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Sew Paradise

Upcycling a good dress

A 28-year old dress gets new life as a duster vest, with a new color, new batik design

This dress began life likely in a factory in China in about 1990. It’s a heavyweight linen, cotton and rayon blend. It’s beige. It’s a column dress, mid calf, a length popular in the 1990s and, now, again in the 2020s.

I first spotted this dress at the Cocoa Beach location of Ron Jon Surf Shop. My husband and I were visiting, probably to try to catch an elusive space shuttle launch, staying in some slightly sleazy Motel 6.

The dress, typical of the 1990s clean, minimalist, slightly oversized aesthetic, was neutral. I wore it for work at least once per week. I took it on a long weekend trip to the Pink Shell Beach Resort in Ft. Myers where my MIL suggested it was too big in the top – not exactly but, definitely too long from shoulder to bust. I sewed the shoulder up a little and it’s stayed there for 25 years.

I wore this dress to the Cayman Islands, a trip paid for by my clients, and as I stepped off the plane, in the tropical heat (I mean, I lived in South Florida, but Cayman was even hotter!) in September, I was glad I had this airy and professional looking dress.

I’m now 25 lbs heavier than that slip of a 20 year old in South Florida, but I still loved this dress!

Last summer, I decided to upgrade it and wear it again as a duster vest. I batiked the hem using copper cookie cutters and dyed it a brilliant coral – one of my favorite colors.

I now also need to lower that shoulder seam (if I have enough fabric left inside to do so) as my bust point is, sadly, a little lower!

How to batik a linen dress:

I use an electric skillet as a double boiler, with the wax in a foil tray. I add water to the skillet and keep the temp just below boiling about 180-200 degrees. The wax melts. I use wood clothespins to pick up the metal cookie cutters and dip them in the wax, then press them onto the fabric of the dress. Scroll down to see the image gallery of the steps I use to batik the linen dress.

To dye, I first submerge the dress in cold water – the wax will crack, leaving that classic batik look – and then I dip it in the dye bath. I use Procion pro dyes from Dharma trading – they have a batik kit you can order to get started.

Then I put the wet, dyed dress in a gallon zip loc bag for 12-24 hours and leave it. Once done, I rinse the dye out, pick off the wax, and as a final, I either heat the wax out using hot water in a bucket or I iron it on low heat, no steam, using old rags pressed around each side of the batiked garment. You can use plain newsprint (not with newspaper ink on it!) if you have that. You can even use brown paper bags or paper towel.

The dress is a lovely coral color, looks great with jean shorts and tee shirts, or a shorter skirt and tee. It also looks great with wide leg beachy pants, loose lightweight joggers and cropped tees too.

By paradise

I'm Ann. I've been sewing since I was 9. My first project was a denim wrap skirt. Thrifting is a way of life for me - both eco-chic and financially savvy.