Cincy is Creative: BJ McHugh of Loveworn 'up-cycles' T-shirts to make wearable art

Editor's Note: Cincinnati and the greater Tri-State region are home to people who excel in artistic and other creative disciplines. Each week, we’ll focus on a creative individual who is bringing new perspectives to our lives and enriching our cultural diversity.

Who: BJ McHugh

What: Artist specializing wearable art
Where: Third-floor studio in hundred-year-old house in Mt. Lookout
Latest: Custom apparel up-cycled from storied T-shirts
Greatest: Wedding dress from cut-up Reds T-shirts

For some, a T-shirt reminds them of the night they met their spouse. Or maybe it reminds them of a favorite band, marathon, vacation, or the time their child’s team went to the state finals. T-shirts with sentimental value often languish in our drawers long after they no longer fit. Some have been worn so many times the fabric is almost see-through. That’s OK: BJ McHugh can work with them all.

Over the past three years, fiber artist BJ McHugh estimates she has recycled at least 25,000 T-shirts – turning them into new, one-of-a-kind scarves, skirts, and T-shirts. At first, she mostly "up-cycled" T-shirts she bought from nonprofits, thrift stores, and resale shops. But now, many people who see her Loveworn booth at art fairs such as Summerfair Cincinnati send her boxes of their own favorite T-shirts and ask her to convert them into something new.

For example, one client in Minneapolis asked her to convert a collection of vintage Bruce Springsteen concert T-shirts into a brand-new skirt that she could wear to future Springsteen concerts.

“Recently, I made skirts for four sisters whose father had just passed away. He had a great collection of T-shirts from different places they had visited on vacation. They held a lot of good memories,” McHugh said. “So one sister gave me the shirts and I made them into skirts.”

Last summer, McHugh got a call from a bride-to-be who had seen one of her Loveworn skirts on a fan at a Reds game. The bride-to-be was getting married at the Cincinnati Reds “I Do’s at the Diamond” event at Great American Ballpark in August and wondered if BJ could make Reds-themed wedding attire in time for the ceremony.

“I thought about it for about 30 seconds, and said of course,” laughed McHugh. She made a skirt and top for the bride and bridesmaid skirts for the bride’s three daughters. Some of the shirts came from the groom’s closet.

“It’s something new every day. I go out to my porch and there are boxes of T-shirts, and each T-shirt has a story behind it.”

Because she travels to about 20 to 30 art fairs each year, she gets shipments of T-shirts from clients in cities throughout the U.S.

Each time she opens a box of T-shirts for a custom design, McHugh is aware that people are entrusting her with their treasures. And she feels privileged to help convert them into something they can use again and treasure anew.

After 20 years, "I knew I was onto something"

McHugh has been earning her living as an artist for more than 20 years, but only started up-cycling T-shirts about three years ago.

She didn’t let a lack of an art degree stop her from pursuing her dreams.

“Like many people, art was my avocation, not my vocation,” McHugh said. “My work history is in retail management. But about 23 years ago, I decided to do what I had a passion for. So I sort of jumped off the cliff and here I am, with no regrets.”

She admits that her retailing experience has helped tremendously, adding a left-brain approach to tasks such as calculating inventory and doing paperwork to her natural drive to create new things. She started out designing and making children’s clothes, under the brand name Sweetie Pies.

“I loved doing that. It was profitable. It was fun,” McHugh said. But after about 20 years, “I felt like my work was becoming formulaic. I just needed to do something new.”

One day, while de-cluttering her home, she opened up a drawer full of old T-shirts and asked herself, “What am I going to do with all these? I am never going to wear them again. But I can’t bear to part with them.” Then she noticed that some of the running and art-show T-shirts she had collected over the years featured the same types of bright colors and bold graphics she liked working with in her children’s line.

“So, I started treating T-shirts like fabric and experimented with constructing some garments.” recalls McHugh. “When I wore one to an art show, several people stopped me and asked where I got it. Then, I knew I was on to something.”

So she took a risk and re-invented her business--even though it was during the depth of the economic downturn. It was a time when many artists were playing it safe and sticking with art they knew they could sell.

Fortunately, McHugh proved to have perfect timing. Her up-cycled T-shirts hit the market just as interest in art made from recycled materials was on the rise.

“It was a good decision. I got my passion back for what I do,” says McHugh. But, she never imagined she would be doing as much custom work as she does today, and hearing so many

wonderful stories.

Bringing up-cycling to living rooms

She also never envisioned getting into home-party sales. But today almost 30 percent of her sales come from the “trunk shows” she is invited to produce in retail stores and people’s homes.

“The trunk shows started when a patron called and asked if she could come over to my studio and shop,” said McHugh. “I do some appointment selling, so I said sure. She asked if she could bring a friend. The next week she brought another friend, and another friend the week after that.” That’s when McHugh suggested hosting a party instead.

McHugh treats each trunk show as a “girls' night in.” Instead of listening to high-pressure sales pitches, attendees kick back and share a few laughs with friends and family as they dig through the bags of memory-laden T-shirts they bring to the party.

“I bring clothes they can buy off the rack,” says McHugh. But those clothes often serve as samples of the types of garments she can create from a client’s own T-shirts. At the trunk shows she relishes meeting new people and hearing the stories behind their T-shirts.

If you visit Summerfair at Coney Island this summer (May 30-June 1), BJ will be there showing a full collection of one-of-a-kind garments. She won a Summerfair “People’s Choice” award in 2004 and an honorable mention award in fiber arts at the Summerfair Cincinnati 2013.

FIND: BJ McHugh’s creations on her website www.loveworn.net
CONTACT: loveworn@yahoo.com or 513-300-5648

Connect with WCPO contributor Eileen Fritsch on Twitter: @EileenFritsch .

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