Environmental concerns inspire P.E.I. artist to 'un-fashion' clothes

Nancy Cole has never considered herself a "clothes person," but recently she's been spending a lot of time at her sewing machine, creating colourful tunics and functional pants. 

Nancy Cole says she won't buy clothes for the rest of her life, instead committing to reuse what she has

Artist Nancy Cole is focusing on "un-fashioning" old clothes, by turning them into something new. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Nancy Cole has never considered herself a "clothes person."

But recently she's been spending a lot of time at her sewing machine, creating colourful tunics and functional pants. 

The Summerside-based visual artist recently completed a week-long artist residency at Copper Bottom Brewing in Montague, where she spent her days cutting apart old clothing and sewing new outfits. 

She calls the process "un-fashioning" — and it's meant to send a message about consumerism and fashion and the environmental effects of the industry.

Cole hasn't bought any new clothes in 2019, and at age 61, she says she intends to never buy any more clothing. Instead, she is committed to sewing her own by repurposing what she already has. 

"I thought the only thing I can do as an artist is draw attention to this problem and practise what I preach. And that is not buy any clothes," Cole said. 

"The more cheap clothes we buy, the more cheap clothes that are being manufactured. And to save the earth, we have to stop."

Environmental concerns 

It was in the last year or so, Cole said, that she started to learn more about CO2 emissions and water pollution caused by the garment industry. She said she has been inspired by Greta Thunberg and other climate activists.

"It made me really want to do something myself," Cole said. 

She also is concerned about poor working conditions in clothing factories around the world.

Cole said she's confident she has enough material to last her the rest of her life. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

When she set to work earlier this year on her project, she sorted through her old clothes, as well as her husband's. She said she was amazed by how much material she had to work with. 

"When I piled it on a table, it was big and I went, 'Oh my God, I don't believe I have this much stuff,'" Cole said. 

All a sign, she said, of how accustomed she and others are to buying new things. 

"I just think we all take it for granted that we want a new outfit often.… If there's a tear or a button missing, we don't know how to repair it, we don't know how to put a button back on, we get rid of it and we buy new. And I was doing that as well." 

'Not a tailor'

Cole's creations consist mostly of simple tunics with visible stitching, patches and a mix of fabrics. 

"It was really important for me to put a signature on what I was doing, and making it quite obvious that I'm not a tailor. You know I don't do darts and I don't do bottom holes," Cole said. 

"I can if I want to, but the fact is I just want to repurpose clothes, and un-fashion them, so they fit, they feel good, and I haven't made any impact on the earth by doing them."

There is a history, there is a provenance to all of the clothes that I'm wearing.— Nancy Cole

Since she's experimenting, Cole said she does "screw up" some items, and credits her husband for providing feedback. 

"If I make something that's really, really bad, he'll let me know. And I won't go to Sobeys wearing it. But I certainly will in my studio." 

Cole enjoys experimenting and incorporating different materials into her clothes, which are meant to be comfortable and functional. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Her garments also tell stories, through the history and memories associated with the discarded clothes.

For example, in one piece she incorporated a food stain from an old shirt, which reminds her of an evening with her husband in Portugal. In other pieces, she uses clothes from her uncle, who recently died.

"When I put a little piece of his clothes in something I'm wearing, it just makes me feel really, really good, that there is a history, there is a provenance to all of the clothes that I'm wearing." 

Hopes to inspire others

To sew an outfit, Cole said it takes her about as much time — if not less — than it would take to go to a store, try on various items, and make a purchase. 

"I can start and finish, have it hemmed, and be wearing it in about two, two-and-a-half hours. And so can anybody else with basic sewing skills." 

Cole incorporates messages and free-hand designs into her work. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Cole hopes others could be inspired to reconsider their own fashion choices. 

"I would really love it if they thought, 'I could do this.' That … they could perhaps start, or start looking at, how they can transform their own wardrobe into something that's meaningful to them, and not just something that they've purchased." 

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Sarah MacMillan is a reporter with CBC Sudbury. She previously worked with CBC P.E.I. You can contact her at


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