“The greatest gift my grandmother gave me was to teach me how to sew,” said wearable artist and domestic violence survivor Marie Grant, of Charleston.
Grant, 66, learned to sew when she was 6 years old, using buttons her father brought home from Czechoslovakia after World War II. She’s used her sewing skills ever since, doing everything from embroidery and cross-stitch to making drapes and bedspreads.
Retired from 30 years in retail sales, Grant used to make all her own clothes. And that’s how she got started in the business of wearable art.
These days, she is affectionately known as “the thrift store recycler” by workers at the 15 resale shops she frequents each month.
“I find wedding gowns and evening gowns for $20 to $50 and blue-jean jackets for, maybe, $9.99, and work to create wearable art,” Grant said.
“If I can’t buy it in a resale shop, I won’t use it. I repurpose and reuse, then resale.”
She loves the look of denim paired with lace. “I don’t know why wedding gowns fascinate me so,” Grant said. “But adding lace to denim — it just goes so well together.”
As the story goes, one day she was waiting for a bus, wearing one of her denim and lace jackets. A man complimented her and asked where she bought it.
He was surprised to learn she crafted the jacket herself and bought it right off her back. It was an unexpected $200 cash infusion and the genesis of her new business.
While that is a neat example of the value of her jackets, she says she doesn’t price things so high that others can’t enjoy her art. Most adult jackets embellished with lace and buttons are priced between $20 and $50; children’s run from $10 to $30.
She has a selection of more-expensive pieces embellished with intricate beading and will also do custom work.
Grant spends up to three days on each jacket, placing lace and hand stitching beads in her home studio on Charleston’s East End, where she has more than 45 neatly organized plastic containers of lace, buttons and beads.
Although she inherited her grandmother’s sewing machine, Grant’s jackets are all hand-stitched using recycled materials. The only thing new is the thread, she said.
Deconstruction of the wedding gowns is the most time-consuming part of the process.
A gown she is working on has about 150 beaded lace appliqués.
“I’ve worked 17 hours on just one sleeve,” Grant said. “First I have to take off all the beads, then remove the appliqués. Once I decide where to place them on the denim jacket, I have to stitch them on, then reapply the beading.”
It’s a tedious task, one she knows she’ll never get fully compensated for. But she doesn’t mind because it’s also a labor of love.
“A lot of people want to save their wedding gowns for their daughter or granddaughter,” Grant said. “No one’s going to wear that dress in 20 years,” she laughed.
She recommends using it to create a denim jacket, or two, so the gown can be worn and used regularly.
Many of her more budget-priced jackets and children’s items are for sale at the YWCA’s thrift store, Past and Present, on Lee Street in Charleston.
Erin Turner, director of retails operations for the YWCA, first got to know Grant as a shopper.
“We got to know she was looking for anything beaded or with buttons and the denim jackets,” Turner said.
Knowing Grant is a supporter of the YWCA, Turner thought it would be fun to work together. “We thought it would be nice to give Marie a place to show her work,” Turner said.
To kick things off, Grant donated a denim and lace jacket for silent auction at Past and Present, where sales help fund outreach programs for victims of domestic violence.
Having survived a violent domestic attack herself that landed her in the hospital in 1998, Grant knows firsthand the devastating effects of such abuse and wants to do what she can to help others.
Proceeds from the auction and 20 percent of the proceeds from each sale of Grant’s wearable art will be contributed to Alicia McCormick Homes, a YWCA transitional housing facility.
The homes consist of 10 apartments made available to formerly homeless or abused women and children for up to 12 months.
The residents pay one-third of their monthly income for rent and utilities, regardless of how much money they earn, said program director Kyla Nichols.
“Donations we receive are imperative for the survival of this program,” Nichols said. “We rely on the generosity of the public.”
Since 2006, more than 82 women and 63 children have been served there, she added.
To make a donation or participate in the silent auction, call Past and Present at 304-340-3646 or visit ywcacharleston .org. To place a custom order with Grant, call 304-410-3213.
Reach Marta Tankersley Hays at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1249 or follow @MartaRee on Twitter.