My Backstory: How I Started DIY Men’s Shirts Makeovers and the Transformation I Experienced Because of It
Hello dear readers!
It feels like it’s been forever since I’ve posted anything new…and it HAS been. 2 years, 3 months, and 1 day! So much has been happening in my life and there have been a few times over the months and years when I have wanted to close down my chapter as a blogger for good.
BUT! Something kept tugging at me – something that said that this site had been and still continues to be a valuable resource to people, so I shouldn’t shut it down entirely. And it didn’t feel entirely finished to me – I felt like I still had more to offer and share with everyone, but wasn’t quite ready to come back to it just yet. Not for many months – and I’ve even had some huge setbacks in-between! But that’s a story for another day…
Given I, like many hundreds of millions of people right now, are quarantined in our homes and are actively practicing social distancing due to the spread of COVID-19…I felt it was time to get back to the ol’ blog again. I’ve missed all of you a ton! And I realized I never actually shared my story, as to how I got into DIY in the first place, and why it became so important to me. I’ve never shared this story anywhere before now. So here goes, my men’s shirt makeover backstory…
Carly J. Cais: My Origin Story
Growing up in rural Northwestern New Jersey, a child of immigrants, meant we didn’t have a lot. My dad had come to the U.S. for a career as a research chemist. My mom came with him, and taught classes at the local college. We had no other family in the U.S. – our entire extended family lived in Australia. My parents had purchased a small home on 1.7 acres of forest in this tiny town in New Jersey, and initially money was tight. My mother was very scrappy: she made Halloween costumes for my brother and me our of paper mache and cut up margarine tubs, bolts of cloth from the fabric store, notions and trimmings and all sorts of things. I too was creative and loved crafting and making things. My mother taught me to sew when I was somewhere between the ages of 6-8; I made a lopsided stuffed bear with a melted-looking half-smiling half-frowning face.
As a kid I wasn’t popular – my family wasn’t wealthy, I wore hand-me-downs and cheap clothes, my mom cut my hair, and I spent most of my time reading or drawing and writing my own stories. As I got older with the same group of kids I’d been in school with since kindergarten, the gap widened. I think around 2nd or 3rd grade was when I really started noticing the differences, and I focused on the obvious one: I didn’t wear have cute, trendy clothes to wear. I felt I didn’t fit in based on how I looked, and I started sketching what the other girls were wearing and paying attention to how they’d put outfits together. I begged my mom to let me buy some patterns with my pocket-money, and I began sewing my own clothes, hoping I would fit in better if I were dressed like all the other girls.
The first time I wore a dress I had made from a pattern and I was SO proud of – all the kids made fun of me, sneering “Did your mom dress you today?!” I guess what I had chosen to make: the mail-away pattern for a “Stylish V-Neck Dress” – putting in HOURS trying to figure out the crinkly tissue paper pattern with misses’ sizing for my 11-year-old self – didn’t quite line up with what was in style at Long Valley Elementary School, LOL. That day I rushed home in tears and crumpled up the beautiful tiger-striped and brick bodice inset dress, shoving it away in the corner of my closet, never to be work again.
But I kept going, paid a little more attention to what was trendy amongst the “IN” crowd, and that year I actually got quite good at sewing: I made tops and skirts and T-shirts, even vests and baggy pants. I loved wearing them because no one else had anything like them – and gradually, as I got more confident I gained friends. Probably the outfits had little to do with it…but I was more sure of myself, and felt like sewing and making things that didn’t exist until I stitched them up was my SUPERPOWER.
Fast-forward to October 2007. I had just closed down my short-lived Misses’ clothing and jewelry line RIVETED, and I still wanted to stay connected to the fashion world. I had a 2-year old child at home and was a stay-at-home mom; I’d also met someone who ran a fashion blog, and so I pitched the idea of me writing for her blog, producing monthly articles. So I began writing for FashionTribes, in a series called “Carly’s Chic Steals and Fashion Deals of the Week.” I archived most of the posts I wrote for the site here (though I can’t vouch if all the photos still exist!). WHEW those posts were bad! I honestly cringe re-reading how bad my writing was back then. But they began my journey as a blogger – though I was blogging for someone else at the time.
In January 2008 I wanted somewhere to put all my FashionTribes articles, and so I created this blog (which at the time I called Chic Steals based off the name of my FashionTribes article series). And then outside of the article I wrote, I started to post on my blog ideas I’d had, fashion I was interested in, and projects I’d made. It was still early on for this blog, but I really enjoyed sharing these things with people. Blogs were just beginning their heyday, and as a stay-at-home mom I craved adult interaction and using part of my brain that wasn’t 100% devoted to raising my child. This blog became an outlet for me.
Everything changed in August 2009 when I posted a tutorial for a Cute Summer Shirtdress I’d made from an old shirt of my husband’s. The tutorial was shared hundreds of times online, posted on different blogs, and essentially went viral amongst the DIY, upcycling, and sewing communities. I was thrilled! I had no idea that people would be interested in my little men’s shirt makeover project. SO many people commented on it, asked questions about it – and it essentially launched my blog. I started sharing tutorials and how-to’s in earnest on the blog, many of them focusing on upcycling other pieces of clothing. I became known for DIY’ing men’s shirts into cute clothing – and it was something I continued to share on my site because there seemed to be such an interest in it. During this time my husband quit his job to go to school full-time. Money was tight (just like it was when I was growing up), and though I never shared this on my website, thrifting materials or upcycling the clothing we had was necessary, both to feed my creative drive, and the needs of the blog. I couldn’t just buy things new! I enjoyed more than anything helping other people like me be more creative, more thrifty and scrappy, and make beautiful things despite their circumstances. Blogging helped me feel connected when I felt alone, and connected to many even though I was taking care of a child all day long. I felt fulfilled and whole.
May 2014. My husband left.
I wrote very little on my blog about this event, earth-shattering though it was, because I wanted to protect my son from the sordid details, not say anything bad about the “other parent,” follow all the advice the therapists give for successful dissolution of a marriage without severely traumatizing one’s child, etc. etc.
However, the silence was broken by his father, who later actually told my son that he left. So I feel that it’s at least okay sharing that much.
When this happened, it felt like my whole world came apart. I lost 27 pounds. I couldn’t keep food down for 4.5 months, surviving on dry bread and oatmeal. I kept waking up in the middle of the night, having panic attacks, my heart pounding and short of breath. I was puking into a plastic bag in the mornings as I was driving my son into school, going down the highway at 55mph. For the first time in almost 15 years I had no idea what the future looked like. And this scared me to death! How would we survive?? How could I suddenly go from a couple thousand dollars in one year from the blog, to the median income in the United States?? Since 2005 I had been forced to become a stay-at-home mother by my husband and his parents, who would not allow me to work once I had my son. They were very traditional. It was non-negotiable. Some parents wish they could stay at home with their child. I was never given the choice. I did it because that was what they wanted me to do, but my blog was a way for me to “work” on my own terms and around taking care of my son, still satisfying my in-laws’ requirements but my salvation that helped me not lose my mind in the meantime. Even though I had monetized my blog, partnered with brands to do paid and sponsored posts, sold advertising, and received some free stuff because of the blog – it wasn’t a full-time income, nor one that could support me, my son, our home, and a dog. I had not had a real job since 2005 – 9 years prior!
So I had to scramble. I applied for job after job, ones that were barely even related to what I wanted to do but just would provide a bare minimum income. I just needed to make ends meet, somehow cover the mortgage and our expenses, keep our lives afloat. My son was 8-and-a-half. He was terrified I was not going to be able to pay for the house and we would lose our home. He saw me upset and crying, sick and gaunt, not sleeping. I got rejected from job after job…or there was just silence from the employers. I had no local contacts, no one who could vouch for my work ethic and skills. My whole life had revolved around being a homemaker, cooking for my family, raising my son – and writing my blog on the side. The lowest point was where I asked for an application to work the register at the local Target, for $9/hour. I filled it out at the dining room table at home, tears dripping down my face, signing it with the date, feeling like it was a cop out. But I couldn’t bring myself to actually hand it in. The last time I had worked a cash register was 11 years ago. I KNEW I had more to offer and felt like I was letting everyone down, including my family who’d paid for my higher education (I had a B.A. degree and four certificates), my son who believed in me (I spoke 2 languages and had raised him bilingual), and myself. I felt like all my stability, my entire identity, had been pulled out from under me. I had no idea who I was anymore, all I knew was that I HAD to keep my son’s life stable. I HAD to keep him in the same home he’d grown up in, the same neighborhood, the same friends, the same routine. And that meant I had to scramble like crazy behind the scenes to scrape together everything I could to keep us afloat! Kinda like the little kid treading water, over a deep, dark scary part of the ocean – and the kindly dolphin rises below the surface of the water and lets the kid ride on its back. The kid has no idea, laughing and splashing happily on the dolphin’s back, enjoying the water – never realizing the deep dark murky depths below. THAT was everything I was trying to be for my son, so he would never realize just how close we were to the edge.
One day I went to my closet, frustrated. My husband had left a large amount of his clothing, including many shirts I had bought for him that he had never worn, many of which still had the tags on them. My side of the closet was filled, crammed to the brim with clothing I had made for my blog, received as review pieces, sewn myself…basically the physical representation of everything that was wrong in my marriage. The clothes that I owned had no cohesive style. No consistent color palette, no consistency in pattern. It looked like the closet of 20 different women! There were so many different identities I had taken on, trying to be someone else, trying to be who my husband and his parents wanted me to be, trying to pretend. I hated most everything in that closet because it wasn’t really me. I had lost my way and covered up problems with pretty clothing and writing about it, distracting me from the deeper internal issues. The clothes in my closet represented years of effort and fakery. I couldn’t stand the site of them – and began ripping everything down from the hangers. Shirts, dresses, shoeboxes, belts, bags – EVERYTHING. Even the bins I kept things in, the hangers…every item in my closet came out. I piled it all in huge piles in my bedroom and forced myself to live with it front and center for 3 weeks as I sorted it through it. Even though this was 6 months after Marie Kondo’s book debuted in the United States, I still hadn’t read it at the time. As I was going through the piles, I imposed similar questions on each piece: does this item evoke a happy memory? If NOT – get rid of it!! That was the dress I was wearing at his brother’s wedding, when he laughed during the whole ceremony and his own father had to tell him to hush up – while I was mortified. That was the skirt I was wearing for my 35th birthday – the day he forgot to plan anything and was angry at me for even having a birthday. That was the shirt I was wearing the day he stuffed a few of his items in a backpack and walked out, despite my pleas to do the right thing for our son. ALL of it HAD to go. From the piles I began selling everything I could, dragging bags to the local Buffalo Exchange, listing items on eBay, selling to friends, and finally…donating to Goodwill. I was getting rid of all the false identities I had tried to wear throughout my 11-year marriage and 14.5 years of being with the same person, in order to get down to the real ME at the center of it all. During this time I also began pitching my blog to try to drum up ad placements and paid posts, freelancing for other bloggers, consulting for small businesses. I tried to make ends meet and continue to pay the bills and the mortgage any way I could.
The clothing piles got smaller and smaller as I kept looking for a job, and my identity. As I sorted and purged and only kept things that ACTIVELY made me happy, I repainted the closet and started putting only those items back. There were very few things left that did not have bad memories or feelings associated with them. My closet was mostly bare.
I had to look work-appropriate and put-together for job interviews. So I turned to the pile of shirts I had bought for my husband, never worn. In some way they represented him and this miserable new life he had thrust us all into, and in some way they still weren’t tainted with him at all. I wanted to reclaim some power from this whole situation; make lemons into lemonade. So I started using my refashioning, DIY’ing, and sewing skills to make over the pile of stuff he’d left, into cute dresses, skirts, and shirts for myself. I already have been doing that now and again for my blog…now I took it to the next level. With each item of clothing I completed and hung in my newly-redesigned and sparse closet, I took a small piece of my power back. I wore what I had made to interviews, and people would ask me about what I was wearing because it was unique and cute and interesting. They remembered me as the “shirt girl.” And something changed in me: I finally felt like I had a little bit of control again, and had found myself. Finally all my applying to jobs paid off; I landed a part-time job doing social media marketing for a commercial photography studio.
It was a small reprieve but I STILL had to hustle because it still wasn’t enough. At one point I was working 4 part-time jobs/gigs to cover all the bills! I kept trying to share how-to’s and helpful ideas for refashioning on my blog, hoping to at least keep up the happy veneer to help my audience. I knew there were people out there who enjoyed my clothing makeovers and I wanted to keep what I share out there creative and fun, not bogged down in the day-to-day of me scrambling to make money and cover the bills without destroying my credit rating or losing our home. I wanted to share and inspire people! I still kept applying to full-time jobs so I didn’t have to work so hard at so many different things…and eventually in Spring 2016 I landed the full-time job as Marketing Manager for a software company, that would lift my son and I out of that life permanently.
Being able to earn a full-time income that was enough to pay all our bills and provide adequate health insurance was such a relief! Finally I didn’t have to spend all my waking hours working, working from my laptop as my son went to his Tae Kwon Do classes, dragging my computer to the park while he played, missing out on moment after moment as I worked and worked to earn. The day ended after 8 hours of work, and I could be there for my son, pick him up from school, make him a snack after school, help him with his homework. But a side effect of marketing for work, and being creative all day was that I became so burned out I had nothing left for my blog and my audience, no time to put into tutorials, no new ideas. That went into my day job, and I posted less and less on my blog. I redesigned it and rebranded it, and launched my blog with a new name and new identity that Fall: Chic Creative Life. Around that time, the company I was at experienced a downturn and eliminated all 4 of the people from my department, until I was the only one left standing, doing the jobs of 5 people. They slashed the Marketing budget to 1/3 of what it was, and then put an expectation on me that I was required to produce 3x the number of leads that we, as a fully-staffed department, had been able to pull in last year. The numbers were impossible. The writing was on the wall for that job.
Things had gotten crazy in the day-to-day, and though I fully intended to keep blogging, I was so burned out I had no creativity left. The last post on my blog was dated December 29, 2017.
In the meantime, I switched jobs (twice), was hit by a car, broke my wrist, lost the ability to use my right hand, went through 8 months of physical therapy, had 2 surgeries, and couldn’t hold a sewing needle for a really, really long time! But that’s a story for another day.
And now: a coronavirus pandemic. I’ve been furloughed from my full-time job. We were so ill-prepared in America for a pandemic that we are literally on Plan D: social distancing. Oregon has a shelter in place order in effect. And here I find myself at home, isolated again, not working. Kinda like I was back in 2014 when my husband left and my world was turned upside-down.
But this time I have a blog. One that continued to earn a small income, even when I couldn’t actively post on it. One that at its highest point reached 120,000 pageviews a month, and had a readership of thousands of people across the world. I have the skills and abilities to makeover clothing, and a way to teach others how to do the same. Plus, throughout this whole crazy journey, I managed to find my voice, figured out who I AM, and reclaim power along the way. I’m no longer a victim of circumstance, and instead am able to choose my path. Refashioning men’s shirts may seem a strange way to assert feminism, but there it is. I’m taking my identity BACK. Sure it’s about thriftiness, upcycling, scrappiness, and a symbol of surviving the despair at the end of a relationship, but it’s also about creativity, happiness, and leaving your own stamp on things that are sometimes dull, and stiff, and sad reminders of the past. It’s about trying to look decent and enjoy things despite everything falling down around you. It’s radical. It’s a movement. And I hope you will join me.