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What Is Upcycled Clothing?

Updated: Apr 12

What Is Upcycled Clothing? Image Contents: A "before" photo showing a pair of Carhartt positioned next to an image of a woman wearing an upcycled denim out that was crafted out of the Carhartt pants.

Upcycled clothing is making a new wave in fashion as sustainability becomes a major purchase motivator among consumers. It's becoming so important that 73% of Gen Z and millennials say they're willing to pay more for these types of products.

In our opinion, this shift in consumer behavior is one of the best things to happen in the fashion industry.

According to the UN, fashion is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. That number might seem small, but when you take into account that clothing production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined — the writing on the wall becomes clear: Something needs to change.

In this post, we’ll provide a full rundown of upcycled clothing, including shocking statistics that prove why upcycling clothes is important, how you can upcycle on your own, and some examples of what it could look like.

We hope this inspires you to incorporate more upcycled clothing into your wardrobe!

What Is Upcycled Clothing and Why Is It Important?

Upcycled clothing, also known as repurposed clothing, is the product of reconstructing old clothes into something new. At Yvonne and Mitchel, we upcycle vintage clothing and give it a new life by using the fabric to make new designs.

Upcycled clothing is made from used fabrics and materials that can be found around your home or purchased secondhand. We like to source our upcycled fabrics from thrift stores, estate sales, antique markets, and creative reuse centers like Scraps KC.

While upcycling old clothes isn’t a new concept, it’s picking up steam at the perfect time. In today’s fast-fashion era, consumers are producing 13 million tons of textile waste per year — 95% of which could be reused or recycled. However, in reality, we’re only recycling 13%.

The blame isn’t solely on consumers, though. The Washington Post discovered that fashion companies around the world have been throwing away and destroying unsold clothes for years to avoid selling them at a discounted price.

Our habits as a society have grown increasingly troublesome over time. Research shows that clothing consumption has increased by 60% in just 15 years, causing textile production to become the third largest manufacturer in the world. The worst part? We only keep our clothes for half as long as we used to.

Donating to thrift shops has been, and still can be, an effective way to extend the life cycle of your old clothing. The only downfall is that two-thirds of thrift store discards go straight to the landfill.

That's why upcycling is considered one of the most environmentally-friendly ways to preserve our clothes.

There has never been a greater need for repurposing old clothing. With the mass amount of fabric being produced around the world (17 million tons to be exact), there’s more than enough to make it. By upcycling old clothes or buying from brands that specialize in them, you can help reduce global textile waste and, most importantly, help save the planet.

Upcycling vs. Recycling

Distinguishing the difference between upcycling vs. recycling can be tricky, but it's essential:

The definition of recycling is the action or process of converting waste into reusable material. A prime example of this in the context of fashion is when Adidas teamed up with Parley to create a shoe that was made entirely out of recycled plastic bottles. Most recycled clothing is made out of old clothes or waste materials, like plastic, that have been chemically transformed into new textiles.

The definition of upcycling is to take discarded objects or materials and repurpose them into products of higher quality or value. Simply put, this process doesn’t require the object or material to undergo a chemical transformation. Upcycling can be achieved at home by taking old scarves and sewing them together to make a bag or transforming an old pair of jeans into a corset:

Both recycled and upcycled clothing are great for the environment. The major advantage of upcycling old clothes is that it's much easier to DIY and doesn't require as many resources compared to recycling, making it more accessible and efficient.

Recycling clothes is an extremely labor-intensive process that's gotten harder over time due to the complex fabric blends that a growing number of brands use nowadays. Most modern clothing is made out of problematic fibers, like polyester, that are difficult to break down and can't be recycled into something new.

Because of this, recycling centers spend hours separating clothing by hand to identify fabrics that can be transformed into new textiles — which ends up being less than 1%. The other 99% of our old clothing can't be recycled and gets shredded instead.

Upcycling is an easier, more efficient way to give your old clothes a new life. Instead of dropping them all off at a thrift store (and then buying more clothes to fill the space in your closet), we recommend holding on to some of the clothes you already have and upcycling them into new outfits. All you need are some tools and a little bit of creativity.

How to Make Upcycled Clothing

Step 1: Choose an item you want to upcycle.

Finding an item to upcycle is the most exciting part of the process. Our best piece of advice? Let your creativity run free. We challenge ourselves to upcycle a wide variety of items that we find in our homes and at thrift stores. Some of our favorite go-to’s include:

  • Clothing

  • Curtains

  • Towels

  • Blankets

  • Scarves

  • Belts

  • Purses/bags

  • Jewelry

We also love incorporating more unconventional items like binder rings, chains, charms from necklaces, safety pins, and other unique accents to our upcycled designs. This adds a personalized touch and enhances the creativity of the final product.

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

When it comes to designing upcycled clothing, Jared, the co-founder and designer of Yvonne and Mitchel, takes a unique approach. He doesn’t use patterns or sketches to map out his designs but instead prefers to develop them spontaneously as he goes. While this method allows for more creative freedom, using a pattern can make the upcycling process a lot easier, especially if you’re new to sewing.

Fortunately, there are a ton of great websites out there like Mood Sewciety and So Sew Easy that offer free patterns for you to download and use. Additionally, you can purchase clothing patterns at fabric stores like Michael's or JOANN's. If you’re lucky, you might even come across vintage patterns at your local thrift shop! We recommend keeping an eye out for these gems as they're often reasonably priced and can add a unique nostalgic touch to your upcycled creations.

Step 3: Sew your creation.

Sewing is the hardest part of the upcycling process, but don't let it intimidate you. With time and patience, you’ll master it in no time. Take it from Jared, who is completely self-taught and has successfully helped build our upcycled clothing business over seven years.

We recommend looking up tutorials online if you want to learn how to sew on your own without having to pay for classes. They can offer valuable insights without the need for formal classes. If you don't want to sew, or just don't have the time — there are a ton of great no-sew upcycling ideas on Pinterest and YouTube.

5 Examples of Upcycled Clothing (Before and After)

We’ve created over 400 upcycled clothing designs since Yvonne and Mitchel's inception in 2017. Read on to explore our favorite upcycle transformations and learn how they came to life.

1. Upcycling Levi's jeans

This design holds a special place in our hearts as it was part of our collaboration with Levi's for their "Buy Better Wear Longer" campaign in 2021. We transformed a pair of vintage Levi’s jeans from our collection into a one-of-a-kind corset design.

2. Upcycling Carhartt pants

Image Contents: A pair of Carhartt positioned next to an arrow that points to a woman wearing an upcycled denim out that was made out of the Carhartt pants.
Yvonne and Mitchel Upcycled Carhartt Set, 2022

We love stumbling upon Carhartt pants at the thrift store. Renowned for their durable construction, Carhartt pants are a top choice for us when it comes to upcycling due to their robust material that withstands the test of time.

We transformed this sturdy fabric into a stunning two-piece ensemble consisting of a corset and mini skirt. This design remains one of our cherished creations to date.

3. Upcycling accessories

Our passion for upcycling extends beyond traditional materials; it's about reimagining possibilities and creating something truly unique. We like to upcycle accessories, like thrifted belts, by transforming them into something entirely different to prove that creativity knows no bounds.

4. Upcycling a jacket

Image Contents: A woman wearing a newspaper printed jacket positioned next to an arrow that points to the same woman wearing an upcycled corset that was made out of the jacket..
Yvonne and Mitchel Upcycled Newspaper Corset, 2021

This vintage jacket lingered in my closet for years, a hidden gem waiting to be rediscovered. After finding it at the thrift store, I fell in love with its unique print but not the style. Eventually, Jared envisioned a new life for it and transformed the jacket into a stunning corset-style top.

5. Upcycling an old sweater

We stumbled upon this sweater at the Goodwill bins, which many don't realize is the last stop before clothes head to the salvage stream.

Despite being discarded, the fabric was in perfect condition, so we brought it home to be reconstructed into something new.

Jared utilized every inch of the fabric, transforming the top into a one-of-a-kind dress. Since there wasn't a lot of material to begin with, we incorporated a vintage doily at the hem, which provided extra coverage and a beautiful blend of textures.

Join The Upcycle Movement

By upcycling old clothes into new outfits, you no longer have to feel guilty about experimenting with fashion and changing up your style. You can reduce your clothing consumption and "shop" for new looks at the same time.

Now that you've learned what upcycled clothing is and how to make it, we hope you'll incorporate more of it into your wardrobe and encourage others to do the same!

For more style inspiration, explore our catalog of unique, one-of-a-kind upcycled designs.

1 comment

1 Comment

Clotilda DeMauro
Clotilda DeMauro
Oct 18, 2021

Thank you for this. This truly makes me want to restore and upcycle all my clothes rather than just give them away. Bringing new life to old clothing I feel like can still allow us to stay close to good memories while still embracing a new version of ourselves! You guys rock.

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