Upcycling your clothes for sustainable savings

woman upcycling clothes

Understanding how to upcycle clothes offers sustainable savings – both for the environment and your fashion budget. Whether you’re a confident sewer or someone who is willing to learn some basics, upcycling clothing can be a smart way to add to your existing wardrobe without buying anything new.

What is upcycling?

The official definition of upcycling, according to the Oxford dictionary, is to re-use (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.

Money-saving benefits of upcycling

Anything that is upcycled has a longer lifespan – and that means it’s more sustainable, reduces your household’s rubbish output and carbon footprint, plus, can save you money. Encouraging creativity and engaging in an activity that you can enjoy with crafty friends or family members is a bonus!

By extending the life of your clothes and adding new life to tired old items with some inventive upcycling, you can minimise fast fashion purchases that are potentially harmful to the environment…and your bank balance.

Some everyday clothes you can easily upcycle include:

  • denim 
  • dresses
  • jackets
  • jumpers
  • pants
  • scarves
  • skirts
  • socks
  • T-shirts.

Depending on your talents with a needle and thread, some materials are easier to work with than others. Start with denim or cotton t-shirts to build your upcycling confidence before branching out to transform other textiles.

Try cutting jeans into shorts or bags, dresses into skirts, or use pieces of material to embellish other clothing or homewares items.

Special occasion upcycling

Special occasion-specific garments can also be upcycled but, because the fabrics and details are typically more intricate, a higher level of skill might be needed to achieve stunning results.

If you’re not sentimental about holding on to that old wedding dress (or dresses?), turning a once-cherished bridal gown – or at least some parts of it – into a gorgeous formal or debutante dress could be a meaningful way to pass on something to a younger member of your extended family.

For deeper inspiration, do an online search for ‘upcycled wedding dress ideas’ to discover everything from designing a christening gown for a new baby, to creating an heirloom quilt, using pieces of lace or beading to set in jewellery, or adding decorative touches on a bridal bouquet wrap, lampshade, or cushion cover.

If taking the scissors to designer wear is too stressful to consider, leave the upcycling to less valuable clothing pieces and try selling vintage or brand-name garments to second-hand boutiques or online.

What clothing can’t be upcycled?

The opportunity to upcycle clothes is limited mainly by your own sewing skills.

Beading, embroidery and anything with sequins and sparkles might be tricky for beginner clothing upcyclers.

Recycling vs upcycling

Recycling, when it comes to fashion, is generally about deconstructing existing material (using chemical or mechanical processes) to turn it into new material.

  • If you’re considering recycling your own unwanted textiles, you might want to learn more about eco-friendly fashion choices, or do your own research into the range of organisations and businesses that specialise in sustainable textile recycling to help you understand what steps you can take to be part of the circular fashion solution.

Tip for sustainable clothes recycling: remember that those same embellishments that make upcycling harder can also be a challenge for textile recyclers to handle. As a general rule, leave unwashed items, underwear (including wired bras) and cloth nappies out of the bags you send to a clothing recycler. Checking out the FAQ section of your chosen textile recycler will help you understand their exclusions about specific materials they can’t take.

Upcycling, is repurposing, embellishing, or altering the existing item, to create a new addition to your wardrobe.

  • If you don’t feel confident about your own ability to upcycle, the good news is that a growing number of suburban tailors now actively promote upcycling as part of their services. Search in your area to see if a professional can help you breathe new life into an old outfit, without costing you a fortune.

Six ways to upcycle clothing

1. Patch it

You might not be a fan of using iron-on or sew-on patches to cover up holes in your own well-worn jeans, but if you know someone who would appreciate adding a pop of colour and fun to their much-loved jeans or jacket, it’s a relatively foolproof way to upcycle that even novices can manage.

2. Dye it

It’s not a miracle worker – especially if items are badly stained – but quality dye can turn some materials into bright new looks that help you fall back in love with an old outfit.

3. Cut it

Turn an ankle-length skirt into a shorter one or adapt long pants for warmer weather with a simple snip and hem.

4. Shazzam – it’s a scrunchie!

Old T-shirt fabric (or other stretchy material) can transform into a scrunchie in (almost) no time at all. If you’ve got young people in your life, it’s a fun way to share some sustainability-friendly sewing skills and create something useful.

5. Get quilty with it

Whether it’s designed to be a memorable gift made up of favourite old clothing pieces, or just a practical way to re-use old material scraps, quilting is the ultimate in upcycling – and, in the right (skilled) hands, it can last a lifetime.

6. It’s a wrap!

Single-use wrapping paper is expensive – and is a fast way to fill up your recycling bin.

Fabric-wrapping techniques can look great and only need a pair of scissors.

Simply fold the fabric over the present, gather up the edges of the material, then pull upward and knot the fabric tails for a simple, interesting way to share a gift with someone you care about.

If you’ve upcycled something fabulous, share your ‘how to’ tips on the Your Life Choices Forum.

Also read: How to shop for clothes more ethically

Written by Claire Halliday

Claire is an accomplished journalist who has written for leading magazines and newspapers, such as The Sunday Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Women's Weekly, Marie Claire, Rolling Stone, Australian House & Garden, GQ, The Australian, Herald Sun, The Weekly Review, Kidspot.com.au and The Independent on Sunday (UK).

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