Jenelle Montilone wants to save your T-shirts! Her book, The Upcycled T-Shirt, provides 28 projects you can follow to repurpose your old T-shirts into brand-new designs like home decor items, kids’ toys, and wearables. Jenelle has even provided a section on how to make yarn from T-shirts!
Jenelle is committed to saving the planet. She has a degree in environmental education and runs TrashN2Tees, through which she has diverted 72 tons of clothing from landfills. Jenelle uses some of the recycled clothing to design and create new-again appliquéd T-shirts that can be purchased at the TrashN2Tees Etsy store.
Read more about Jenelle, TrashN2Tees, and The Upcycled T-Shirt in the interview below:
Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to start TrashN2Tees?
Building my business has been quite an exciting and eye-opening journey for me. I often tell the story as if TrashN2Tees got started simply because I was frustrated with clothing designs and the options available for my own boys. The roots, though, run much deeper.
I've always been passionate about the environment, and I attended university with the intent of someday teaching agricultural education (along with running my own dairy farm!). After becoming a mother, I felt overwhelmed understanding how the effects of our choices today will impact our children tomorrow, and even further into the future.
Instead of being paralyzed by that fear, I knew I had a responsibility to do something about it. I grabbed my scissors and a pile of outgrown clothing, and sat down to see what I could create. I started TrashN2Tees in 2010 as a hobby business with the purpose of encouraging and inspiring others to reuse and recycle more.
In the introduction to your book, you write that TrashN2Tees has saved the equivalent of 404,407 T-shirts from landfills! Did you ever think you would have such an impact on clothing recycling?
In 2012, I undertook a project that nearly put me under. Under a mountain of clothing, that is!
In my local community, and across the nation, customers and their communities were crying out for reliable resources where they could recycle their own clothing. I established my own small-scale textile recycling collection, which offered convenient drop-off locations and mail-in options. Donations came in from across the country—and piles grew.
I had a problem, though: No large-scale firm was willing to pick up 50 or even 1,000 bags of clothes. The only way I could ensure my program’s success was to commit to collecting enough discarded textiles to fill an entire tractor trailer! Let me put this into perspective for you ... that's around 32,000 pounds of clothing! With the help of my family, friends, and community, we were able to divert twenty tons of textiles in that first year and fill the tractor trailer (with a little bit of overflow, too!).
404,407 T-shirts later, I am continually astounded at the positive impact TrashN2Tees has inspired. It refuels my excitement and commitment, pushing me to find new ways to educate and continue seeking out alternative solutions to our waste problems.
Tell me about the typical journey of a T-shirt once it reaches you.
I'll go over any collections that are dropped off here and handpick materials that I would be able to use. TrashN2Tees designs are made entirely from reclaimed/recycled T-shirts; I generally hunt out only jersey-knit materials. Everything else I won't be able to use is packaged up and sent to a local textile collection company, which happens to be headquartered two blocks from my studio.
Materials I might use are laundered and stored. It's a rough guesstimate, but right now there are no less than 500 pounds of textiles waiting to become appliqués, totes, rugs, or anything else I can dream up. Even after I cut up a shirt for its fabric, I keep all the scrappy bits, which later are used in other designs like earrings, mixed with fiberfill stuffing for plush projects, or are used in other appliqués—most likely to become eyes, spikes, or engines.
Textiles I won't be using begin the process for reuse or recycling.
I love the designs you feature on your Etsy shop! Are you usually inspired by the T-shirts you receive, or do you visualize a pattern first and wait for the perfect T-shirts to arrive?
It's worked both ways. The designs are inspired by things that make kids laugh! I hope they evoke a sense of wonderment to explore, learn, and create.
It’s hard for me to choose a favorite project from your book, but the Triangle T-Shirt Quilt and the Reversible Dog Shirt are definitely up there! Do you have a favorite project in the book?
Oh yes! I love the Triangle T-shirt Quilt—it was really fun to create and think a little bit outside the box on this one. Britta Folden helped me bring that vision to life. We're both proud of the twist that makes it a little more unexpected than the traditional T-shirt quilts we often see.
I'm also proud of the Reusable Produce bags; they're really simple to make and are a great example of how we bring those creative reuse ideas and convert them into healthy habits for our families every day. I carry no less than six produce bags with me for weekly trips to the farmers' market or grocery. Everywhere I go, they receive compliments, and I even get 5-cent discounts at my favorite stores for bringing my own bag! Here's an interesting fact: The average reusable bag has the lifespan of over 700 disposable plastic bags! That's reason enough to sew your own!
What is one repurposed T-shirt project you’ve designed that you couldn’t live without?
I love using reclaimed fabrics that stir emotion—repurposing my grandfather’s shirt and still being able smell his cologne, laying my head down on an organic velour pillow that once wrapped my newborn son tightly—these types of love stories are ingrained in the way I design, but also in the way I want to view the world and the legacy I leave behind.
Finally, what is one piece of advice you have for people who want to start upcycling their clothing, but don’t know where to begin?
If you're not sure where to begin, start by looking at your clothing in a different way and work with what you have. You don't have to wield scissors, a needle, and thread to upcycle. Consider something simple first—use dyes and paints to add a one-of-a-kind pattern. You can always visit me on the TrashN2Tees blog for The Ultimate Upcycled Tutorial List and more free projects that are a surefire way to spark some inspiration and ideas for ways you can upcycle or refashion the clothes in your closet today.
The Upcycled T-Shirt by Jenelle Montilone was released May 18, 2015, and is currently available to order at ctpub.com.