Finding great vintage pieces, trash art, and how to find consistency in your art

Sustainability Series

Leah Gust’s thrifting tips

I’ve always been a trend-driven dresser, always after the newest and coolest and (ideally) cheapest. I balanced my wardrobe (and budget) by incorporating vintage or thrifted finds to create a look. Nothing is ever really *new* in fashion so I could usually hunt down something from the last time say Angora sweaters or velvet blazers were all the rage.
Increasingly, though, what I found during my thrift store treasure hunts wasn’t 80s cast offs and 70s polyesters but racks and racks of last season’s Joe Fresh or H&M or Forever21. It gave me pause. Wasn’t I doing the same thing? I follow fashion closely so I was familiar with the laments in the industry that fashion was moving too fast, fashion houses were pumping out too many clothes, the collections were too close together, designers were burning out and retailers were drowning in stock. A close friend had made her new year’s resolution to buy only vintage or local that year. I thought, that’s something I could do! At first it was an effort, month by month, to stay the course, but eventually it just became habit. And what I found was I didn’t need fast fashion to be stylish! I learned to put more thought into what was already in my closet and from there decide what could work and create a shopping list of vintage pieces for what was missing.
If this sounds like too much work, for reference, I am a time-strapped working mother of three year old twins. I ain’t got no time. But it really doesn’t have to be a whole big thing. Just slowing my consumption helped me be more thoughtful about what I wanted out of my clothes and what the true cost of “new” was. Plus, vintage is super cool, great quality, genuinely unique and almost always sold to you by an actual real live person. That ticks a lot of boxes! Of course, there still is the draw of fresh new pieces. When the craving for actually new won’t quit or if my hunt for something vintage has been fruitless, I try my best to buy pieces from brands that are transparent about the manufacturing process or, at the very least, from an independent retailer. I don’t always hit the mark, of course, but reorienting my thinking around fashion has had a huge impact on how I balance style with substance.
Vintage shopping can be a bit intimidating to the uninitiated but fear not!
1. Keep an open mind. The real strength of vintage shopping is stumbling across something you never knew you wanted or needed! So don’t skip any racks!
2. Keep an eye on the fabric content. I’m big on natural fibres but they can bring their own challenges. Wool pieces should never have any visible holes or dips/breaks in the knit. Same goes for silks – if you see any holes stay away. This is usually evidence of moths that will follow that piece home and wreak havoc in your beautiful previously bug-free closet – so beware!
3. Fit. This can be tricky because depending on the vintage of the item the fit will vary. Ultimately, if I love a piece I will have it altered but this is one extra step so be aware of how much time/energy/money you want to invest after you leave the store. This can definitely be an opportunity to make something truly your own but be aware of the full scope of work.
4. Finally, you’re not buying a costume. Don’t stretch too far out of your comfort zone. It can be tempting when you’re in a vintage store surrounded by all manner of awesome treasures, but concentrate on cool, comfortable, ultimately wearable pieces to get the most out of your vintage finds.

Trash Embroidery by William KW

You use such fun and fascinating materials. How do you choose them? Are there any elements you’re particularly drawn to?

A lot of the materials used in my works are actually just pieces of trash I’ve found outside or random thrifted scraps. Whenever I’m out for a walk I keep an eye out for random bits of plastic or metal with interesting shapes. I pick up everything I feel has potential for use in a future piece, so anything goes, really!

When you’re creating, how do you approach the work? Do you have the idea formed ahead of time and choose materials for those ideas, or do you let the materials guide you?
My work mixes recycled art with embroidery. Some of my pieces almost entirely feature trash and recycled items and these pieces are rarely planned in any great detail beforehand. I usually have a few main items I feel will go together and work out a general composition, and then just start sewing on stuff in the order necessary. I do need to have a general sense of how larger pieces will be used as some things might have to be sewn on a certain way and in a specific order. Once the main pieces are in place I usually start embellishing with smaller bits and bobs to add colours or to achieve a more balanced composition.

Some of my pieces feature more traditional embroidery and beading techniques. Those pieces are usually based on sketches I do by hand and import into Photoshop to work out a base composition and colors. Once I start embroidering I have a general thought and colors in mind but then usually end up embellishing with a lot of beads, sequins and recycled items anyway, haha.

What drew you to embroidery art in the first place? 
I’ve always needed a creative outlet, but it’s taken different forms over the years. When I was younger I did a lot of graphic and web design and I’ve also dabbled in typography. For a while I ran a project called Furby Living where I recreated album covers with Furbies. And my most recent outlet is embroidery! While embroidery has been a great creative outlet I also found out it’s a great way to relax. When I started embroidering I worked a really stressful job and so it really helped me wind down.

How does sustainability and upcycling fit into your process? Is this something you’ve been dedicated to from the beginning? 
The idea to use trash and recycled items in my pieces actually came to me when I was walking home one day. By the small trail leading up to our building I found a couple of metal and plastic pieces that had some interesting shapes. I decided to pick them up as I thought hey, maybe I can use these somehow. I ended up using them for an embroidery piece and I found that method really interesting, that I had these random pieces that kind of got to form the composition of the piece instead of me creating the composition from scratch.

Since then I’ve had this mindset that, if I can find creative ways to find use for trash in my embroidery it’s not only a fun process for me but also a great way to practice reusing, reducing and recycling.

Do you have advice for other artists who would like to explore sustainable/upcycled elements in their work?
I would encourage you to consider: do I really need to buy newly produced material for my work or can I reuse or repurpose something old? Using unconventional materials is also a great way to challenge yourself creatively. I find that sometimes just a single random bit of plastic can spark an idea. See what you have lying around or go through your recycling, maybe you’ll find something interesting to use.

Consistency and your personal style

Recently, in conversations, a lot of artists have expressed worry over consistency in their art. This idea that if we gain followers for a specific genre/style, then we shouldn’t stray too far from that for fear of losing our following. But honestly, we really shouldn’t let ourselves get boxed in this way. I genuinely think it’s a waste of time to curate our output according to anything we think ig wants (trying to deal with ig is a whole other thing, tho – we’ll get in to that in a future newsletter). Even if we can’t help taking ig into account when thinking about our work, creating things you think your current following wants to see instead of making what your heart wants is like a hockey team playing not to lose, intend of trying to win. Creating art is about exploring, evolving. Just making the same thing over and over totally works for some of us, but for others, it feels stifling – and can rob the joy. Trust me when I say that whatever your style is, 1, you’ll never find it if you don’t experiment with whatever it is that gets you excited, and 2, even if you can’t see what your style is – your art is coming from you. Your style will emerge. Just keep making and creating. I personally don’t have any idea what my style is. I only know that I have one because I’ve had other people tell me that they always know when my work shows up in their feed. Part of that is because I photograph everything the same way, and edit pretty consistently, but I also think that despite how it feels to me, even with the wild changes in media and subject matter over the last couple years, my aesthetic is…always things I really love. It’s tempting to cater to the things that get the most attention, but frankly now that ig has rigged things against creators, it’s harder to tell what is getting most attention. Plus I’ve been told by some of my long-time supporters that one of the things that makes it fun to follow me is to see what I’ll do next. I never thought of it that way, but I guess that specific lack of consistency is a plus.
If you want to experiment with clay, or woodburning, or watercolour when all the followers you’ve gained are for your fan art, don’t let it stop you. You’re allowed to have more than one interest, and if you really want to develop as an artist and hone your personal style, dipping your fingers into all the pies that get your heart rate up is 100% the way to do that. I promise, while you’re wondering what on earth your style is, it will be forming around the work the whole time.