A veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Air Force, Nicole Zettlemoyer makes wreaths from old uniforms. Since starting Wreaths by Nicole in 2020, the Texas resident has made more than 1,500. (Matthew Zettlemoyer)
4 min

They say that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Their uniforms? Not so much.

I wrote last week about how hard it can be for family members to dispose of a loved one’s military uniform. Trashing it seems disrespectful. Museums don’t want most uniforms. (Some exceptions: The wearer was distinguished. The work uniform was worn in the field for an unusual MOS: military occupational specialty.)

Readers weighed in with suggestions, some that keep the uniform intact, others that most definitely don’t.

Dealers in military memorabilia are delighted to get intact uniforms (with insignia) they can sell to collectors. While this rankles some in the museum community, as noted above, a museum is highly unlikely to accept a run-of-the-mill uniform. Dealers say they keep history alive, selling to knowledgeable collectors and to reenactors.

The reenactor market values larger sizes. Today’s Americans are bigger than yesterday’s. You’ll want to do your due diligence by checking references and testimonials for reputable dealers.

Betsy Bailey of Falls Church donated the uniforms of her father, Lt. Gen. Lemuel Mathewson, to the Little Theatre of Alexandria to use in stage productions.

“We thought it was a perfect ‘fit’ since he was somewhat of a ham himself,” wrote Betsy.

It’s an idea endorsed by Don Richardson of the Fauquier Community Theatre. “Military uniforms are useful because most of our actors can’t bring those kind of items from their own closets, and community theaters generally do not have a big budget to buy or rent costumes,” wrote Don.

I also heard from readers who donated uniforms to high school costume shops and to Amalgamated Costume & Design Studio, a vintage costumer in Arlington that rents to stage and film productions.

Uniforms can be transformed into all sorts of things, including keepsakes. Cheryl Blum of Alexandria volunteers with VITAS Hospice, stitching “memory bears”: teddy bears made from a deceased person’s clothing.

“These bears become a source of remembrance and comfort for those left behind,” she wrote.

The fabric of a military uniform is a natural source material for things like bears and quilts. You can find craftspeople on Etsy who will stitch a quilt from fatigues or dress uniforms starting at about $250.

Nicole Zettlemoyer is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Air Force who makes wreaths from uniforms. Since starting Wreaths by Nicole in 2020, she’s made more than 1,500 of the decorative rings.

“My little catchphrase is, ‘Every wreath tells a story,’” she wrote in an email.

Wreaths come in different sizes. A 16-inch wreath is $115. There’s a 16- to 18-month waiting list for wreaths made from specific uniforms.

“I ask that they fill out my wait list form and ask that they wait to send their uniforms until it’s their turn to order,” she wrote. (The form is at wreathsbynicolep.com.)

If you want to simply donate a uniform, with no wreath in return, you can send it to 4102 S. New Braunfels Ave., Suite 110-514, San Antonio, TX 78223.

Drew Cameron is a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Iraq War and lives in Iowa. He transforms uniforms completely: He turns them into paper.

“I have my own experience with my own uniform, making it into paper,” he said. “It was quite profound.”

He’d studied papermaking for three years before using his uniform as raw material. Now he teaches workshops so others can learn. The finished product has all sorts of uses.

“People write with it,” he said. “People bind books with it. People make artwork and give it to others. People do installations, castings and three-dimensional sculptural work.”

To learn about Cameron’s process and his workshops — and how to donate uniforms — visit combatpaper.org.

If your loved one has already died, it’s too late for this last suggestion, from D.B. Gallagher of Cabin John: “My father was a 20-year U.S. Army veteran who served in the South Pacific during World War II, followed by lengthy assignments in Panama, Germany and Japan. His dress blues hung in my parents’ bedroom closet for nearly 40 years after he retired. When he died in 2001, my mother took a typically practical approach to uniform disposal: She had him buried in it.”