Welcome to On the Up, our feature series where we talk with designers who are making sustainable strides in the fashion industry through upcycling. They'll explain their process, share a few tips, and hopefully inspire you to repurpose your own wares.
"I call it quilt rescue," Rebecca Wright tells me over the phone, describing her brand Psychic Outlaw, which has amassed a cult-like following for the heavyweight chore coats she and her team construct from recycled bedding. "I started the jackets because I was already collecting quilts—my grandma's also a quilter—and I've always been kind of a textile hoarder." The ritual of gathering disparate fabrics together to make blankets and tapestries is nearly as old as time itself. From ancient Egyptian appliqués and Peruvian arpilleras to Bengali kantha throws and the expressionist patchwork bedspreads of Gee's Bend. Quilts have been a source of warmth and collected nostalgia to people around the world for millennia. Almost universally, they evoke feelings of comfort, safety, and home. Wright’s practice holds real reverence for these vessels of personal and cultural history and extends their power beyond the domicile.
Over the last handful of years, quilts have become an object of fascination for the fashion industry, thanks in large part to the work of menswear designer Emily Adams Bode and the brand to which she lends her name—a paradigm shift born of her artful eye toward repurposing antique textiles. Since Bode's 2019 win of the CFDA Emerging Designer of the Year Award, interest in patchwork heirlooms has only escalated, reaching its zenith on the red carpeted steps of the 2021 Met Gala, when rapper A$AP Rocky arrived swaddled in an enormous candy-colored puff quilt. The blanket was first crafted in Southern California by Mary Ann Beshers and passed down in her family for generations until it was donated to a local thrift shop and recovered by designer Eli Russell Linnetz. Linnetz then commissioned Brooklyn-based quilter Zak Foster to reupholster the other side to his vision—a layered smattering of red plaids, his father’s robe, his own boxers, all from his personal textile collection—blending Beshers' history with his own.
This same collaborative spirit is practically stitched into every garment that leaves Wright's home studio in Texas. What began as fashioning clothes for herself has quickly evolved into a robust business creating handmade bespoke outerwear, from materials often sourced directly by her customers. Wright’s cooperative design approach echoes the social aspects of quilt-making, traditionally done in a group around a frame, forging ligatures where they might otherwise never form—between strangers, across generations, over physical distances—and her work has proven a boon for the current moment owing to its transcendent connectivity and the particular way her designs approximate a grandmother's embrace.
Gaby Wilson: What is it about quilts in particular that you're drawn to or inspired by? What do they mean to you?
Rebecca Wright: I really identify with quilts just on a design level. I realized it kind of early on, when I was just making my own art before I got into sewing and fabric, that quilts always inspired me. I would never want to make something that was, like, a person or a place. It was always based on colors that I liked together. Never something concrete, just colors together that made me feel something, and quilts do something similar for me.
I also love quilts because they're irreplicable. You could try to replicate it, but you'll never really get the essence of it again, which is another thing that's exciting to me about these jackets. It's like you're giving it another chance, and all the history baked into it gets to be shared that way, too. Just thinking about the person who made the quilt... What was their textile collection like? Were these fabrics from their old clothes? A lot of the quilts that my family had were, like, my dad's old pants or something, that my grandma would make into a quilt for him. His old shirts or her old dresses, things like that. I really love how the jackets add to this progression of clothes into quilt and then quilt back into clothes.
Yeah, it's a full-circle textile reincarnation almost.
Totally. I also love how hands-on it is—making handmade clothing, upcycling, teaching my team about quilts or my customers about the whole process. Slow fashion, I think, is a privilege at the moment—if you can afford it, if you have the time to make it. It wasn't always like that, but for most people now, you don't have to know how to make your own clothes anymore. You don't have to know how to sew. You don't have to have a relationship to your clothes in that way.
I do think in the context of the way that we live right now, you're right—it totally is a luxury. To have the amount of time to devote to making clothes, to even learning how to do it. You have to have the money to buy the machines and materials. Once you have all of that, yes, it's really liberating, but that difference is interesting because there's a long stretch of time when making or mending your own clothes was just a fact of life. You couldn't just go to a store and get a $5 T-shirt.
And that's absolutely the more affordable option these days. Now, fabric is so expensive, which is another reason why I started using second hand textiles, because I couldn't afford to go buy fabric and experiment with my ideas. I would go to a thrift store and buy a bed sheet or something else really cheap to practice sewing and teach myself how to make clothes. I actually prefer this because it's so unique.
Did you learn to sew from family?
I know that my grandmother would have taught me to sew if I had asked her, but I am one of those people that wants to just figure things out myself.
How did you learn?
I was watching a lot of YouTube videos, or just going for it, honestly. Making a mess, ruining things, learning the hard way. I remember getting money for my sixteenth birthday and going to a yard sale and buying my first sewing machine. I had that for years until I started really getting serious about Psychic Outlaw and trying to sew through these quilts and make things out of thicker fabrics. That's when I decided to invest in a more serious machine.
Where does the name Psychic Outlaw come from? What does it mean?
Around when I decided to focus on teaching myself to sew, I was also selling stuff on Etsy. I was doing the whole thrifter, picker thing, and got very quickly acquainted with the bins and all that. One day when I was picking, I found this really cute pair of '90s shorts with a label that said "Psycho Blue Outlaw," and I just thought that was really funny and quirky. It was before I made a bandana dress, before I made a quilt coat, and I really just needed an Etsy vintage seller handle. After seeing those little purple shorts and their label, I was like, "Yeah... I connect to 'outlaw,' in, like, a Texas, Western sense," but I changed it to 'psychic' because I kind of see it as my mystical form. This person who sees what something is now and what it could be.
I love that. And I get how it combines a tendency toward Americana with what you're doing for these quilts—resurrecting them, making what's old new again.
Past, present, future. Yes. We are embodying that.
How long does it take to make one jacket?
It really depends on how much mending the quilt needs initially. Sometimes people will mail us quilts that need a lot of resurfacing or patching to be able to make it wearable if there are parts of the quilt that have been dissolved. There are so many different patches on a quilt, and certain materials over time will dissolve faster than others. Maybe they were more gauzy or had more cotton versus poly. It all depends on the blend or the age. Because, you know quilters, they're collecting fabrics and who knows how old any given piece was that they used. Other times, it's just tears, rips, or holes from use.
A lot of times, we'll cut the jacket out from the quilt and then use the excess to patch and mend over those areas to rebuild as seamlessly as we can. Sometimes we'll use the whole quilt for one jacket, which is why we ask for that specific size. You could maybe get away with a smaller one, but especially when people are mailing in their heirlooms, we want to make sure it's perfect and wearable and gonna be worth cutting it up.
It's gotta be such a particular and considered process since people are trusting you with a piece of their family history.
Oh yeah, it's really nerve-wracking to cut into them sometimes! I would say a jacket can take anywhere between three to six hours to put together. I get all the quilts mailed to me and stash everything here, but I have a team who helps me cut and sew. They're all contractors who work in their own home studios, so they kind of make their own schedule. But if one of them decides they want to make, say, 10 jackets this week, they'll come over on their day and cut out their 10 jackets. I'm in the studio—you know, it's my house—so I'm there with them working through these pieces. The layouts, the sizing. Often customers are really specific about what they want. It's cool because there's a whole design process through the office and the emails before we even really get to their quilt.
Why do you think customers are so drawn to this process and these objects? Because it's a big shift from the way that people typically buy clothes right now.
Yeah, you know, it was so exciting when it first started really taking off because I realized that I was teaching people how I wanted them to shop from me. But the only reason I even started the mail-in thing was because I started blowing up right when COVID hit, and I wasn't able to go shopping for quilts anymore. Everything was closed, but people were still wanting the jackets, and all of a sudden, all my quilts were gone. So I was like, "Well, just mail me a quilt from eBay or find one on Etsy and send it to me." And that became a part of the design process that people really liked. You get to pick your material and talk to the designer and pick your size and send your measurements. You're creating your own jacket, and people seem to love that level of customization. And it also just became something really fun and cool for people to look forward to during a really difficult time, especially those early days when we were all just sitting in our houses and not sure what was going on.
I think there's something that makes so much sense, both aesthetically and functionally, about wanting an heirloom jacket in the midst of that. The comfort, security, nostalgia.
Yes! And making them really brought me so much comfort and excitement, too. So many people were just like, "Yes, this is like exactly what I need," and I felt like I knew exactly how they were feeling because I was doing it as a kind of therapy for myself, too. I always say it feels like a group art project. When I started making these jackets, I never predicted the community that I would get from doing it. And I love that it can really be for anyone because you can make it your own. It feels really special in so many ways.