My Backstory: How I Started DIY Men’s Shirts Makeovers and the Transformation I Experienced Because of It

My Backstory: How I Started DIY Men's Shirts Makeovers and the Transformation I Experienced Because of It, photo of Carly J. Cais wearing DIY men's shirt dress

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.

DISASTER!

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.

Then…

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.

xo

Carly

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Chic Tip: Create New Holiday Traditions Around Giving Thanks

As I shared at the beginning of last year, a Gratitude Journal is a wonderful way to be mindful of things to be thankful for – to boost mood and increase happiness – and to stay aware of all of the things in life to be thankful for, despite things not always going our way. Sometimes by the time the day of holiday celebration rolls around we can be completely exhausted from the big flurry of activity getting ready for the occasion – and it can be hard not to lose sight of why we did it all in the first place.

So for this time – and all going forward – I’m proposing a break from the rush of activity and creative exhaustion – to just try to savor and appreciate the moment more, and not push ourselves too hard. To bring gratitude back, and do away with forcing perfect. The holidays particularly are a wonderful time to begin this tradition for your family, friends, and loved ones – and even yourself to gain some peace of mind! Here a few ideas for creating your own tradition for giving thanks:

5 Easy Ways to Create a Holiday Tradition of Giving Thanks

  • Use a beautiful journal, diary, or notebook (try this sequin guestbook one for a super high-end look – or this gold foiled notebook set for chic and simple) and have guests at your special occasion write one thing they are thankful for. Add to it every year, and read previous year’s entries aloud to the new guests.
  • Have each guest write what they are most thankful for on a slip of paper and drop into a vase in the center of the table. Go around the table and have each person pull a slip of paper out and read it aloud.
  • Have each guest write what they are most thankful on the back of someone else’s place card – when your guests sit at the table they will find a secret snippet of gratitude on the underside of their place cards.
  • Having kids at your celebration? Have them each draw or write things they are thankful for onto paper placemats you use for both the kids – and the adults! – at the meal.
  • Before the meal join hands and have each person share something they are grateful about regarding one of the other guests there as a heartwarming start to the celebration.

Do you have any holiday traditions around which you emphasize giving thanks? Please share!

xo
Carly

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Chic Closet Organization Tips on KATU Afternoon Live this Thursday!

KATU Afternoon Live banner

Hi friends, I couldn’t resist a bit of shameless self-promotion and let you know that I’m going to be a guest on KATU’s Afternoon Live show with Tra-Renee, this Thursday.

Apparently the show is live (*gulp*) where I’ll be sharing closet organization tips for the New Year – plus 2 fun DIY’s (if there’s time) to give your closet storage and display areas a makeover.

As far as I know the show only airs in Oregon and isn’t syndicated nationally, but if you’re in Oregon you can watch it on channel 2 (or 16, depending on your cable provider). If you aren’t in Oregon or don’t have cable it seems you can catch it live here:

WATCH KATU AFTERNOON LIVE – THURSDAY AT 3PM PST

Watch on Thursday, January 5 from 3PM-4PM PST for my 6-minute segment with Tra-Renee and get tips for a chic closet for 2017!

xo

Carly

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10 Days to Kickstart Your Creativity

10 Days to Kickstart Your Creativity emails

Hello friends…and hellloooo 2017! I’m excited for this New Year and what it brings. How about you?

As I announced on New Year’s Eve…this year will bring a lot of changes to Chic Steals. One new thing I’m trying is to share content in different ways: like email, direct to my subscribers. This allows for a much more personalized approach, which I’m excited about. (You may have noticed a new popup on this website prompting you to signup!)

The first email:

10 Days to Kickstart Your Creativity Email Newsletter

Ever wanted a creative boost to start off the month with a bang? Sign up for 10 Days to Kickstart Your Creativity – a free daily email jam-packed with helpful tips and tricks to get your brain revved and ready for new ideas.

Part science, part pop culture, part inspiration – with daily to-dos and prompts that will get you excited about tapping into your more creative self.

Even if you think “I’m not creative at all!” – or if you feel you’ve hit a roadblock and need a mental refresh – 10 Days to Kickstart Your Creativity will start your month off right and reset past burnout to get those neurons firing again.

I’ve been blogging at Chic Steals for 9 years now, sharing creative DIY tutorials for accessories, jewelry, apparel, and home. I’ve always felt I was a creative person, and the blog became an outlet to share that with the world, in the form of advice, how-to’s, and ideas. I’ve spoken at events and conferences about creativity, guest-lectured, and coached clients to train themselves to become more creative. And now I’m sharing that expertise with you.

What many people may not know is that creativity is something that can be trained. Though people may think that certain people are just born creative, in fact, the ability to find connections between seemingly unrelated things, make mental leaps, and create things which did not exist before can be cultivated, honed, and exploded. I won’t lie, it does take work and effort, but results can be astounding. Just by attempting to make new habits, pattern disrupt, and opening your mind to possibilities you begin to reset ingrained ways of thinking and expand your capabilities.

This is a 10-day series of emails expressly designed to fire up those creative neurons, reframe your thinking, and supercharge your creative skills. I hope you will join me so I can share many of the tips and tricks I’ve learned with you!

It’s totally free; no obligation. Emails begin January 15, for the next 10 days. If you’re a regular subscriber to the RSS feed – you won’t be getting this exclusive series, unless you sign up below:

Edit 1/15: Registration for 10 Days to Kickstart Your Creativity is now closed. I’ll be opening it up again in the future, so please check back!

Hope to see you there!

xo
Carly

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Goodbye 2016…Hello 2017!

Happy 2017 from Chic Steals glitter announcement

Hello, dear readers!

It has been awhile since I posted, and I wanted to say hi and bring all of you an update.

As many of you know, I’d taken some time off blogging since July of this year…and going from 5-6 posts a week to 0, taking a huge step back from the blog, and reassessing turned into a 5-month silence here. (Except for a few posts I was required to make as part of partnership agreements 😉

Ive never taken so long to contemplate a new move. Perhaps with all the massive changes that have happened in my life since 2013, I was reluctant to change the last thing that remained from my past.

I’ve been blogging at Chic Steals for almost 9 years – it’ll be a full 9 next month.

9 years is a long time.

During that time I’ve changed immensely. Almost everything from my old life has been stripped away and rebuilt from the ground up. The past 3 years have brought into focus what my values are, and how I want to live them.

By the middle of this past Summer, I’d come to the realization that everything about my blog, from the content I shared to the look and feel to its mission, even to the name of it – didn’t align with the person I was anymore.

And so for 5 months I’ve struggled with what to do. I realized I had to make a decision: remake my blog into something that I aligned with who I am and how I want to connect with people – or STOP it and shut it down entirely. So for months I’ve gone back and forth, trying to decide.

I decided that blogging was still a part of my identity, and that I couldn’t give it up. I decided that I valued my readers and audience too much to just shut everything down and say goodbye. I decided that it was time to grow or get out.

So I am.

I’m going through a full overhaul of this blog, and a full rebrand. And a new name. And a new website. New content, slightly shifted focus.

I can no longer compete with blogs that are churning out 6 posts a week, DIY after beautifully-photographed DIY. There is so much amazing content out there, I can’t compete by being a content machine.

I’d rather compete on quality, on uniqueness – not hopping blindly on every fashion trend, not churning out tutorial after tutorial, not advocating unending consumption, but staying true to oneself and focusing on the less is more approach. Putting one’s personal stamp on one’s entire life, and molding what is around us to our own tastes. Living frugally but fully; celebrating design, ideas, and creativity. And sharing this with all of you.

You’ll see changes happening here over the next couple months.

So goodbye 2016 – a year of debilitating lows for me…and slowly gathering highs. Not quite there yet – but I also hope that 2017 will surpass this year in every way!

I hope you’ll stick around for the ride 🙂

xo

Carly
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Taking a Break…

Road heading to the horizon at Steens Mountain, OregonHi friends,

If you guys hadn’t noticed already…I’ve stopped posting temporarily. Things got very busy with my day job, and I’ve entered a period of re-evaluating what value this blog can provide to everyone.

A great number of my original reasons for beginning this blog 8.5 years ago have now changed, and I’ve begun a transition to a new phase of my life. What this means is I am still trying to determine the best content that I can provide, and what would be the best format. How to best serve all of you.

I just needed a bit of a break to figure out what’s on the road ahead for all of us.

Thanks for your understanding as we enter into the next phase. 🙂

xo

Carly

Photo taken of the open road in the Frenchglen/Steens Mountain area, Oregon.

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