upcycling-grief-clothes
Fashion

“It keeps her alive”: the women coping with grief by upcycling their late loved ones’ clothes

After Fiona Holland’s mum passed away in 2020, she decided to rework a much-loved blouse into a new outfit to help her grieve. She meets the women upcycling their late loved ones’ clothes to remember them. 

There were a million things my mum, Maura, and I had in common. One of them was our love of clothes. She was always the most colourful one and her sunny disposition shone out in what she wore, whether it was the white fuzzy jumper she popped on to go out for coffee, or the vibrant check shirt with matching mustard jeans she wore frequently during dialysis three times a week.

Maura died in January 2020 after a long battle with diabetes and renal failure. I was 23. One of the hardest moments after her death was opening her wardrobe for the first time. The colourful patterns were as joyful as ever, but all I could think about was how she wasn’t here to wear them anymore.

My stomach filled with dread thinking about when I would have to decide what would go to the local charity shop. There wasn’t space to keep much, but I became attached to certain items. 

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Maura (left) wearing her 70s-style blouse at Fiona’s (right) graduation in 2019.

One of these items was a blouse covered in a 70s-style mustard and brown leafy print on white polyester-blend fabric. Maura only wore it once, at my undergraduate graduation in 2019, but it sticks so vividly in my mind as being one of the happiest days I last had with her. 

I like to think the blouse played a role in that. She was so nervous about wearing it, thinking that it was too bright. When she saw me in my blue and white zigzag-printed two-piece though, she laughed and shouted: “Well, won’t we be the most colourful pair!”

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The blouse was too big for me, so I initially thought I’d hang it in my wardrobe as a small reminder of her. It only occurred to me a year later, after conversations with people who had reworked items belonging to their lost loved ones, that I could reinvent it for myself. 

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Fiona’s mum’s blouse upcycled into a boxy t-shirt.

Matilda Aspinall, a designer, maker and lecturer in cultural and historical studies at London College of Fashion, reworked her grandmother’s dress as part of her PhD in 2019. She examined how old garments were reworked into new ones in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, with popular techniques from contemporary fashion.

After researching reworked garments in the 1940s Make Do and Mend scheme, Aspinall was inspired to transform her grandmother’s hand-crocheted dress, which had been in her dressing up box as a child, and later carefully stored away.

She reworked the dress by unravelling a panel section from the bottom, washing the wool, re-crocheting all the holes and adding black yarn trimmings to modernise it. She also made a patchwork jacket to work alongside it, using colour catchers saved from washing her and her children’s clothes. “The jacket creates a connection to my grandmother’s great-grandchildren and her own granddaughter’s clothing,” she says.  

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Matilda Aspinall reworked her grandmother’s dress as part of her PhD in 2019.

Upcycling allowed Aspinall to reconnect with her grandmother in ways she had not expected. When she found out her grandmother had made this dress for her trousseau (clothes and belongings collected by a bride for their marriage), Matilda discovered new stories about her. 

“She’d come to England around the interwar period after living in the Dutch East Indies. She had married an Englishman and although her family lived there for generations; they were Dutch colonialists,” says Matilda. Her grandmother had moved with her young daughter and couldn’t get back to her home because of the war. “Through repurposing this dress, I re-engaged with this woman on a different level, not just as her granddaughter,” she says. “My artistic practice was a tribute to who she was and her life.”

TV presenter Sabrina Grant had her sister Raquel’s jeans repurposed into two new jackets during BBC Two’s Saved And Remade, a programme on upcycling preloved items, which Grant hosts.

Sabrina was 24 when she lost her 32-year-old sister Raquel suddenly in 2010 to suicide. “[She] was such a supporter of me and my career, and I thought Saved And Remade was a perfect opportunity to get it transformed to be something very special,” she tells Stylist.  

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TV presenter Sabrina Grant (right) and her mum (left) wearing her late sister Raquel’s repurposed jeans.

Ingrained in the denim’s history are memories of everyday life that Grant shared with her sister. “One time, my sister and I went to church and obviously you’re meant to wear smart Sunday-best dresses,” she says. Their mum wasn’t there that week, leaving Raquel in charge. “She dressed all the boys in denim jeans and whites. She wore a denim skirt, a white T-shirt and I had this denim dress,” says Grant, breaking into a giggle. “I was thinking why are we trying to make a big fashion statement? Like a trendy, cool von Trapp family! I’ve always kept that memory in my head of us all dressed the same in uniform.”

The jeans were upcycled into a kimono-inspired piece for Sabrina’s mum, and a bomber jacket with thick denim frills for Grant, reworked by sewing expert Chinelo Bally on the show. “I’m looking forward to showing that jacket off,” says Grant with a beaming smile. “It feels like a piece of armour because it carries so much history.”

Like Grant, my mum’s blouse was reworked by someone I trusted to transform the piece exactly how I wanted. That was Hannah Stacpoole, founder of the vintage and reworked clothing studio Saluto London. She upcycled the blouse into a boxy T-shirt, using the leftover fabric to make a matching drawstring bag and a scrunchie. Although no longer the same item, the memory of mum wearing it hasn’t been forgotten but embellished. When I put it on, I have this wonderful urge to burst into conversation about her love of plants when I catch someone looking over at the vibrant leafy print.  

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The leftover fabric from Fiona’s mum’s blouse has been turned into a drawstring bag and scrunchie.

As Aspinall says, upcycling clothing offers a unique way to remember a lost loved one and deal with grief as “it totally depends on the moment, and the place, the memory of that person in that outfit”. She adds, “It’s a really lovely way to connect with that person. For me, it enabled a connection […] in ways that I hadn’t previously seen.”

Transforming my mum’s blouse did not cure my grief, but it helped me acknowledge my loss in a new way. By embodying both her style as well as my own, she’s still present in my life in a way that’s far more exciting than a background picture on my phone. I know she’d be immensely flattered that I am continuing to wear one of her favourite shirts in a style that suits me. It’s a one-of-a-kind item – full of colour, just like her.  

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Images: Fiona Holland, Mark Tamer, Sabrina Grant