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Marsha Theis works at home on one of the sweaters she makes from sweaters she buys at second-hand stores.

Steve Rice, Star Tribune

Marsha Theis adds a flower to her finished sweater made from old sweaters that she cuts up and sews to make her own creations.

Steve Rice, Star Tribune

A Marsha Theis sweater

Steve Rice, Star Tribune

Marsha Theis models the first sweater she made eight years ago. She didn’t try selling her fashions until she retired from teaching in 2005.

Steve Rice, Star Tribune

SHOW & SALE

Marsha vests are available through Dec. 30 at the Textile Center Holiday Show & Sale, 3000 University Av. SE., Suite 100, Mpls.; www.textilecentermn.org.

612-436-0464

Vest quest

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 18, 2008 - 7:30 AM

Whimsical "Marsha"-brand vests don't suit every taste. And that's precisely the point.

Designer Marsha Theis is a 62-year-old retired schoolteacher who favors auburn hair dye and funky, geometric eyeglasses. When she goes shopping for age-appropriate ready-to-wear, she's disappointed to find nothing but humdrum options.

"Once you get past 45, it's difficult to find fun, cute, interesting clothes," she lamented.

So she took matters into her own hands: She started piecing together vests made from bits and pieces of recycled sweaters to wear herself, and has since sold a few hundred of the one-of-a-kind wearable-art garments.

Her creations are anything but boring. One has the fragments of a fluorescent '80s pullover inset at the hips. Another has a sassy line of pewter buttons -- plucked from an Icelandic cardigan -- running down the spine.

Many of the vests are colorful, teetering on the edge of gaudy. So far, the top sellers have been simple, solid black. But even these have a playful edge, as they're made from contrasting textures such as cable and ribbed knits.

The construction is obviously painstaking. Theis is quick to point out the subtle touches that flatter 50-plus figures: Her basic pattern is broad at the shoulders, so as to shelter a sore spot for many older women -- upper arms. Theis avoids an overly boxy look by flaring the hips.

Most important, she takes care to provide extra coverage along the backside. Compare that with the apple-shaped atrocity of your average Proud Grandma sweatshirt!

Vested interests

Theis has been sewing since she was 15. As a special-ed teacher at Hopkins High School for 18 years, she used to impress her colleagues by modeling all the fabulous jackets and shawls she made at her home in Excelsior. But she didn't try her hand at selling fashions until she retired from teaching in 2005.

"I started making these sweaters and brought them to various stores in the Twin Cities. It didn't go so well -- a lot of people said, 'No, thank you,'" she said. "But I kept dinging around. About a year ago, I went to a sewing expo, and while I was there a woman came up to me and said, 'I like your vest.'"

Theis told the woman about her failure to sell the vests in the Twin Cities. "I think you're in the wrong market," suggested the stranger.

The woman turned out to be Marcy Tilton, a popular, almost cult-status designer for Vogue Patterns. Tilton offered a friendly suggestion: Send the vests to a funky San Francisco boutique called Kati Koos.

Theis was quick to take this expert advice. At 2 p.m. on a Saturday in November 2007, she received a call from the shop's proprietress. "She said, 'Marsha, this is Kati Koos. I got the vests and I love them.' " By 6 that very evening, Theis got a second call: "Marsha, we sold the vests -- make more!"

The vests have since spread to upscale boutiques in Napa Valley, San Diego and Door County, Wis. In the Twin Cities, they're available -- appropriately -- at Whimsy, at the Galleria in Edina. They fetch upward of $270.

Felting phenom

All who haunt craft shows and gift shops will have noticed: Felting is very popular this season. However, most designers and crafters focus on accessories -- hats, mittens and such. Theis is the rare artist to make apparel from the notoriously rigid fabrics.

But her vests don't feel as stiff as most felted sweaters. "The trick is trial and error," says Theis.

The felting process involves soap, warm to hot water and variations on the tumble-dry cycle, making the fabric more hospitable to needle and thread. After a while, Theis learned which variations work with each fabric: "different water temperature, kinds of soap and drying techniques."

While she was at it, Theis picked up another important tidbit: Only wool and cashmere retain some of their softness through the harsh process of felting. As a consequence, Marsha vests have only the occasional open-weave cotton or linen embellishment -- otherwise, they're made entirely from wool and cashmere.

In order to find the right combination of high-quality sweaters, Theis constantly trolls local thrift stores. "I go to Goodwill or Arc or one of those kind of places," she says.

She reveals yet another trade secret: "I go on Wednesday to the Goodwill because then I get the senior discount."

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis writer.

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