Dressing Locally

PAONIA, COLORADO — You’ve probably tried eating locally. What about dressing locally? In my small town in western Colorado, gardeners abound, but seamstresses and tailors are endangered species, made scarce by $9.99 imported t-shirts. Yet local clothes are still grown and raised in the town’s cavernous old livery, where my friend Elisabeth Delehaunty runs her sewing machine and hoards her vast collection of fabric. Shelves twelve feet high burst with stacks of folded tweeds and florals and stripes, a colorful profusion of thrift-store blankets, sweaters, jackets, t-shirts, and castoff yardage. (Will she ever run out? “It could happen,” she whispers in mock terror. “It could.”)

Beth and her three employees make up Elisabethan, a company dedicated to both locally made and recycled fashion. Beth learned to sew from her mother, and in high school, she made most of her own clothes, including a prom dress. Years later, when she pieced soft scraps of old jeans into a hooded pullover, she realized that a few well-placed snips and stitches could give used clothes an entirely new life. “I made a conscious decision to try not to buy any more [new] fabric,” she says. “There’s just too much out there already swirling around.”

In her Colorado studio, old clothes are demolished, then reconstructed into colorful piecework scarves, skirts, tops, and sometimes even boxer shorts; leftover scraps turn into infant caps and coin purses. No fashion rule is sacred, as stripes are appliquéd on paisley prints, and slices of men’s dress shirts are paired with polka dots.

The work isn’t easy. While traditional clothes manufacturers can cut many layers of fabric at once, Beth and her employees must cut each piece individually, circumventing holes and stains and allowing for the irregular shapes and sizes. (The extra labor means her t-shirts sell for considerably more than $9.99.) And with skilled stitchers becoming rarer and rarer, Beth has trouble finding help.

But the satisfaction of making — and wearing — resurrected clothes keeps the livery filled with fabric and ideas. “Men’s suit pants,” Beth muses, contemplating her mannequin. “You could make some great skirts with suit pants.”