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What Is Upcycled Clothing?

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

The before and after photos of a purse that was upcycled into a corset

Upcycled clothing is making a new wave in fashion as sustainability becomes 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, which can also be referred to 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.

Upcycling old clothes isn’t necessarily a new concept, but 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 recently 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 worse 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 the reuse and repurpose of 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, save the planet.

Upcycling vs. Recycling

Explaining the difference between upcycling vs. recycling can be tricky. Here’s how we distinguish the two:

  • The definition of recycling is the action or process of converting waste into reusable material. A good 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 be converted into a textile at a recycling center. Upcycling can be achieved at home by taking old scarves and sewing them together to make a satchel. Or, transforming an old sweater into a two-piece set as we did here:

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.

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 are using 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 clothing new life. Instead of taking it to a recycling center (and then buying more clothes to fill the empty space in your closet), you can hold on to the clothes you already have and upcycle them into new outfits. All you need is some scissors, a sewing machine, and a little bit of creativity.

5 Examples of Upcycled Clothing (Before and After)

We’ve created over 300 upcycled clothing designs since we started making them in 2020. Read on to see our favorite ones and learn how they came to life.

1. Upcycling a purse

We found this faux leather purse at a local thrift shop. It was on sale for a dollar and had some scuffs on the outside, so we thought it’d be the perfect item to upcycle into a new design.

We cut around the scuffs and made different shapes out of the leftover material, then sewed the pieces together to make a corset top. Once that was done, we added eyelet holes in the back and laced them up with a rope that we bought at the thrift store. To top it off, we took the purse handle and made it into a choker that was worn as an added accessory.

2. Upcycling a pair of jeans

This is one of our favorite designs of all time. Mostly because we collaborated with Levi's to make it for their Buy Better Wear Longer campaign. We took a pair of vintage Levi’s from our closet and upcycled them into a custom, 1 of 1 corset design.

3. Upcycling an old sweater

This cardigan was on the “last chance” sale rack at the thrift store — a.k.a. destined for the landfill. Aside from a few stains and small holes, there wasn’t a lot wrong with it. So, we grabbed the sweater and headed home to reconstruct it into a new design. Two new designs, to be exact. Both tops (shown on the right) were made from the fabric of the yellow sweater and combined with other upcycled fabrics from our scrap bin.

4. Thrift flip

Denim is one of our favorite fabrics to upcycle because of its durability and structure. We found these old white jeans at a thrift store with some holes and discoloring. So, we decided to bring them home and gave them a new life as an upcycled buckle top.

5. Upcycling a jacket

This vintage jacket was sitting in my closet for years. I found it at the thrift store and fell in love with the style, but not the fit. Eventually, Jared had a vision for it and upcycled the jacket into a corset-style top. This is one of our favorite upcycling transformations to date!

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. Best piece of advice: Let your creativity run free. We try to push ourselves as much as we can 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

  • Purses/bags

  • Hardware/jewelry

We love adding more unconventional items such as binder rings, chains, charms from necklaces, safety pins, and other accents to our upcycled designs.

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

Jared, the co-founder and designer of Yvonne and Mitchel, doesn’t use patterns or sketches to map out his designs. He prefers to come up with them as he goes. Following a pattern can help make this process a lot easier, however, especially if you’re new to sewing.

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. Clothing patterns can also be purchased from stores like Michaels or Walmart. Or, if you’re lucky, you can find vintage ones at your local thrift shop!

Step 3: Sew, sew, sew!

Sewing is the hardest part of this process but don't let it intimidate you. With time and patience, you’ll have it down in no time. Trust us: Jared is completely self-taught and here we are, six years later, with an entire clothing business.

We recommend looking up tutorials online if you want to learn how to sew on your own without having to pay for 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.

Upcycled clothing is the epitome of sustainable fashion and will continue to revolutionize the industry in the coming years. Right now, it's the most effective and attainable way to extend the life cycle of fashion while also meeting the rising demand for new clothing.

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!

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