Why this Vermont designer makes clothing from vintage quilts
A quilt made from old suit coats and trousers is draped over the back of a velvet couch in this Howard Street studio in Burlington.
On a closer look at the quilt's geometric design, you note the shapes forming its pattern are due to piecing multiple strips of fabric around a central square to create a block. Then those multiple blocks are sewn together to form the whole.
This particular pattern is known as "log cabin." In America, its use and popularity date back to the Civil War. And this quilt laying on this studio couch was likely sewn in the late 1800s.
This particular blanket is in the Burlington clothing and design studio of Kitty Badhands. It will live out its history just as it is: a quilt, a bedcover, a couch adornment made nearly 200 years ago.
Dozens of other colorful quilts and textiles are stacked neatly on shelving in the studio space, though, awaiting their transformation into sustainable, wearable art.
Kat McVeigh co-owns Kitty Badhands with partner Dale Donaldson. And to McVeigh, quilting is a form of storytelling. She said she feels her mission is to write these vintage quilts’ next chapter.
"One of the things I like most about our clothing is that there's a storytelling element built right into them," she said. "The best thing I can do is, if there's an unknown quilt out there being auctioned off that's been sitting in someone's basement for 80 years, I'm just going to let the quilt tell the story."
Creating new clothing pieces from these textiles, "just gives a chance for the story to be retold in a different way," McVeigh said. "And be heard by people who might not care about quilts, but love fashion."
McVeigh started Kitty Badhands in 2016, solely as a quilting company. And then she began making clothing from the vintage textiles during the pandemic, turning the fabric heirlooms into one-of-a-kind coats and clothing — unique, wearable art.
"I made clothes as a hobby. And then in 2020 when the pandemic started, I had more time to work on my hobby and it became the main focus," she said. "So then Kitty Badhands shifted in probably the beginning of 2020."
With a 50-50 partnership, McVeigh does "all of the making. And Dale does all of the like, behind-the-scenes stuff. And I know how to do about half of it, and he knows about half of it. So it works out really well."
With their dual backgrounds in the arts and Donaldson's focus on graphic design and marketing, the duo are setting out on a two-fold mission: keep these old textiles out of landfills by creating new one-of-a-kind clothing from them. And: drive consumers to embrace sustainable clothing.
Donaldson has recently been sourcing new materials that will stand the test of time.
"Everything that we buy — thread, zippers, snaps — we've gone through several different versions of them," he said. "And you know, every time we take a step up, trying to find the most sustainable version of that. "
Donaldson said the current Kitty Badhands' customer tends to skew younger and is passionate about the company's designs, which breathe new life into old textiles.
"And we just want to make sure as we expand what we're offering, our customers will trust that we are making good decisions," he said.
McVeigh said as they grow, she knows the materials she uses to make her original-design dusters, chore coats and dresses, will come from sources other than vintage textiles.
"But the one thing that I've learned from starting out with vintage materials is that sustainability is really important to me," she said. "So no matter what we make in the future, or if we send it off to be made by someone else, it's got to be sustainable."
McVeigh added: "It has to be good for the planet, good for the community. If someone else is going to make our clothes, I want them to be paid well and treated well. So I don't think that that's an aspect of fashion I might have considered if I hadn't started in the vintage textile arena."
Starting her sewing life early on and learning at the elbow of her grandmother set McVeigh up to see the potential in using older, worn fabric to make something new.
"My Mom-mom was always making quilts," she said. "I don't remember her teaching me how to sew. I just remember going over there and helping her hand stitch the triangles. And I thought it was really interesting to hear like, 'Oh, that was your mother's dress for communion.' And 'Oh, those were the curtains that we hung at Halloween in the '70s.' And each piece was kind of put into the quilt."
The 'Kitty Badhands' moniker began as a nickname from college that McVeigh used as an online store to sell her early pieces. That name stuck. And for McVeigh, her spark to make the first coat from a vintage quilt began with a random idea.
"And I made one and everyone wanted it," she said. "So I made another and then I made another and I made another."
Some quilts McVeigh and Donaldson lovingly collect are centuries old, and they bear their owners marks, along with those of the maker. In fact, a good portion of the time spent making the new pieces involves studying up about the past.
McVeigh deciphers quilt patterns used along with materials and stitching techniques to piece together the quilt's history, if one isn't available from the seller.
"Sometimes they've signed and dated it," McVeigh said. "And the person who's listed it says where it's from. And so you know that Elsa May in 1884 made this in this town in Kentucky. And sometimes you know nothing about it, especially if it's a pattern that the quilter made up themselves."
And even the fabric acts as a textile time-machine.
"Sometimes you can tell a little bit of certain fabrics that were more popular in certain times throughout history," McVeigh said. "So for example, some quilts are made out of feed sacks, which were really popular in the 20s, 30s and 40s."
And of the certain stitching sewn by hand, Donaldson said, "It's almost like a signature. Everyone hand-stitches differently. Sometimes it's like super-neat, sometimes it's like all over the place."
For McVeigh and Donaldson, their work reaches back into the past, while still being forward-looking.
"My favorite part of the job is getting to see the customer in their coat, happy and often with a story about someone stopping them," McVeigh said.
She added: "It really goes back to that storytelling element. And also the 'giving the quilt a new life' is that if someone's getting stopped in the grocery store to talk about their quilt, the quilt maker is there again, you know?"
As McVeigh and Donaldson work on fulfilling the mission of Kitty Badhands, they say they're ensuring these textiles and quilts are "not in the back of a closet somewhere. They're not in a landfill."
And they strive to create one-of-a-kind clothing in the hopes it will be passed down, like the original quilt was. The process almost helps bring the original artisan back to life.
"They're being talked about by people who don't know them, but they know their work," McVeigh said. "And they're appreciating it ... And I think that's really nice, because that's what we all want, is to live on through our work once we're gone."
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