Upcycling clothes is a fun, creative, and money-saving way to turn your old clothes into new pieces. Apart from the creativity that comes with it, upcycling clothes is also a great way to reduce your environmental impact.
Research reveals that about 47% of fiber generated by the textile industry across various stages of manufacturing and production eventually becomes waste1. Also, due to trends, fitting issues, and rips, we end up throwing away tons of clothing items.
Rather than tossing out old clothes and constantly spending on new fast-fashion items, why not upcycle the clothes you own? This way, you can tap into your creativity and create new upcycled clothing that stands out.
Upcycling can seem a bit scary, especially if you haven’t tried it out. You might be worried that you don’t possess sewing skills or ideas for refashioning recycled clothing.
Ready to create brand new eye-catching pieces out of the old? In this article, we’re sharing simple, practical tips for upcycling clothes to help make upcycling clothing a fun and straightforward project. Keep reading.
Related: If you're not quite feeling the DIY vibe, you can also check out 10 of the best brands upcycling clothes creating items from recycled and deadstock fabrics.
If you’re ready to give old pieces a new life, save money and also save the planet, these tips will guide you.
One of the most important steps is taking a close look at your entire wardrobe or closet. Look through your closet and divide your clothes into various piles.
When you pick up a piece of clothing, raise questions like, “when was the last time I wore this?”, “can I repair this garment?” and “can I make something new out of this old t-shirt?”. You can even make use of clothes that have rips or stains and turn them into repurposed clothing gems; that’s the beauty of upcycling.
There are several ways to upcycle clothes and materials that seem disposable. Looking through your wardrobe helps you determine the pieces that you can use for your upcycling projects.
You may have an old pair of jeans or pants that you don't wear anymore. You have the option to donate it or send it off to an online thrift store or make it feel brand new using your creative efforts.
Identifying your style is an important step. This comes before diving into the fun aspect of searching for great tutorials and sewing or patching clothes. Before any great idea to upcycle pops up, ask yourself, “what is my style?”
This will save you the trouble of starting new projects only to realize that the new outfits don’t match your style. It’s easy to get swayed by the number of creative ideas out there; however, you need to stay on brand.
Staying on brand means creating new pieces of clothing or other items that match your taste or personality. What’s the point of having new pieces that you won’t wear? If you’re unsure of your personal taste, you can create mood boards with items that catch your eye.
Also, take a look into your entire wardrobe and notice if there’s a pattern. What types of colors are you more likely to grab on a clothing rack? Do you wear more sustainable t-shirts than dresses? Is an oversized shirt something you see yourself rocking? How do you feel about mini skirts compared with midi or maxi skirts? Is a longer fit more your thing than a shorter one?
These are just a few questions to address. There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to this.
Also, you don’t have to force yourself to fit into a particular box. You could be attracted to various pieces. However, pay attention to those that you would grab without a second thought, whether new or reused clothing items.
The types of upcycling projects you want to take on will determine the materials you’ll need. For example, some upcycled clothes projects might require a sewing machine, while others might require just paint or fabric glue.
If you wish to hand sew, then you can simply gather the necessary sewing kit materials. Either way, it’s important to collate all fabrics, clothing, tools, and equipment in one place. The clothing items you choose could include old jeans, pants, t-shirts, dresses, skirts, and many other pieces.
You can even convert your worn-out vintage brand jeans into a cute new bag.
Whatever you choose, you’re sure you’ll be attaining something unique out of the old. You can dedicate a specific area as your workspace.
Setting aside a workspace makes it easier to see all your upcycling items laid out. If you’re more of a planner, you can allocate a time frame for your project. Planning doesn’t take the fun out of upcycling; it simply supports you in getting things done.
It’s one thing to follow fashion trends that’ll lead to abandoning your upcycled pieces, and it’s another to develop timeless items. When upcycling clothes, always have it in mind to design clothes that’ll last.
Avoid simply following fleeting fashion trends. Instead, use a combination of your taste and timeless designs to create new pieces to wear or use. Remember that you’re not limited to just making other clothing items with upcycling. The possibilities of the final results are endless.
You can create pieces like clothes, bags, pillow covers, aprons, and many other things. Or source an old wedding dress and use the lace and frills to re-fashion other garments. As wedding dresses are usually only worn once, you'll find loads on places like eBay and in thrift stores.
This will not only save you a ton of money on new purchases but also helps you generate unique and timeless sustainable fashion pieces from old garments.
You can’t possibly conclude all upcycling projects in a single day. Some people that take up upcycling turn it into a lifetime practice.
This helps them break out of their dependence on new fashion pieces and reduces the environmental impact of new clothing production.
Even when developing patterns or ideas for specific seasons like summer or spring, consider if you can wear them beyond those seasons. The internet houses loads of tutorials and great tips on upcycling specific pieces of clothing. You’ll find tutorials on repurposing an old jacket with just a few fabric scraps, sewing back pockets into pants, and turning t-shirts into tote bags.
You can also discover more detailed guides, such as using fabrics for patchwork and developing patterns. Either way, you’ll be giving your old pieces a new life while helping prevent the accumulation of new clothes in landfills.
If you’re new to upcycling clothes, you don’t have to get into the most advanced sewing techniques. There are several simple ways to upcycle clothing. Some of the methods involve basic sewing skills, while others don’t even require sewing. So, upcycling clothes doesn't have to be a complicated task.
You can start with simple projects such as converting an old shirt into a tank top, adding patches to jeans, and painting a jacket or skirt. Over time, you can then begin to develop more advanced techniques to upcycle your fabrics or clothes.
You can find inspiration everywhere, not just on the internet. You might go out on a trip and see something that instantly gives you an idea to repurpose an old vintage denim skirt. Even things in nature can inspire a piece for the summer. Whatever it is, it’s always good to keep your mind open.
Most importantly, whether it’s patching an old jacket with polka dots or getting out some acrylic paint to brighten up a faded old clothing item, you know that each piece ready for reuse helps reduce your carbon footprint.
The apparel industry is renowned as a significant polluter, especially fast fashion - upcycling clothes prevents a little bit of environmental waste generated by the fashion industry and new clothing items.
Patches could be from old fabric pieces or decorative items you own. When you add patches to old pieces, it gives your upcycled clothes an entirely new look. Patches always look great on a jacket, so consider giving your plain jacket a makeover.
You can also convert a pair of jeans into something unique using patches, and save a little textile waste at the same time. A tip is to add patches to areas such as the pockets to make your cloth stand out.
Patchwork could also involve joining old fabric and surplus materials pieces together. This helps you develop larger designs or items such as a quilt or picnic mat.
Have you ever seen those “thrift flip” YouTube videos? Many of them contain inspiration that’ll help you convert old items into something completely different. When upcycling clothes, you can either upgrade the piece while maintaining its initial purpose or convert it into something else.
There are limitless possibilities when upcycling clothes. For instance, you can flip a secondhand sweater into a tote bag or convert it into a pillow cover. Another idea is mixing two garments or more to develop new outfits.
And for one of those burning questions, "what to do with old underwear?" these too can find an upcycling use if clean and still have a little life left. for example, lace trims, or printed patterns can transform a plainer piece.
The best part is that no two pieces will be the same, making your creations one of a kind. And getting creative is a fun project either way!
Embroidery can be time-consuming, but the final result makes it worth it. This can be somewhat advanced depending on the design and methods you’re going for when looking to upcycle old clothes.
There are numerous tutorials and guides online, which also present you with the appropriate materials you need. This method of upcycling clothes requires precision. However, it’s a great way to add new designs to old pieces. Whether it’s for a t-shirt, jacket, pair of pants, or skirt, embroidery is a great way to test your creativity.
Apart from sewing specific designs into fabric, you can also use embroidery as a way to try out visible mending. Your clothes that have rips or tears become useful because you can use this mending method as a form of upcycled clothing art.
You’ve probably seen many people cut their long pants or convert an old shirt into something cropped. You can also convert a pair of jeans into denim shorts. To cut your clothes, all you need is a pair of scissors and the item you wish you convert. It’s as simple as that.
There are tons of great ideas and ways to alter your clothes through the cutting method. The best part is that you don’t need to sew the ends back. For instance, a newly cut denim short can have a frayed effect at the tips.
There are various ways to dye your clothes, with tie dye being a well-known one. Tie-dye is a popular and creative way to upcycle clothes. Also, it’s easy to implement and affordable.
All you need is a tie-dye kit and your basic clothing item to get started. With just a few easy-to-acquire tools, you can begin to dye your fabric to develop something new to wear.
When purchasing dye kits, look out for those that are non-toxic. Alternatively, you can settle for a natural fabric dyeing process using fruits and vegetables. Doing this helps you reduce your environmental impact and prevent the use of harsh chemicals.
Painting is another creative way to upcycle without sewing. You don’t need to be a professional painter to do this. All you need is your determination, some inspiration, and the right tools like fabric paint and brushes.
Painting helps you design personalized pieces to wear either within the home or when you’re out. Grab your old jeans, find some inspiration, and get painting.
Upcycling clothes is a great way to repurpose your old pieces, and with our moves to reduce the impact of fashion and what we wear on the environment, it’s also increasingly popular. It tests your creative side, offers unique items, and helps you save. Upcycling is a journey, so even if your initial DIY projects don’t turn out as expected, don’t give up.
Reverse Resources. (2017). The Undiscovered Business Potential of Production Leftovers within Global Fashion Supply Chains
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.