This past spring, Princeton got a sampling of the artist Illia Barger: Wearing paint-splattered coveralls, she worked from up on a scissor lift to create a mural on the wall of Terra Momo Bread Co. “Continuum” commemorates the Herban Garden, Writers Block and Quark Park, three public art projects on Paul Robeson Place during the 2000s.
But that’s just one facet of the Arts Council of Princeton’s artist-in-residence. Along with partner Glen Capelle, Ms. Barger runs Pantaluna, an upcycled clothing store in Frenchtown.
As you walk in, the first thing you see is a colorful tent with tassels made from T-shirt squares, serving as a try-on room.
At a large table, Jarneja “Neja” Alic is sorting stacks of folded, ironed T-shirts. She opens one that says “Let’s Have an Affair.” One of the challenges in creating clothing from T-shirts is cutting and rearranging the slogans and lettering so they no longer convey the original message. To do so takes the eye of an artist. Ms. Barger, who studied at Bennington College and the New York Studio School and earned a bachelor’s of fine art from Cooper Union, has that eye.
It all started half a decade ago with cashmere sweaters.
As a color consultant, Ms. Barger was given 40 cashmere sweaters by a client who thought she might wear them while painting. Ms. Barger had a seamstress take apart the sweaters and turn them into pants. Mr. Capelle wore his cashmere pants to a yoga class and, he recounts, “the women crawled across the floor like cougars to touch them.”
The idea morphed to T-shirts which are more durable than cashmere, easier to wash, don’t get moth holes, and are easier to come by.
“We are using what is considered a waste product — discarded T-shirts — to create a sustainable alternative,” says Ms. Barger, whose goal is to lower the carbon footprint of each individual consumer. “The clothing is unique and comfortable, and gives each wearer a sense of stewardship of the planet.”
Four to 5 percent of landfills are made of up textiles, by Ms. Barger’s account, and many of these are T-shirts. “If they don’t sell at thrift shops they go to raggers for automotive shops, then back to the landfill,” she says. “When you consider the resources to grow, harvest, card, weave, dye, print, cut and sew the cotton, that’s a lot of energy from the planet.”
Ms. Barger confesses she hates T-shirts – “I don’t like being a billboard” – but loves the fabric.
“T-shirts aren’t feminine,” says Ms. Alic. “They make you look like a sack of potatoes.”
Ms. Alic is the backbone of Pantaluna, says Ms. Barger. Ms. Alic has a degree in fashion and textile design from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and studied graphic design at Raritan Valley Community College. “When Glen saw her portfolio, he said, ‘Lock the doors and don’t let her out!’”
Only men’s 100 percent cotton T-shirts are used – the source is a proprietary secret. Each T-shirt is handpicked by Ms. Barger and Ms. Alic. “It’s like creating a good meal,” says Ms. Barger. “You need to start with quality ingredients.”
The shirts are professionally laundered, and immediately sorted by color. Next they go into bins for type of garment: dresses, pants, skirts, petals, etc., to minimize waste. “This is serious upcycling,” says Ms. Barger. “The only energy used is creative energy to resurrect it into the market again as a one-of-a-kind item.”
The squares are cut with either a rotary cutter or a 150-year-old bookbinder’s guillotine that has been refurbished. It can slice through 50 shirts at a time.
About those petals: they are the frill at the bottom of the skirt, but also serve a function, creating weight so the skirt won’t hike up while walking.
The petal skirt was invented when Ms. Barger faced that proverbial dilemma of what to wear to her gallery opening. Ms. Barger paints large paintings of fruits and flowers (she spends two days a week at the store, and paints the other five).
The most popular item in the store, the petal skirt is highly labor intensive – each flap is backed with another T-shirt square.
Petal skirts come in three lengths and five sizes, and all have seams on the outside – this is both to give it a signature look, and to assure comfort. “They’re perfect to throw on over yoga pants when shopping,” says Ms. Barger. Minis cost $144, short skirts sell for $150. “It’s all labor.”
The “color theory” skirt, straighter and using the hem from the original T-shirt, sells for $89. The “color theory dress” uses the original T-shirt neckline – scoop or V – and printed labels are on the outside of the back. The luna-tunic, with a color pleat, can be worn over leggings or flood pants. (Floods are like a capri, but longer.)
“There’s a huge amount of labor in upcycling,” says Ms. Barger. “Our target market is someone who wants a one-of-a-kind fashion forward comfortable garment.”
When a purchase is made, it is wrapped in repurposed pattern paper, then tied with a flower made from shirt strips. The flower can go on to third life as a luggage tag or mirror tie.
Store manikins wear wigs made from recycled T-shirts. There are also flowers and chew toys for pets, to use up every bit of the shirt. Headbands are woven from the bottom hems. For winter, scarves and fingerless gloves are fleece backed.
“If a customer brings in their favorite T-shirt, we can make a scarf or custom blanket,” says Ms. Alic.
Mr. Capelle, who runs a heating and air conditioning business by day, does the sewing on a Merro Serger machine at night.
He loves to sew, and learned from his father, an upholsterer, in Flemington. Mr. Capelle also made all the clothing racks from repurposed plumbing pipes.
Ms. Barger grew up in Carversville, Pa. Her family converted an old stone gristmill to their home and an antiques store. Her father was sculptor Raymond Barger, whose “Transition” stands at the entrance to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa. Her mother, Lilias Barger, was a composer, pianist and painter who opened a bakery and tearoom to help support the family. Craig Claiborne came to review it, and Ms. Barger’s mother became famous for her pies.
“I always wanted a factory when I was a kid,” says Ms. Barger, recounting how she would create play factories with bits of nature in her backyard.
Among many public and private murals, Ms. Barger received a Dodge Foundation grant in 2005 to create a mural on Warren Street in Trenton, depicting the first reading of the Declaration of Independence. She created a large brick arch through which we see the 1776 reading. Outside the arch are symbols of the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” era – pottery, rubber, cigars and steel.
Other murals include one in the new Capital Healthcare Systems in Hopewell and in Hamilton’s Grill in Lambertville.
Although some business is done through the Pantaluna website, most is at the store. They experimented with a pop-up store in New York, and hope to have a wholesale rep in fall.
Pantaluna is located at 39 Bridge St., Frenchtown. 908-996-3213. An exhibit of Illia Barger’s paintings of fruits and flowers will be one view at Ruth Morpeth Gallery, 43 West Broad St., Hopewell, beginning Oct. 6. www.ruthmorpeth.com; 609-333-9393.