Every good story starts with an ugly sweater. And this story is awesome. 23 year-old Ann Gibson just finished her degree in Environmental Engineering at Waterloo University, and is going on for her Masters in Environment and Sustainability this September at the University of Western Ontario. With her degrees, she will have lived and worked in six different cities on co-op placements. Lucky for Goderich, Ontario, her latest co-op placement was at BM Ross as an Environmental Consultant. And it gets better; in her spare time, Ann designs clothing out of repurposed materials with her business Upcycle Lifestyle.

It started when she realized she had a habit of going into thrift stores to rescue ugly sweaters. She used them to design beautiful blankets that people could use and display proudly in their living rooms. She also revived skirts and men’s dress shirts to make dresses and other clothing items. Why? She’s an environmentalist at heart and she saw first-hand how much is dumped into landfills at one of her co-op placements: “I saw how much was being dumped daily and I wanted to make a difference,” she said.

Her drive, combined with her awesome ability to sew, led to her starting her business four years ago. One of her first co-op placements was in Kingston and she didn’t have cable or internet, so she took her sewing machine to Kingston and got to work. “It was great; I went to yoga class most days after work. It was my Zen summer,” she laughed. “My grandma taught me to sew,” Ann added, “and it became an outlet to express my interest in environmental sustainability, and to bring people an eco-friendly product.”

Upcycle Lifestyle started with sweater blankets and expanded to include reusable bags and materials for everyday life. She started her “Grow-With-Me” clothing line, a stretchy children’s clothing line that grows with little ones, 6 months- 3 years of age.  After four years with her business, Ann has seen a significant shift; “people are more accepting of hand-made items, and are open to replacing single use products in their homes,” she said.

Ann is passionate about educating people on environmental sustainability too—she lives near St. Marys, works in Goderich and offers workshops in both places on sewing and other sustainable products, such as beeswax wraps, in which you infuse cotton with beeswax to use instead of plastic wraps. In general, she wants to spread the message that often clothing not produced in Canada is not sustainable, and likely contributes to unsafe and unethical labour practices and environmentally harmful systems in the textile industry. For example, Ann explained that “most articles of clothing use harmful synthetic dyes and fabrics, and that “most factory workers are female and they aren’t paid enough to support their families, but they receive loans from their employers, putting them into further debt.”

Upcycle Lifestyle recently won the “Earth Award” with the Leave Nothing But Footprints organization, a sustainable clothing company that recognizes women who have made a significant contribution to their communities—establishing a social business, a charity or a creative project that benefits others. Ann said she was honoured to be recognized by a company that she looks up to, and intends to purchase a cover stitch machine to expand her product line. The other woman who won the award this year fills purses with feminine hygiene products and gives them to homeless women in the Toronto area.

It’s inspiring to have such creative and driven individuals in our community. You can find Ann’s sustainable clothing and reusable items at the Goderich Maker’s Mercantile, online at www.upcyclelifestyle.etsy.com, and you can contact her at 519.949.0851, or ann.gibson@hotmail.ca.