picked clean by Ebay sellers looking for hidden treasure.
Step 2: Dismantling the Skirt
The suede skirt was the easiest garment to take apart. (A garment is a piece of clothing.) I took out the seam ripper, safety blade and scissors and laid the skirt out on my worktable. The first step was to open up the zipper and see how the skirt was made. It had a full lining, a zipper and a waistband.
I used the razor blade to open up the stitching at the zipper and pulled the lining away. After opening up both sides, I was able to get to the tail end of the zipper. After unpicking the stitching at the bottom, I pulled at the tail end of the zipper and carefully tore it away from the leather on both sides. If the thread isn't too thick, pulling at the zipper means that the zipper takes the bulk of the stress and the leather isn't likely to rip apart. When most of the zipper was free, I used the seam ripper to unpick the inside edge of the waistband. Once that edge was free, it was easy to unpick the outside seam of the waistband and completely remove the zipper.
The skirt and lining were sewn together underneath the waistband. Since the seam allowance had been stitched at least 3 times, it wasn't worth trying to save it. Stitching leather multiple times makes it fragile and likely to shred. The simplest way to deal with it was to cut off the seam allowance right below the stitching. Once that was done, it was easy to separate the lining from the leather.
There were swing tacks holding the lining to the leather just above the hem.I cut the swing tacks off and the lining came out. The lining wasn't in great shape, so I didn't plan on keeping it.
Swing tacks are crocheted strands of thread that are used to hold layers together. Swing tacks allow a little bit of room between the layers so each part can move freely while you're getting dressed, but fall into place nicely once the clothing pieces are on.
I unpicked the seam right below the zipper, turned the skirt inside out and took a look at the hem. The hem was reinforced with black fusible interfacing and stitched with seam tape at the bottom, which meant it would be a drag to pick open. I decided to cut the seam off to just above where the seam tape ended, and then unpicked the rest of the seam. Voila! I had a lovely, large piece of black suede to use for Kali. Time for the next garment.
Step 3: Dismantling Capri Pants
The Capri style pants were up next. I opened up the zipper and unpicked the inside edge of the waistband to release the lining. The lining was only stitched to the inside of the waistband, so it was pretty easy. I then turned the pants inside out to see how the lining attached to the leather.
Little tabs of ribbon held the leather to the lining near the pant hems. I cut the tabs and then moved back up to the zipper area. The lining was sewn to the fly front, so I unpicked those seams. That set the lining free so I could get to the zipper. Fly fronts on pants usually have an overlap and an underlap. The underlap is underneath the zipper, keeping it from accidentally catching the wearer's tummy or other sensitive areas.
I used the razor blade to cut the stitching holding the underlap and one side of the zipper to the main body of the pants. When that was released, I could see the seam tape that reinforced the zipper stitching. I cut the threads on the bottom part of the underlap to get to the zipper end. I was then able to pull off the underlap, grab the bottom edge of the zipper and rip it free from the fly front. The zipper was in great shape, so I set it aside to use for another project.
I opened up the fly front overlap to find a lot of fusible interfacing. It took a little bit of unpicking to set the interfacing free, but once I did it was easy to remove. Both the underlap and overlap had a lot of stitching lines and weren't going to be reusable, so I cut them both off. The waistband had a lot of fusible interfacing and stitching lines too, so I cut that off too. I found a couple of ugly stains that went all the way through the leather to the backside, which I planned to cut off later.
After dealing with the top of the pants, I moved down to the hems of the inside seams. The hems had a decorative laser cut pattern which was lovely, but meant that the leather was a little fragile in that area. I carefully unpicked the seams at the hems and then ripped the rest of the inseam open. I unpicked the small area of the front crotch that was still stitched and unfolded the pants so they laid flat.
Step 4: Taking Out Jacket Linings
The trickiest garments to dismantle were the blazers and jackets. Jackets have a lot of parts, and all of them need special attention.Taking apart the 3-button blazer breaks down into 4 main steps: taking out the linings, dealing with sleeve cuffs, removing the sleeves and collar/lapels and prepping the body. At the end, you have sleeve leather, collar leather, pocket leather, facing leather AND the body of the jacket to work with. That's a lot of material, so it's well worth the trouble.
To avoid making this a super long tutorial, I'm only showing you how I took apart one of the blazers. The other jackets and blazers were pretty similar, so you'll have a good idea of how to dismantle one of your own.
First off I took a look at the jacket and its construction so I would have an idea of how to break it down. I used the razor blade to cut off the front buttons and the buttons on the inside of the lapel. Most leather jackets have buttons on the inside right underneath the outside buttons. This helps keep the leather from ripping with continued buttoning and unbuttoning. I set the buttons aside and unpicked the lining from one side of the front facing. Front facings are the flaps on the inside of the jacket that turn over to become the lapels, the pointy things on the top front of most jackets.
I pulled the lining away from the leather and started to unpick the lining from the bottom edge of the jacket (the hem). That let me see how the jacket was constructed. This jacket was made of rectangles of leather that were pieced together, which is pretty common. Instead of unpicking the opposite side of the lining from the front facing, I cut it away. This leather was very soft and the facing edge was stitched twice, so I knew I would have to cut it away anyhow. I pulled the lining up towards the collar and saw that it was attached to the underarm with little ribbon tabs. I cut those off too.
I pulled the lining back down so I could see how it attached to the inside neck edge. Again, it was easiest to cut it away, so I cut it at the tops of each facing and at the inside base of the collar. This let me see the sleeve construction. The lining was attached to the shoulder seams with more of those ribbon tabs, which I cut off. There was a sleeve header and a small felt shoulder pad in each shoulder. Sleeve headers add a little roundness to the top of each sleeve and smooth out the seam. Shoulder pads pad the shoulders. I figured I could get rid of those later on, so I made an attempt to pull the sleeves inside out and unpick the lining at the sleeve cuffs.
The cuffs did not release so easily. There was more work to be done before I could unpick the lining seam. Ah well. Time for the next step.
Step 5: Taking Off the Cuffs
I turned the sleeves right way around and used the razor blade to remove the cuff buttons. I then pulled up the cuff overlap and started unpicking the lining. Once the lining was set free, I peeled it away and cut the underlap away along the button stitching lines. After that I opened up the sleeve hem.
The hem had fusible interfacing all the way around and some seam tape at the cuff overlap. I was able to peel part of the interfacing away, but some of it was stitched into the sleeve's underarm seam. I cut open that seam to just above where the interfacing ended and peeled the rest of it away. After that, I moved on to the cuff overlap to see what parts were worth saving.The overlap was worn down to the suede along the folded edge, so I cut it along the fold.
Now I could really get to work on salvaging the leather.
A lot of re-purposing is deciding which parts are worth saving. Very worn and heavily stitched leather isn't worth saving because the wear and stitching lines make the leather too fragile.
Linings usually don't last very long. Unless you really need worn out polyester and nylon, lining isn't worth saving. It gets a lot of sweat damage, is lightweight, and it's easy to snag or tear. Polyester, acetate and nylon (the most common lining materials) are not absorbent and make terrible cleaning rags. Even China silk, which is sometimes used to line higher quality garments, doesn't hold up all that well. It's too thin. Save your energies for the materials that will hold up for a while!
Step 6: Removing Collars and Sleeves
I pulled the lining away from the jacket body and took another look at the jacket construction, deciding what part to tackle next. The collar and sleeves seemed like the best choice. I turned the jacket over and cut off the collar right below the seam line, first cutting the outer layer and then the inside. I then cut off the seam allowance on the collar to take a look inside.
There were two kinds of fusible interfacing in the collar, the plain black stuff that was on the sleeve hems and a puffy white variety. The outer collar leather was in one piece and worth keeping, but the inside collar was in two pieces and that leather was much weaker. I decided to keep only the outside. I cut off the topstitched collar edge, got rid of the inner collar and peeled the interfacing off the outer collar. I then moved on to the sleeves.
I cut around both armholes just inside the sleeve seams. When both sleeves were free, I cut off the seam allowances, sleeve headers and shoulder pads. Unless they're in great shape, shoulder pads and headers aren't really worth saving. I then cut open the underarm seams. Since the seams were glued open, I cut right outside the seam allowances. I then unfolded both sleeves, laid the collar piece on top and set them aside. More leather to use!
Many leather garments have glued seams. It makes sense for mass construction. Contact cement holds the seams open and flat and makes them easier to work with in the short term. Unfortunately for re-using purposes, glues eat away at the leather over time. Glued areas get stiff, thick, stained, dried out and are prone to tearing. This is particularly true for thin, garment weight leather. Thin leathers are more fragile than the thick stuff. I usually cut away glued areas unless the leather is still in really good shape.
Step 7: Preparing the Body
When the sleeves and collar were free, it was easy to work on the jacket body. This blazer had 2 patch pockets in front that needed to be removed. Patch pockets are pockets that are stitched all the way around on the outside of a garment, like the back pockets on jeans. A blazer is a casual version of a suit jacket, usually with a collar, lapels and anywhere from 1-3 buttons in front.
I used the razor blade to carefully cut the stitching holding the pockets to the jacket front. Since I cut the threads instead of unpicking, I was left with a lot of tiny little bits of thread on the inside of the jacket. I removed them with a lint roller and got back to removing pockets. Pockets are great storage places for dirt and lint, so I wiped the dirt away as I cut the threads. When the pockets were off, I removed the pocket linings and threw them away. I cut off the topstitched edges and set the pocket leather aside.
There were a couple of tears on the body along the pocket stitch lines. I noted them and moved on. The next area to work on was the front facing. I cut the seam holding the facing to the hem and then cut off the topstitched front edge. Since the buttonholes were sewn all the way through the jacket front and into the facing, I needed to cut the buttonholes away to take the facing off. After removing the facing, I peeled away the white fluffy interfacing, cut off the seam allowance, and then set the leather aside. The black fusible interfacing on the jacket's front edge peeled off easily.
I moved up to the shoulder seam and cut it apart on either side of the seam. That freed up the interfacing that reinforced the armhole and neck edge. I peeled that interfacing away and repeated the same steps on the opposite coat front and shoulder. All that was left was the hem, which I unfolded.
The hem had a lot of glue stains, so instead of trying to save it I cut it off right at the stains. Voila! I had a body, two sleeves, two pockets, a collar and two facings worth of leather to reuse!
Step 8: Cleaning and Moisturizing
Once I had all the garments broken down, it was time to clean the leather. Leather jackets are donated to thrift stores for several reasons. Sometimes it's because they aren't fashionable anymore or people have outgrown them. Most of the time, though, it's because they got stained, worn and dirty and people didn't want to spend the money for professional leather cleaning. Not to worry! Most stains are easy to clean up and a lot of wear spots can be fixed with a little bit of moisturizer.
I laid out the lipstick red jacket on my worktable and took out saddle soap, an old piece of towel and a small bowl of water. The jacket had some light colored spots that looked like they would clean up easily. I dampened the cloth in the water, rubbed it into the saddle soap until I got a little bit of lather and then rubbed the soapy rag over the spots. I also rubbed around the spotted areas, feathering out the edge so I didn't end up with big water stains. Then I set the jacket aside to dry. After it dried, almost all the the spots were gone!
The other jackets weren't stained but they still needed a little love. I had unscented lotion at home, which works really well for moisturizing and replenishing leather. Leather conditioner is what people usually recommend, but I didn't have it and I was working on a budget. Why buy it if you don't have to? You can also use coconut oil, but be warned: all of your leather will smell like coconut. I cut the bottom off a ragged old t-shirt (another thrift store find that was extra well-used) and turned it into rags to apply the lotion.
Pro tip: terry cloth scraps from ragged old towels are great for scrubbing off spots and stains. The fuzzy texture is good for getting off marks, but the fabric can leave a lot of lint behind. Cotton t-shirt material is excellent for moisturizing and polishing, since the knit doesn't fray and there isn't a lot of lint. Try to find 100% cotton t-shirts, since polyester blends don't absorb well. Artificial fabrics (like polyester, nylon, acetate and Lycra) are oil-based and don't absorb water or oil nicely. If you don't have old t-shirts or towels around, thrift stores are excellent and inexpensive places to find them.
I put a little bit of lotion onto my t-shirt rags and rubbed the rest of the polished leather pieces all over. I added more lotion as needed. If I got a little too much into the leather seams, I used my fingernails to rub the lotion into those seams. Toothpicks or coffee stirrers are also good tools for spreading the lotion into difficult spaces. After rubbing each piece, I set them aside to dry. The leather absorbed the lotion and made it look like new! I also rubbed lotion onto the lipstick red leather, which removed the last bit of staining.
Step 9: Storage and Notions
Excellent news! My leather stash was replenished. It was time to put everything away.
Working with one garment at a time, I laid the smaller pieces of leather inside of the larger ones, folded over the bigger pieces and rolled them together into bundles. Rolling up the leather keeps it from getting wrinkled and creased in storage.
I also checked out the suede pieces. Since suede is fuzzy, it doesn't respond so well to saddle soap or moisturizer. You can carefully hand wash suede or treat it with a fine mist of oil (dilute the moisturizer, put it into an atomizer and spritz lightly) but this can change its color and make it matted. Brushing the suede with a clean nylon shoe brush will get off most surface chunks, but it's better to cut off major stains. The olive green suede from the Capri pants had a few nasty, oily looking stains that looked like a food related accident. I cut those off and saved the rest of the leather.
I also put away the notions I rescued from the garments. Sewing notions are things like needles, thread, zippers and buttons. I had seven bundles of leather, two zippers and plenty of buttons to re-use for a mere $40.24 (and about a day's worth of effort). Not too shabby.
Next time I'll make her first right arm and start a hand pattern.