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How To Upcycle Clothes: Your Ultimate Guide

Updated: Jun 11

A graphic of a t-shirt being upcycled into a new top

You may think that donating to thrift stores is a good way to extend the life cycle of your old clothing and keep it from contributing to global waste. It can be, there’s just one (kind-of-major) issue: Clothing production has increased so much that thrift stores can’t sell all of their intakes, and they end up sending two-thirds of their discards to the landfill anyway.

The EPA reports that 10 million tons of our unwanted clothing goes to landfills each year, and only 2.5 million tons of it get recycled. On top of that, it costs a substantial amount of money and resources to recycle that small fraction of our unwanted clothing.

So, if recycling clothes is too costly and donating isn’t as eco-friendly as it’s made out to be — what can do you?

You've come to the right place if you don’t know what to do with your old clothes. This blog post will explain what upcycling is, why it’s important, and how to upcycle clothes. We’ll also share some upcycling tips that have helped us since we started our own

upcycling company.

What Is Upcycling, and Why Is It Important?

Upcycling is a fairly new term, but it’s growing in prominence and importance at a rapid pace. As stated in the Oxford dictionary, upcycling is the reuse of discarded objects or material in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.

But how does this differ from recycling?

As mentioned above, recycling requires an immense amount of money and resources. This is because it involves converting waste, like plastic, into textiles. Upcycling clothes is typically a much simpler process in comparison to recycling. It can be as easy as cutting up an old dress and restyling it to be worn as a shirt. Or, it can be as complex as upcycling a vintage jacket into a custom corset, like we did in this video:

Simply put, upcycling is the process of reconstructing an old or unused item into something new. The reuse and repurposing of our unwanted things, especially clothes, is more important now than ever as we grapple with climate change and other environmental crises.

Fashion isn’t the only contributor to ecological degradation, but it’s a major one. Studies show that fashion is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and 10% to 20% of the world’s pesticide use. Major brands in the industry aren’t doing much to improve sustainability, either. In fact, less than 11% of them have implemented recycling strategies for their items.

Consumers have the chance to pave the way for sustainable fashion by upcycling clothing or buying from brands that specialize in it. If you want to learn how to use old clothes creatively and upcycle them into something new, take the steps below.

How to Upcycle Clothes

While there’s no one "right" way to upcycle old clothes, we’ve outlined the basic steps of the process below. The best way to approach them is with an open mind and willingness to let your creativity run free.

Step 1: Find an item you want to upcycle

Upcycled clothing is made out of used fabrics or materials that can be found around your home or purchased secondhand. At Yvonne and Mitchel, we source all of our upcycled fabrics from thrift stores, estate sales, yard sales, and creative reuse centers.

We recommend upcycling old clothes that you already own before taking in more. If you end up going to the thrift store to look for something to upcycle, look for items that are damaged and less likely to be worn. Most thrift stores have “last chance” racks or sale sections that make it easy to find unwanted clothes that will go to the landfill if they don’t sell. We've found that the challenge of upcycling old clothes into something new is much more rewarding this way.

Step 2: Find a design pattern (or draw up your own sketch!)

Following a pattern can make the upcycling process a lot easier, especially if you’re new to sewing. You can download a wide variety of sewing patterns online for free, or you can purchase them from fabric stores like JOANN’s. We recommend searching thrift shops and resale websites for vintage patterns that offer more unique designs.

Using a pattern isn’t always necessary — especially if you want to design upcycled clothing that isn’t like the rest. Jared, the designer and co-founder of Yvonne and Mitchel, doesn’t use patterns for our upcycled clothes — mostly because he’s a self-taught sewer and never really learned how to use them. This approach also allows him to create more unique, eye-catching designs.

Step 3: Stitch (or opt for a no-sew design)

Sewing can be the hardest part of the upcycling process, but don't let it intimidate you. The work you put in to learn and become a better sewer will be worth it in the end when you have the power to make your own clothes and save the planet while doing it.

Jared taught himself how to sew in high school without any formal training or classes. Fast forward six years, and he's the sole designer of our upcycled clothing brand. Let that be proof that anything is possible if you just put your mind to it!

If you want to learn how to upcycle clothes without a sewing machine instead, there are plenty of no-sew upcycling ideas that can be found on Google, Pinterest, or YouTube. This video by Fashion Wizardry is a great example:

Three Tips For Upcycling Clothes

We've made over 200 pieces of upcycled clothing and have learned a lot since we started our upcycling business a few years ago. Here are three tips for upcycling clothes that have helped us the most:

1. Don't let yourself get overwhelmed.

The alarming stats about our clothing habits and the impact they have on the environment is a lot to take in. Don't tell yourself that you are solely responsible, or that you have to take on this global issue alone. All of us have to do our part. Even if you upcycle just one piece of clothing, you’re helping the cause. If you don’t have the time or energy to upcycle your own clothing, buying from brands that specialize in it is just as helpful for the environment!

2. Think outside the Box.

Upcycling clothes is an art form and should be treated as such. Have fun with it and experiment with different materials. Some unconventional items that can be used for upcycling include:

  1. Curtains

  2. Towels

  3. Blankets

  4. Scarves

  5. Purses/bags

  6. Hardware/jewelry (we love using old binder rings, safety pins, chains, charms, and other hardware accessories to elevate our upcycled clothes)

Don't be so quick to count out items, either. The purpose of upcycling old clothes is to give them a new life. Trust the process and challenge yourself to turn your trash into treasure.

3. Aim for zero-waste.

The more upcycled items you can incorporate into your design, the better. Zero-waste clothing is made entirely out of reused materials — even down to the thread. For example, everything that we used to make this upcycled top was used or purchase secondhand, making it a zero-waste design:

  • The fabric was from an old cardigan.

  • The neckline was made with a vintage silver necklace that we found at an antique store.

  • The front was secured with a safety pin that we bought at the thrift store.

  • The back was tied with used black string that we got from a deconstructed, vintage woven belt.

  • It was sewed all together with recycled thread that we purchased at Scraps KC, a local creative reuse center.

Not only can your old clothes be used to make new outfits, but they can also be used to make other items such as bags, blankets, curtains, or other accessories. You can even cut up old, damaged clothing and use the scraps as cleaning rags around the house.

However you wish to upcycle your old clothing, just remember this: You are making a huge, positive impact on the environment. Keep this guide handy for the next time you clear out your closet and decide to get rid of old clothes!

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