Q&A: 365 Days, 365 DIY Dresses, $365

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Bored, without a job, facing the mini-crisis of turning 30, and inspired after watching “Julie & Julia,” Marisa Lynch decided to take on a new project last summer: For 365 days in a row, she would mend, cut, dye, stitch, and otherwise transform secondhand clothing into a new dress daily, and she would do so with a budget of just $1 a day.

Lynch is more than halfway through the New Dress a Day experiment, and it seemed like a good time to catch up with her and see what she’s learned about sewing, shopping, fashion, consumerism, creative juices, snagging deals at flea markets, and beyond. (More on Time.com: See a package on toxic cosmetics)

Marisa Lynch on Day 84 of the New Dress a Day project

So why did you decide to take on this project?
Marisa Lynch: I started the project because I needed something to really get my creative juices flowing. I got laid off last summer and I was in the midst of turning 30, so I was having a mild mid-life crisis/funk/freak out. I was looking for something to get me out of this funk and was inspired after seeing Julie & Julia. I wanted to find something that would be the highlight of my day, like Julie Powell did with cooking her way through Julia Child’s cookbook. I wanted something that would be a challenge, but something that I could really, actually do. That is when this is what came to mind.

How much did you used to spend on clothing in a typical year — and how much do you think you’ll save this year?
ML: Ooh, I’ve always been a bargain shopper — love hitting sales and scouring the clearance racks, so it’s not like I was spending tens of thousands of dollars beforehand. The idea of spending something like $500 on a dress is a pretty crazy idea, but the idea of spending $500 on a few things is not as crazy. I’ve definitely saved a good amount this year…enough for a vacation that’s for sure!

Before you started this project, did you have a lot of experience sewing and transforming clothes? Lots or just a little? What is it you love about the process — that made you want to do this for a whole year?
ML: Before I began the project I had experience sewing and transforming clothes. I had been doing it for fun since graduating college when I bought my sewing machine. I didn’t go to fashion or design school, but learned how to sew in Home Ec. 7th grade. A patchwork pillow to go over a wooden stool made in tech class. I don’t even think those classes exist anymore!!

Part of the process that I truly love is when I finish a piece and get complimented on it – it’s the best feeling to tell someone that I made it myself and that it only cost a dollar or two. People are usually shocked.

I’m assuming you get your materials from thrift stores, flea markets, and such. Since you started New Dress a Day, what have you learned about secondhand shopping? How do you sift through all the junk and find things that will work for you? Also, in addition to finding the best stuff, how do you get the best deals?
ML: Yes! I totally frequent these types of stores. In my secondhand shopping, I’ve actually found that getting to flea markets later on in the day are when the deals are ripest! Vendors love to bargain with you the closer they are to closing up shop because they don’t want to take this stuff home with them. This is when I become “wheel and deal” Marisa. I’ve also learned that people get rid of amazing things! I found a Christian Dior lounge dress for $1. The sifting is a process, that’s for sure, however I can still make things work even if pieces have holes on them, are spotty or stained, or are ripped. I don’t usually know what I’m going to do with a piece until I get home but I’m initially attracted to things that have great color, bead work, interesting/intriguing buttons or hardware.

What are some of the quickest and easiest ways for making/transforming dresses and other clothing?
ML: An easy way to transform a dress that anyone could tackle would be just changing the length of the skirt or the sleeves. Grab a pair of scissors and cut the piece to the length you want. Whether you have sewing experience or not, there are a few ways to get to the final product. Use a sewing machine if you have one and stitch a new hem. If you don’t have a machine but are comfortable with a needle and thread, then hand sew. If you are completely anti-needle/thread, use some electrical or duct tape. Regardless of your skill level, there are many routes you can take to get to New Dressville. (More on Time.com: See fashion photos from Chelsea Clinton’s wedding)

(Little side note – don’t be afraid to cut, just take baby steps! When trying this out for yourself, find super cheap things to work with so it’s not as painful to actually tear off a collar or cut off sleeves. It’ll become easier and easier each time!!)

What dresses have been your biggest challenges? Any mistakes you care to share with us?
ML: The dresses that are the biggest challenges tend to be the ones that are much larger than I am to begin. Those pieces take the most time, and since I’m fitting them on myself and not a dress form, sometimes I don’t get the fit right the first go. It can take several to make it perfect. I’ve accidentally cut through dresses in areas that were not meant to be cut, however I just go back and make amends. Nothing you’d ever notice 🙂

Marisa Lynch, Day 216 of New Dress a Day

What dresses have been your favorites — your biggest successes? Why do you love them?
ML: The dresses that are my favorites tend to be the ones that really shock me in the end. They’re the ones where I go in with a specific idea and the end product trumps my initial thoughts. Where I’m literally blown away, you could say. I would call those my greatest successes.

Two of my faves include Day 84 and Day 216.

How has this project changed how you view traditional fashion shopping? Looking ahead, when the year is up, will you go back to the old way you used to shop, or do you think things will be different?
ML: When I first started my project, I thought that not shopping was going to be the hardest part. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to pass up urges to hit up Target when Zac Posen’s collaboration line was launched. I’ve surprised myself because it’s really not an issue at all. I’m enjoying the pieces that I’m making so much more and am having the best time scoring throwaways and turning them into winners. I’m definitely not feeling the urge to go back to the mall anytime soon!

Read about other interesting consumer (or anti-consumer) experiments:
Q&A: What I Learned by Not Getting into a Car for a Year
Q&A: A Blogger’s Year of Getting Discounts Just By Asking for Them
Q&A: The Year of No Clothing Purchases
Q&A: How to Eat on a Dollar a Day