Every year, 92 million tons of textile waste is produced by the fashion industry. One of the biggest ways to tackle this problem is by upcycling clothes already in our closet.
We spoke to upcycling expert Chinelo Bally of the Great British Sewing Bee and book on upcycling clothes, Sew Chinelo, who says, “I wish people knew how [textile waste] affects the world we live in. Fabric production utilises a lot of resources and it’s incredibly irresponsible for us to ignore the fact that these resources are not infinite.”
On the flip side, clothes upcycling alleviates the resource scarcity and crunch we’re facing, and it can also change how we view clothes and save money in the process.
The good news is adding a little creative DIY to your closet doesn’t have to be difficult. Thanks to some simple upcycling ideas, clothes can be totally transformed with nothing more than a pair of scissors.
So, say goodbye to fast fashion and fire up the sewing machine. It’s time to turn those rags into riches with our easy tips for how to upcycle clothing.
Exploring Upcycling Clothes & DIY Tips To Get Started
- What is clothing upcycling?
- Start with basic mending
- Don’t worry about being ‘good’ at sewing
- Revamp the shape of old clothes
- Observe how clothes are constructed
- Change the way you see clothes
- Get creative with your upcycled clothing
- Start with easy clothes
- Try No-Sew Upcycling Techniques
- Don’t just stick to upcycling clothing
- Get the right equipment to upcycle clothing
- Learn clothing upcycle ideas with tutorials
- What are some upcycling clothes benefits?
What Is Clothing Upcycling?
Upcycling (sometimes known as creative reuse) means repurposing old, disused, broken and unloved items into something that provides value again. Essentially, it’s about turning trash into treasure.
It can refer to objects or waste materials that would otherwise be destined for landfill. In the context of clothing, it involves mending to make them wearable again or transforming them into a fresh new outfit.
For example, several pairs of holey old jeans can be patched together into an upcycled dress.
The principles of upcycling in fashion isn’t new. The ‘make do and mend’ mentality has been around since the early 1940s, when clothes were rationed during World War II. Wartime families had to find creative ways to make their clothes last for as long as possible.
Now, upcycled fashion offers a way to counteract a capitalist society built on rabid and wasteful consumption. It focuses on mending rather than discarding, and getting creative instead of always buying new.
But that’s only one of the upcycle clothing advantages. Unique style, freedom, creativity—the list goes on.
For Chinelo, upcycling clothes is the ultimate freedom of expression and autonomy over her style: “Style is my way of making an impression and, right now, for me, a statement. From fabric choice to materials, to design, to styling. You have total control over production.”
What is the difference between textile recycling and upcycling old clothes?
Both upcycling and recycling aim to reuse the same materials. However, recycling involves breaking those materials down into their raw state before they can be reused.
For example, to make recycled polyester, you would have to melt down the plastic material before re-spinning it into a new fiber.
Upcycling just involves improving an item in its current state by giving it a new lease of life. You’re simply finding new, creative uses for what already exists.
It’s more eco-friendly to upcycle, as the process is less intensive. Recycled materials still have a carbon footprint and require resources. Plus, some materials (like polyester) can’t be recycled forever before being downgraded into something unusable.
Can you legally sell upcycled clothes?
Selling DIY upcycled clothes is a bit of a legal gray area because it could get classed as copyright infringement.
That’s not to say you can’t sell upcycled fashion. Many people have also made a business out of upcycled thrift store clothing and other vintage clothing.
Platforms like Etsy allow you to sell everything from upcycled clothing to upcycled furniture. UK-based circular fashion marketplace Re-fashion also invites you to sell your upcycled clothes.
If you choose to sell your pieces, always disclose that the clothing has been upcycled and there should be no suggestion of affiliation or sponsorship with the original brand. Stay clear of logos and trademarks, too.
Now that we’ve answered the question, “What is upcycling clothes?”, let’s cut and sew together a guide on upcycling clothes for beginners.
Upcycling Clothing Ideas: 11 Easy, Beginner-Friendly Tips
1. Start With Basic Mending
If you’re new to upcycling clothes, start with the basics to grow your skills and confidence. A lot of upcycling projects don’t require complicated sewing techniques.
However, don’t feel like you need to create whole new items to start off. You can begin upcycling your clothes with basic mending, whether it’s adding a patch to the unfortunate hole in the butt of your jeans or darning a sock!
Get comfortable with the techniques needed to enhance your old duds before you graduate to making new ones.
2. Don’t Worry About Being ‘Good’ At Sewing
When it comes to creating anything upcycled, sewing is a core skill to cultivate—but it’s okay if that cultivation takes a little time.
Like many skills, learning to sew is a process which takes time and a lot of trial and error. There’s no cheat sheet to cracking it.
Again, to quote Chinelo’s upcycling fashion wisdom:
“You just need to start, no one is perfect, and I’m also still learning. Even the best sewers out there are still learning. You just need to start and grow as you go. You will get better with each project because you will naturally learn from your mistakes.”
Plus, don’t worry about being neat and tidy either. Visible mending is right on trend!
If picking up a needle and thread really isn’t your cup of tea, there are other ways to upcycle without sewing. Keep reading to discover some more no-sew tips.
3. Revamp The Shape Of Old Clothes
Upcycling old clothing can be as simple as changing the fit. Chinelo recommends playing around with length, either by “cutting it down or adding more fabric”.
For example, a maxi dress could become a midi or even a mini upcycled dress depending on your style. The same goes for adding, changing or removing sleeves.
Rather than making it seasonal, think about how you can create a timeless piece you know will last. Try to make it reflect your style and keep the shape simple and comfortable so you feel good wearing it.
4. Observe How Clothes Are Constructed
Knowing how well-made shop-bought clothes come together is a great way to improve your upcycling skills and graduate from simple enhancements to making new garments.
To start with, try unpicking the seams of an old item of clothing to see how it’s constructed.
Chinelo also recommends “using the unpicked pieces as pattern pieces and recreating the entire garment in another fabric”.
5. Change The Way You See Clothes
Think of garments as pieces of fabric that have been fashioned into temporary shapes—a bit like a puzzle.
Look at all the different details that make up the garment such as embroidery, pockets, zippers, patterns, buttons, or fastenings.
Once you see past clothing as a final product, you’ll be less distracted by the existing design and your only limitation is the amount of fabric before you.
Even that can be fixed by combining different clothes and materials.
6. Get Creative With Your Upcycled Clothing
There are endless ways to upcycle clothes and one trip down the Pinterest rabbit-hole can make you feel overwhelmed by all the possibilities.
Trying out a few clothes upcycling ideas can give you an opportunity to experiment with style and create clothing that’s completely unique, so have fun with it!
To reiterate tip #2, your upcycled garments don’t have to be perfect the first time. Learning to upcycle old clothes is a journey where you’re continuously learning, developing and growing your skills.
Truthfully, there are no rules to upcycling, so be patient with yourself and don’t give up. Who knows what you’ll come up with?
7. Start With Easy To Upcycle Clothes
With a little bit of imagination, any piece of clothing can be upcycled—though some are much easier to start with than others.
The same goes for fabrics. If you’re a beginner, start with easy fabrics like cotton or flannel rather than chiffon or corduroy, which don’t hold their shape as well.
“Make it easy by taking on projects like cotton t-shirts and giving them a new lease of life,” says Chinelo. “I used to add embellishments to old t-shirts, using other scraps of fabric or hair accessories. It’s such a simple thing you can do, but can really be impactful!”
Some of the easiest clothes to upcycle include (but aren’t limited to):
- An old t-shirt
- Sweatshirts (not hoodies)
- Button down shirts
- Long-sleeved tops
Wedding dresses also offer great opportunities for upcycling, since most people only ever wear them once. You could repurpose beads or lace detailing by sewing them onto a denim jacket or pair of jeans.
Lace or tulle could be turned into beautiful floaty skirts. The bodice could be transformed into fashionable corset tops with the option to add sleeves from other parts of the dress. You could even dye it if you would prefer it not to be white!
And who says it has to be your own wedding dress?
Have a look at thrift stores for second-hand finds and transform an old wedding dress into evening wear or a prom outfit.
In fact, you might generally consider learning to upcycle thrift clothes rather than risk ruining something sentimental of yours.
8. Try No-Sew Upcycling Techniques
Upcycling clothes isn’t just about sewing. There are plenty of ways to revamp old garments without ever needing to pick up a needle and thread.
Upcycled clothing ideas include fixing holes with fabric glue or using it to add fun embellishments like stud buttons or lace.
Iron-on patches are an easy way to jazz up an old pair of jeans or worn elbows on sweaters.
Hate the color or have an unbudgeable stain?
Change it up with tie-dye!
One of the easiest upcycling hacks is turning old jeans into shorts by cutting them with a pair of scissors. The frayed look is very in, but if you prefer the hem to be tidier, you can fix it using no-sew hemming tape. You can then spice up the fabric by trying some cyanotype printing.
9. Don’t Just Stick To Upcycling Clothing
Upcycling doesn’t just have to involve making old garments wearable again. Once you see an item of clothing like a piece of fabric, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities about what you can do with it.
Not all clothes will be salvageable, but if you love the material, cut it up and turn it into a patchwork quilt. Alternatively, you could make eco-friendly tote bags, pillowcases, and aprons from an old t-shirt or pair of jeans.
Garments you don’t wear anymore but have lots of fabric like shirts, dresses, or long skirts can be cut up and turned into reusable fabric gift wrap. Smaller pieces can become handkerchiefs or cleaning rags.
Any scraps left behind could get a new lease of life as scrunchies, knotted headbands and dog toys.
10. Get The Right Equipment To Upcycle Clothing
The right kit will help you go a long way when crafting upcycled clothing. You don’t need the fanciest sewing machine, but a simple one will save time when bringing your creations to life.
You should at least have a basic sewing kit, fabric scissors, pins, rulers, a measuring tape and a marking tool. A seam ripper is a good idea as it gives you the opportunity to start again if things go wrong.
Nice-to-have items include fabric glue, a wide selection of buttons, iron-on patches, zippers, hem tape, dyes and an embroidery pen.
Instead of buying these embellishments new, source them from other old garments and accessories, or browse the miscellaneous craft shelves in your local thrift store. You’ll often find tons of craft supplies from abandoned hobbies.
Keep as many fabric scraps from projects as you can, as you never know when they might come in handy again.
11. Learn Clothing Upcycle Ideas With Tutorials
Thanks to a wealth of books, online tutorials and even social media, it’s easy to start teaching yourself how to upcycle clothes.
You can find tutorials for specific items of clothing, DIY pattern concepts for whole new outfits and plenty of inventive ideas to get the creative juices flowing.
Blogs, YouTube and TikTok also have video tutorials and handy upcycling hacks too if you prefer something a little more visual.
If you’re new to upcycling or have an item of clothing that’s proving too complicated to tackle yourself, take it to your local tailor and learn from the experts!
12. What Are Some Upcycling Clothes Benefits?
As Chinelo pointed out to us in the intro, the fashion and textile industry is incredibly problematic. Between carbon emissions, textile waste, and all the other resources (like water) that also get wasted each time we decide to buy new, it’s high time we look up(cycle) some better solutions.
To put it simply, DIY upcycled clothing reduces the need to produce new garments from raw materials.
Not only does that alleviate the pressure on our finite resources, but it also reduces greenhouse gas emissions (of which the fashion industry accounts for a massive 10% globally), air pollution, and water pollution caused by manufacturing.
At the other end of the life cycle, upcycling gives tired garments a new purpose. Clothes that would otherwise be discarded and destined for landfill get a second chance in the circular economy.
Another big advantage of upcycling clothes is that it’s a wallet-friendly way to spruce up your closet. Fashion lovers don’t need to buy new clothes. They can bring a fresh new look to an old outfit with a few inventive upcycled clothing ideas.
The next best thing, of course, is buying used or vintage clothing.
Closing Thoughts On How To Upcycle Old Clothing
Upcycling clothing is a fun and wallet-friendly way to inject some creativity into your closet using what you already have.
It breathes new life into clothes (whether thrifted or your own clothes) that would otherwise be destined for landfill, all while creating new outfits without needing to buy new clothes.
Repurposing and upcycling clothes you already own are impactful ways to adopt more sustainable fashion. You also get the satisfaction of knowing that your outfit is truly one of a kind.
Upcycling clothes doesn’t have to be difficult, either. You can learn with basic sewing or stay clear of the needle and thread altogether.
There are thousands of great resources online to help you get your creativity flowing, so, why not follow Chinelo’s advice and “just start”?