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Once More...With Fabric : Scrappy Designers Find Material Wealth by Recycling Vintage Linens Into Clothes


Fashion designers are discovering it's chic to recycle.

They're finding new uses for old fabrics, using the same ingenuity that prompted Scarlett O'Hara to cut up her mother's old velvet drapes and turn them into a new dress in "Gone With the Wind."

Designers such as Frank Ballotta of Laguna Beach are taking vintage tablecloths, drapes, linens and other thrift-store finds and giving them new life as one-of-a-kind fashions. Thus, an old white linen handkerchief becomes the collar of a blouse, a cotton tablecloth printed with festive fruit becomes a campy men's shirt and a damask drapery panel becomes a vest.

In the process of making these thrifty clothes, designers are salvaging fabrics that might otherwise end up in the dustbin. They value the original vintage yardage for its high quality, unique prints, rare dyes and the artistry of the lace, crochet and embroidery work that embellishes many pieces.

Ballotta creates unique fashions for men, women and children using the old scraps of material he loves. His creations sell under his Kokonuts label at Classy Scraps in Costa Mesa (for men and women), the McCharles House in Tustin (for women) and the Holly Sharp boutique in Laguna Beach (for children).

"I've always been into wearing what nobody else has," Ballotta says. "The chance of running into someone who has your same shirt made from the same vintage tablecloth is almost nonexistent."

The fabrics provide the inspiration for his designs. He uses the nubby, Braille-like chenille from Martha Washington bedspreads fabric to make cowboy jackets ($180) adorned with fringe from the spread.

Kitchen tablecloths, most dating from the 1930s to 1960s and decorated with colorful fruit and flowers, are cut into funky-looking men's shirts ($95). Tablecloths and curtains made of damask, a heavier linen embossed with floral designs, are used for women's shell blouses ($60 to $75) and blazers with shawl collars ($160), with the pieces cut with care to show off the patterns.

"If I'm using a tablecloth, I try to make the best use of the design," Ballotta says.

Designers have found all kinds of imaginative uses for vintage materials.

One clothing line called Kiana transforms old silk kimonos into vests and blazers. Vests ($145 to $200) and blazers (about $300) are available at Laura Downing in Laguna Beach.

"People want something easy, comfortable and romantic. And that goes hand in hand with grandmotherly fabrics," says Laura Downing, boutique owner.

Old denim work shirts worn hard by ranchers, factory workers and farmers from Texas get a new workout, thanks to two sisters from Waxahachie, Tex. The sisters, Jean Bentz and Margy Williams, decorate the old shirts with pieces of old drapes, tablecloths, gingham and even feed sacks, then sell them under their Entre Nous label.

"People like them because they have the look and feel of the Old West," Bentz says. "You can tell they haven't been mass-produced."

Bentz still taps cowboys on the shoulder to ask if they want to get rid of old work shirts. There's a back-order for the sisters' creations.

"The shirts are naturally faded, and they do have frays and holes--that's part of the hip, chic look. They're not spit-shine new denim," says Trudie Sloan, co-owner of Sloan & Katcef in San Juan Capistrano which sells the Entre Nous work shirts for $85.

Tarra, a Connecticut-based company, uses vintage pillow cases with fine hand-crochet to make old-fashioned white linen blouses ($100). Tarra also makes vests from antique linens accented with crocheted pieces from table runners ($104) and dresses pieced together from vintage Irish linen handkerchiefs ($296). They're also available at Sloan & Katcef.

"Vintage fabrics are so distinctive, with the old prints, the natural fibers, the dyes and the patina they get over the years," Sloan says. "And they're not easy to copy because they're old. You can't reproduce the handiwork on old linen because of the cost. That's why they're so special. It's like a lost art. People want to preserve them. They're starting to treasure and collect them."

For this reason, Ballotta and the other designers who recycle might become victims of their success. So popular has the vintage look become that sources for the old fabrics are drying up, and prices for vintage materials are rising.

"When I started doing this more than six years ago, people thought I was off the mark," Ballotta says. "Now, a lot more designers are into it. The old fabrics aren't there like they used to be, and the prices have quadrupled. Before, nobody wanted this stuff."

Ballotta has people all over the country who supply him with old fabrics that they find at estate sales, thrift shops, flea markets and other outlets. He worries that the vintage fad will grow too big, and that fine tablecloths and linens will be shredded by those who don't truly appreciate the beauty of the old fabrics.

"I can't cut some things," he says. "Most things I use have a stain you can't get out or they're frayed on one end."

Some manufacturers are copying vintage fabrics to satisfy the growing demand. While it would be easier for Ballotta to buy the repro fabrics by the bolt, he prefers to dig for the original yardage.

"That's the creative part--figuring out how to use these scraps of material with their wonderful colors," he says. "That's my artwork."

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