The purple Irish trench coat with puckered shoulders and winglike sleeves would no longer fit its former owner. The Dreaded Bag Lady had popped off the buttons and dismantled it with a seam splitter. She tears apart clothes on a regular basis, but she’s better known for what she creates from the carnage: artistic bags out of recycled vintage clothes — material that’s being sold for less than a buck or is headed for a Dumpster.
“I sit around my house and make handbags,” said Vicki Anderson, 36, of Orono, called the Dreaded Bag Lady because of her tightly wound, short, brown dreadlocks.
Her bag business, Dreaded Bag Lady, began 2 1/2 years ago when she sewed a series of reusable grocery bags from jean and canvas. Since then, she has designed and sewn more than 100 individual pieces. No two bags are alike because they’re made of clothing she finds at garage sales and thrift shops throughout the state.
From symbols on the clothing tags and RIN (registered identification number) and WPL (wool products labeling) numbers, she learns who made the material and can estimate the age of the clothing. For instance, wash instructions weren’t required until the 1970s. Vicki estimates the Irish trench coat to be from the 1960s.
“I’m a little obsessive. Everything became a neat fabric that would make a great bag,” she said as she sat with her legs curled under her on the sofa.
Vicki crafts her bags in a workspace in the corner of her living room. Her creative zone is disturbed from time to time by a train rumbling over the tracks just outside of her first-floor apartment. When her 14-year-old son, Jackson, is at school and her husband, Matt, is at work, she’s kept company by a Chihuahua Paco, mutt Talhi and housecat Chewy (a toothless, former humane society cat with half an ear missing). Even the animals provide inspiration. She turns the durable material of their pet food bags into a line of totes.
Garage sale day is Friday. Older sister Lori picks Vicki up in the morning and they drive from sale to sale — Lori looking for bulky furniture and Vicki combing through piles of hand-me-down clothes — until it’s time to stop for a slice of pizza.
“I can’t remember the last time I went a whole week without going,” Vicki said.
Folded on shelves above her sewing machine desk are hundreds of pieces of clothing, along with pillowcases and blankets, a fabric collection big enough to supply her bag-making for the next five years, she said, but she can’t stop shopping. Searching for dejected material is a part of her artistic process.
When it isn’t garage sale season, Vicki frequents thrift store racks of 25-cent clothing.
“I can’t remember the last time I went into a store and bought something full price,” she said.
But her economical reason for choosing to recycle fabric is secondary to the fact that she simply loves the feel of vintage clothes and thinking about each piece’s history. She always incorporates the clothing tags into the bag so customers can appreciate and contemplate the history, too.
“Fabric from a fabric store feels dead — it has no personality to it,” she said.
Her bags fit her lifestyle. She learned to bake from scratch, be resourceful with her possessions and create what she needs. Vicki simply values recycling.
Most of the items in her home are on their second or third lives.
“This house is covered in stories,” she said.
Hanging behind Vicki’s head, above the sofa, were four woodblock prints by Parker R. Waits. When she brought the artwork home from a thrift store, she found the artist’s number online and called about his work. He had no idea how the prints ended up in a thrift store, but he wanted her to keep them. Beside the sofa is a doctor’s examination table, also a thrift store find, which she uses as a side table and occasionally an extra bed.
“If there are some holes and stains in the clothing, [thrift stores] can’t sell it and it ends up being thrown away,” Vicki said. “If I take home a jacket with a big hole in the arm, I can use it to sew.”
If people look closely, they’ll discover that many of the straps on her Dreaded Bags are actually belts. The bags are outfitted with salvaged zippers, D-rings and metal grommets. The metal hardware from all of her recycled clothing is tossed into plastic drawers under her sewing machine.
“I’m kind of a pack rat. Just about anything can be saved,” she said, pulling out a drawer containing metal dresser knobs. “I don’t know how I’m going to use those.”
Tiny scraps of cloth that are left over from her projects are placed in a tub, just in case they can be used as an embellishment for another bag or can at least be used to stuff a throw pillow.
Magnetic snaps and thread are the only two aspects of her bags that are purchased new. Unfortunately, the backings of magnetic snaps are nearly impossible to recycle and old thread often snaps, she said.
Old wool, men’s suit jackets are her favorite items to recycle, especially in green and orange, but orange wool is tough to find.
“There’s something really yummy about them,” she said.
When Vicki was 4 years old, she and her sister moved to Milo to live with her grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression and taught the girls to value handcrafted items. Since her grandmother didn’t have a sewing machine, she sewed quilts by hand and taught the girls how to make doll outfits out of scraps of cloth.
Sears employee Scott Concannon, through several phone calls, taught Vicki how to use her first sewing machine, which she purchased when she decided to start creating bags.
Sewing patterns and design sketches normally don’t have a place in the creation of the many styles of Dreaded Bags — messenger bags, grocery bags, diaper bags, laptop sleeves, handbags and clutches. Vicki allows herself to be inspired by the garment. She looks at the garment she’s recycling and observes a curve of the shoulder, a neat pocket or a shapely lapel. When she gets a “craving” for a certain fabric, she searches the shelves of her living room and bins in the front sunroom.
“If I’m making a bag and that curtain speaks to me,” said Vicki, pointing at her living room curtain of a green floral pattern, “then I would take it down and have to get a new curtain.”
After completing a great bag, she sells it. She doesn’t keep any of them for herself.
“If I could sell it for $100, I’m basically buying it for $100, and I’m cheap,” she said, laughing. “I try not to price them too high, but unfortunately, it’s more expensive to go green, which bums me out because some people really care about it and can’t spend more on green products.”
Though most of her designs are spontaneous, she does have a series of “Tree Bags,” large wool bags decorated with stately trees of cut-out polyester branches and tiny leaves. They’ve proved to be popular item at Maine Jewelry & Art at 96 Harlow St. in downtown Bangor, which at the moment is the only store that sells her artsy accessories. She also sells her bags online at etsy.com.