Upcycling: Your Blanket as a Bag, Your Shirt as a Skirt

Noavakay Wibel Knight turns thrift-store castoffs into new-again bags and garments, and helps save the planet.

Michael Cummo

Noavakay “Noava” Wibel Knight is about to launch her first commercial venture. After a lifetime spent designing and sewing, she is finally ready to turn a passion into a business. This summer, Ms. Knight will debut Humane Imperfection — a line of backpacks, bags, clutches, and change purses.

The name of the business gives an indication of why Ms. Knight has waited so long to go public with her talents. “The reason I have never made a business out of what I do is that I could never figure out how I could source fabric ethically and ensure that on the production end, no one was being exploited.”

The solution was literally right under her nose. Through her job at the Chicken Alley Thrift Shop in Vineyard Haven, Ms. Knight has been able to source much of the material for a clothing line which she has shown at a variety of Vineyard fashion shows. More recently, she has been working on the Humane Imperfection line of fabulous, upcycled one-of-a-kind bags.

Through her combination of skill, artistic flair, and ingenuity, many discarded items have been given a second life. For example, a suede piece that Ms. Knight describes as “a hideous ’80s dress” has now been repurposed as a gorgeous turquoise fringed sling bag decorated with rivets and crystals. Ms. Knight also used the butter-soft suede for a variety of smaller bags.

Other items are constructed from top-quality wools in plaids and tweeds, salvaged from discarded coats, along with leather items, blankets, pants, men’s shirts, and other durable materials. Each unique bag is artfully pieced together — some in a sort of stylized patchwork pattern, others with a different, yet complementary look, on front and back. Ms. Knight has also utilized things like old belts and other bits of recycled hardware to complete the upcycled look.

The Humane Imperfection line will debut on Memorial Day weekend at the Loving Kindness sale — a trunk show of handmade items that will take place at a private home on Indian Hill Road. Ms. Knight is also working with a small facility in Pennsylvania to produce a line of factory-stitched backpacks made from ethically sourced fabrics in small runs. That line will be introduced later this year.

The designer believes that the Vineyard is an ideal community to foster a new initiative of this type. “The Island is really supportive of the arts,” she says. “You need a controlled environment like this to successfully launch a small business.”

Ms. Knight has been involved in the fashion trade since she was a little girl growing up on Martha’s Vineyard. Her mother, Leslie Wibel, designed children’s clothing and used her own kids as models. Ms. Knight picked up sewing as a young girl. At age 10 she made her first original piece — a pair of polar fleece bell-bottom pants.

As a senior in high school, Ms. Knight participated in a work-study program with Sylvie Farrington of Sylvie Bags. She worked for that small business for seven years. Ms. Knight has also worked variously as a seamstress for the Sail Loft in Vineyard Haven, as the costume designer for the Vineyard Playhouse, and as an intern for a very successful swimsuit design company in St. John called Ranifly.

“I realized when I was in St. John,” she says, “that there were people with these small businesses who were successful.” Since returning to the Island from the Caribbean, Ms. Knight has designed clothing for herself and friends, and participated in a number of local fashion shows, including the first two Martha’s Vineyard Fashion Week events.

Since she began working for the thrift shop in xxxx, Ms. Knight has initiated a number of events to help raise money for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the organization that benefits from sales at Chicken Alley. Two years ago, she launched the annual Needlebook Fashion Show — a party, showcase, and sale of thrift-store vintage and designer items. Last year the show raised more than $8,000 for MVCS. The resourceful Ms. Knight has also organized a handful of costume parties at various venues to help promote the thrift shop’s stock. She’s brought a youthful attitude, and a good deal of creativity and initiative, to the store’s staff.

So Ms. Knight is giving back to the community through her work at the thrift shop, as well as doing her part to promote sustainable practices by repurposing and supporting local and American-made products. “Everyone should have a basic understanding of where things come from, so they have a sense of appreciation,” says Ms. Knight. “We’ve lost our style identity to the trends that no one can keep up with anymore. I think we’re starting to go back to core styles, rather than jumping onto every trend bandwagon that you’re only going to wear once and have it end up in the landfill. We’re all concerned about where our food comes from, but the fashion industry needs to catch up on the sustainability initiative.”

Ms. Knight herself bases her personal style on embracing the timeless. Her must-haves? A cashmere sweater and jeans. “You have to have a few good pairs of jeans in different styles. You can’t just wear skinny jeans all the time. There wasn’t a single pair of skinny jeans on the runways this year.”

The designer is also a firm believer is forging your own look: “People should be more willing to stand out. Why not? It’s fun. People appreciate it. When people make the effort, even if it’s not my style, I always appreciate it.”

About That House

55 Ocean Ave was itself lovingly “upcycled” by its owners, who have recently listed it with Coldwell Banker Landmarks Real Estate, for $3.65 million. Original wood floors and walls, new marble tile in bathrooms, and completely renovated and expanded kitchen complement views of Ocean Park and Nantucket Sound from most windows and decks. For more information, contact agent Terie Geary: terieg@mvlandmarks.com, 508-693-6866 or cell: 508-981-5090.