The Daily Sentinel

Recycled threads: Paonia woman designs original clothes from discarded fabric
By RICHIE ANN ASHCRAFT, The Daily Sentinel
July 11, 2008

The contrast between the dusty parking lot in Paonia and the inside of the Elisabethan clothing factory is like a rainbow over a desert. All the colors are present: vibrant reds, brilliant blues, luscious greens and every shade and hue of pink and violet.

The studio is as colorful as the lanyard fashion designer Elisabeth Delehaunty uses to casually hang her cutting shears behind her back. Delehaunty, 37, is the owner of Elisabethan, a clothing company that rescues discarded fabric and recreates it into new, funky and comfortable women’s and children’s clothing.

“Rescuing” means collecting fabric that has already been used as something else such as a tablecloth, a blouse, an old jacket or unused vintage yardage. Delehaunty purchases old clothing from thrift stores or buys large bales of T-shirts headed for a rag bin.

The garments are disassembled and every usable part, including antique buttons and working zippers, is saved. The material is carefully hand-cut asymmetrically around stains or flaws. Delehaunty’s staff of four turns the scrap material into original and wearable art.

“It’s more than just taking a T-shirt and sewing some sleeves on it. We actually cut a front, a back and design a whole new garment,” Delehaunty said.

As a fashion designer, Delehaunty still does most of the color matching herself. She demonstrated textile collage by combining an old T-shirt graphic of a lion and adding cutout lettering to spell the word “ROAR.”

“My color combinations I work hard at because I want them to be dynamic but not over the edge,” she said. All of Elisabethan’s patterns are original designs by Delehaunty. They are cut with comfort and durability in mind because she believes that clothes should be worn and not fidgeted with.

“I use simple, clean cut patterns but then let the fabric really make the garment unique,” Delehaunty said. Elisabethan uses high quality thread and pays extra attention to construction, stitching and quality. The clothes are intended for the long haul so they don’t end up in the landfill.

Americans throw away 67.9 pounds of clothing and rags per person each year simply because many never considered recycling textiles, according to an article at the University of North Texas Online, www.unt.edu/northtexan/archives/p00/duds.htm.

“The earth’s a big place, and I don’t know if I’m really helping it,” Delehaunty said, ” I guess the best ultimate possibility is just making people think differently about stuff.”

Delehaunty grew up in central Massachusetts where her mother taught her to sew. As a kid she wanted to be a fashion designer. She carried sketch books of her designs and dreamed of moving to New York City one day. Delehaunty graduated from Dartmouth College in 1995 with a degree in studio art that included drawing and painting. After college, she took a job with the Aspen Music Festival sewing costumes for operas. A year later, she moved to Crested Butte where she spent five years working for a sewing business and making her own designs on the side.

“There’s a whole lot of winter over there,” Delehaunty said of Crested Butte.

When she moved to Paonia she rented a two-story house, using one floor to live in and the other to sew in. She has become a well-known member of the Paonia community. She hosts the “Go Betty” show from 8–9:30 a.m. every Monday on KVNF Community Radio, playing pop songs from the ’40s to modern hits. She also met Peter Clary, her fiance, who is from Paonia.

“And now I’m here to stay,” she said, “It’s great. I love it.”

Her factory, behind High Country Printing and Graphics, has been open for five years. Her mother’s wedding dress is hanging in the center of her studio. Although her wedding is only weeks away, Delehaunty is still awaiting divine inspiration before she makes the first cut to recycle and reinvent such a precious garment. Sure to be an original “Elisabethan,” it may be the most beautiful piece of art she has created.

RECLAIM AND REINVENT

Elisabethan is an extension of Delehaunty’s beliefs and core values. The way she lives is the way she does business. She likes that reusing fabric allows her to be creative and make new things without producing more yardage.

“It’s like a net-zero exchange,” she said.

Although Paonia is far from a fashion mecca, she loves the little community. She enjoys the fact that she can walk to work every day. Between her studio and home, there is a grocery store, the post office and, of course, a thrift store.

“It’s staggering how much stuff just the little thrift store here in Paonia ends up putting in the landfill. That’s just little old Paonia!” Delehaunty said.

The idea for Elisabethan didn’t necessarily start by focusing on being “green.” Delehaunty began tailoring clothes for herself in high school and selling original pieces to earn spending money in college. She found the hunt for vintage fabric addictive. To find just the right mix of color and enough usable fabric combined with a functional pattern is one of the most exciting aspects of design for Delehaunty.

“Rather than working with a blank canvas, I stare at a jungle and find a way to make something out of that,” she said.

It places limitation on what kinds of garments she can make, but those limitations allow her to really focus and explore the possibilities of creating with used fabric, she said.

“I go into a fabric store sometimes and it feels too easy,” Delehaunty said.

She used to shop for rare fabric but has focused most recently on more common material such as denim or cotton.

“It’s just stuff that we all wear and there is tons of it around,” she said. “I feel fortunate to do what I love in a place that I love.”

As with any small business, Elisabethan has its struggles, namely cost of labor. One Elisabethan “Go Betty” T-shirt costs $89. Skirts are $186.

“People say they want to support locally (owned) and small businesses, but we don’t always have the buying power to make our products less expensive,” Delehaunty said.

Elisabethan is always looking for ways to streamline production to reduce prices. But it takes labor to gather raw materials. There is less usable fabric in a pre-made shirt and vintage fabric is becoming more rare and pricey, all of which drives up the cost of her products. As her company grows, Delehaunty wants to have the purchasing power to make her garments less expensive. Delehaunty feels very grateful for the support her business has received in Paonia.

“People here live simply without big incomes, and they support me. They believe in buying local stuff, in recycling and, hopefully, because they love the clothes,” Delehaunty said. “I want that to be the main reason, and everything else is just extra.”

Elisabethan’s designs are not sold retail from the factory location. Delehaunty travels to sell at fairs and sells retail in several boutiques. Elisabethan is not available at any retail location in Grand Junction, but four times a year, Delehaunty opens Elisabethan’s factory for sales to the public. The next studio show is set for the first weekend in December. For those who can’t wait, Elisabethan.com has a small cross section of inventory available. Delehaunty is considering opening a retail store within the next five years, but first wants to build her reputation for producing clothes that are “a little off-the-wall but fun.” Her greatest reward is a repeat customer, who may have splurged on a piece, fell in love with it and came back for more.

E-mail Richie Ann Ashcraft at Richie.Ashcraft@gjsentinel.com.

(c) 2008 Cox Newspapers, Inc. – The Daily Sentinel

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