Barbara Ruiz repairs and artistically embellishes old clothing items for resale at her retail store, Retro*Fit, in Evanston’s West Village art district. Clothing sold includes sweaters, jackets, jeans, shirts and more. In addition to her personal creations, her store sells complementary jewelry, bags, candles and other items. Everything sold at Retro*Fit shares the focus on reuse, rework or recycle.

Barbara Ruiz at work in the studio, “My favorite place.” Credit: Barbara Ruiz

An item of clothing with tears, holes and/or stains is too worn out to be resold at a consignment or resale shop and nearly always ends up in a landfill these days. But Ruiz has found a creative and beautiful way to upcycle these throwaways into totally unique and artistic garments. They are the basis of all the clothing she sells. Her retail products require no new material use and keep the landfill just a little smaller.

She is brought used, defective clothing by friends and acquaintances when they are getting rid of the clothing from their kids who have grown up and left home, downsizing their home or changing their own wardrobes post-retirement. The clothing is added to Ruiz’s raw materials inventory. She says, “Items that are messed up and mottled are what I want to use.” 

Some of Barbara Ruiz’s tools and materials. Credit: Barbara Ruiz

She designs and develops her creations at Retro*Fit and at home, spending half her work time at each location. She takes current work items back and forth in her tote bag made by Cie Bond, another upcycling Evanston fabric artist. 

Ruiz has a sewing machine in both locations and can also do the significant amount of hand sewing required in both locations. She adds paints to some items, but only when at Retro*Fit, which has a small kitchen with a sink. 

Inside Retro*Fit, you’ll find all Ruiz’s upcycled, unique wearables for sale, as well as her wall of thread, sewing tools – scissors, rippers, rulers and more – and piles of items waiting to be transformed for your purchasing pleasure.

Ruiz also makes and buys embellishments for the items. One example is when she takes worn, donated T-shirts and cuts them into thin strips that often become cording for a design. Or she may shop at places that specialize in recycled fabric items, like a large reuse business in Wisconsin she frequents when visiting northerly friends. Her finds might include an old quilt, tea towels, fabric with interesting patterns, etc. All her “finds” will be redeveloped into patches and embellishments. 

To start a new creation, she examines the item in detail to begin forming an idea of how she wants to repair and transform it. Ruiz then repairs any functional defects, such as a torn seam, broken zipper or missing button. She then considers each rip, stain and hole for which she will design unique embellishments and patches.

HopScotch sweater. Credit: Barbara Ruiz

For instance, she has a design that she frequently uses for sweaters that has a vertical set of patterns down the front and which she calls a “HopScotch” sweater. But even within this design, each finished piece is completely unique as the embellishment will be made from a variety of sweaters or other fabrics from which she creates patches, cords or other designs. 

Occasionally, she starts an item for which she can visualize a finished design but does not currently have the needed materials to complete it. She’ll put it aside but will keep an eye out as worn clothing is brought in for cloth that fits her visualization, and then she finishes the item.

When selecting embellishments, Ruiz is mindful that all the fabrics ultimately used on an item need to be compatible for cleaning as well as for the item’s drape or fold. She may also create embellishments with hand stitching designs or added buttons. 

Denim tank upcycled with vintage quilt. Credit: Barbara Ruiz

Once each piece is uniquely designed and embellished, she leaves the original manufacturer labels on and adds the Retro*Fit Clothing label. It is then ready for customer sale.

The pandemic brought an unexpected blessing to Ruiz’s fabric career. During the pandemic, she and her high school son sewed many, many masks. In doing so, he became skilled with the sewing machine, a talent that is now very valuable in his fashion arts studies at college.

Ruiz happily notes that, “Evanston is kind to artists. Which lets me just do things that I enjoy and through Evanston Made, enables me to get an audience.” She was first encouraged by Lisa Degliantoni of Evanston Made to open a retail shop.

If you want to see or purchase these wonderful artistic pieces of clothing, Retro*Fit is at 1620 Greenleaf St. and is currently open Thursdays to Sundays from noon until 5 p.m. You can also visit her Instagram retrofit_evanston, her Facebook page called RetroFitLife or her website at

Jean Cunningham

Jean Cunningham retired from the business world and is now enjoying the next phase, including writing about local artists to increase awareness of Evanston’s amazing art community.

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