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A Beginner's Guide to Help You Upcycle Old Clothes

Updated: Apr 6

How To Upcycle Clothes: Your Ultimate Guide (Image Contents: An upcycle designer cutting up a pair of jeans on a work table in a sewing room)
Jared Mitchel Armstrong, Designer and Co-Founder of Yvonne and Mitchel (2023)

Are you looking for sustainable ways to refresh your wardrobe and reduce environmental impact? While donating old clothes to thrift stores seems eco-friendly, it often falls short in addressing the growing issue of textile waste. Did you know that thrift stores end up sending a significant portion of donated clothing to landfills due to oversupply?

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.

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

That's where upcycling comes in.

What Is Upcycling, and Why Is It Important?

Upcycling is the art of transforming discarded materials into something of higher value or quality. Unlike recycling, which requires complex processes and resources, upcycling is simpler and more sustainable. It's about giving old items new life and reducing our reliance on new resources.

Upcycling can be as easy as cutting up an old dress to be worn in a new way, or as complex as upcycling jeans into a corset, like we did in this video:

The act of reusing and repurposing discarded items, 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. Less than 11% of them have implemented recycling strategies for their items.

At its core, upcycling is a response to the environmental challenges posed by fast fashion. The fashion industry contributes significantly to carbon emissions and waste, making it crucial for individuals to adopt more eco-conscious practices.

You can lead the way for sustainable fashion by upcycling clothes and supporting brands that specialize in it. If you want to learn how to use old clothes creatively and upcycle them into something new, the following steps can help get you started on the right foot.

How To Upcycle Clothes: Beginner Steps

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

Step 1: Select your base item.

Start by choosing a piece of clothing you want to upcycle. This could be something from your closet or a thrift store find.

If you're at the thrift store searching for something to upcycle, we recommend looking 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 headed for the landfill if they don’t sell. We've learned that the challenge of upcycling old clothes is more rewarding if you give new life to items that are about to be thrown out.

Step 2: Get inspired.

Explore design ideas or create your own. You can find patterns online or let your creativity guide you. If you like using patterns to sew, we also 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 because he’s a self-taught sewer and learned how to design without them. This approach also allows him to create more unique, eye-catching designs.

Step 3: Gather materials.

Collect any additional materials you'll need, such as fabric, buttons, or embellishments. Consider repurposing items from around your home.

Another eco-conscious way to navigate this step is by shopping secondhand not only for your fabric and materials but your sewing notions too.

Step 4: Prepare and customize.

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.

The best part of upcycling is that you don't need to know how to sew. You can give old clothes new life using dyeing, cutting, or embellishing techniques to achieve your desired look without having to even use a sewing machine. There are plenty of no-sew ideas for upcycling, such as adding studs to denim shorts or iron-on patches to your shirts.

Learn more beginner upcycling tips in the video:

Three Tips for Successful Upcycling

1. Start small.

Don't feel overwhelmed by the scale of textile waste. Every small upcycling effort makes a difference. Begin with one item and expand as you gain confidence. If you don’t have the time or energy to upcycle your clothes, supporting brands that specialize in it is just as helpful for the environment.

2. Embrace creativity.

Upcycling clothes is an art form and should be treated as such. It's an opportunity to express your style and ingenuity. Experiment with different materials, colors, and techniques to create truly unique pieces. Don't be quick to count out unconventional items. Challenge yourself to turn your trash into treasure.

3. Prioritize zero waste.

Aim to minimize waste in your upcycling projects. Use scraps for smaller projects, combine materials creatively, and explore zero-waste design principles.

Zero-waste clothing is made entirely from reused materials, down to the thread. For instance, consider this upcycled top we crafted using a zero-waste approach:

Three photos showcasing an upcycle transformation of a old cardigan that was repurposed into a high-fashion halter neck top.
Yvonne and Mitchel Upcycled Knit Halter Top Design, 2021
  • Fabric: Repurposed from an old cardigan.

  • Neckline: Fashioned from a vintage silver necklace sourced from an antique store.

  • Front Closure: Secured with a thrift store-bought safety pin.

  • Back Tie: Utilized black string from a deconstructed woven belt.

  • Sewing Thread: Acquired from Scraps KC, a local creative reuse center.

Beyond crafting new outfits, your old clothes can transform into various items like bags, blankets, curtains, or accessories. Even scraps from damaged clothing can serve as handy cleaning rags around the house.

Regardless of how you choose to upcycle your old clothing, remember this: every effort contributes positively to the environment. Keep this guide accessible for your next closet cleanse and upcycling endeavor!

1 comment

1 Comment

Misty Pfitzer
Misty Pfitzer
Oct 04, 2022

Hey jtlyk, there's a misspelling under Step 3. In the 2nd paragraph, it should say, "Fast-forward", NOT "Fast word". Lol In case you weren't already aware :) 👍

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