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How to upcycle your clothes

Upcycling is a way of giving old outfits a new lease of life. Read on to find out why upcycling clothing is a great idea, and tips for how to go about it.


By Cleanipedia Team

clothes ready to be upcycled
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Key steps

  1. Find a charity that upcycles clothing, and check that the garment is clean and fresh before you donate it.

  2. Instead of recycling, re-use clothes that are unfit for upcycling as rags for cleaning.

  3. Wash your upcycled fashion purchases when you get them home according to their care instructions. If you're in doubt, hand wash the item or machine wash on cold or a delicates cycle.

Upcycling clothes mean they can be creatively reused. From growing crops, to dyeing fabrics and making synthetic fibres, clothing manufacturers use pesticides, acids and toxic chemicals to produce the garments we wear. The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter on Earth after oil, and textile waste may eventually rival plastic for pollution in our oceans.

With some creativity, extend the life of clothing. Add a contrasting trim, adjust the sleeve length or sew on bright buttons to give the outfits you have a fresh look.

Why upcycle clothing?


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  1. Throwing clothes away is also throwing away the resources that went into making them.

  2. Upcycling reduces energy used in waste management.

  3. Processes used in producing clothing have an environmental cost as these processes pollute water, soil and air.

  4. Wearing a garment 50 times rather than 5 reduces carbon emissions for it by 400% annually.

Did you know: Americans alone throw away almost 13 million tons of clothes each year – more than 36kg for every person in the country. Through upcycling, others get the benefits of wearing clothes which would otherwise be thrown away. Keeping those clothes out of landfill – or from being burned – is good for the environment, and has benefits for everybody.

Tips for donating clothes

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Many charities take used clothing to give to the needy or sell it to raise money for projects such as education and housing in poor communities.

Find a charity that upcycles clothing. Before you donate, check that:

  • The garment is clean and smells fresh.

  • Any stains or odours have been dealt with.

  • The item is in good condition and ready to wear.

  • Any holes or tears have been repaired.

  • Belts and any removable parts such as hoods are attached.

  • Missing buttons or broken zips are replaced.

  • All pockets are empty.

  • Ironing is done where necessary.

  • There are bags or accessories that you can add.

Re-use is better than recycling, but if you have garments that are are not fit to be worn, either repurpose them as rags for cleaning at home or donate them to a textile recycler. If you want more tips for donating clothes to charity, read on here!

Buying upcycled fashion: top tips

This is a very sustainable and ethical choice. High quality used clothes or designer wear can be classed as vintage, but with the rise of ‘fast fashion’ and online retail, consumers are buying increasing amounts of cheap garments – Americans purchase more than five times the amount of clothing they bought in 1980. Globally, an item of fast fashion is only worn on average 5 times.  

When buying used clothing:

  • Look for stains or odours, especially on cuffs, under arms and on the front.

  • Check all buttons are in place and zips work.

  • Examine wear, particularly of stitching, cuffs, and neckline.

  • Inspect the tag to ensure the garment is made of a fabric you like.

  • Check labels for size, but also try the garment on. Wear a tight layer you can slip clothing over.

  • Investigate for holes, signs of moths and other damage.

  • Talk to staff to find out when new deliveries arrive and the best times for shopping.

  • Be patient - that great find may require a few visits.

When you get home, wash the garment according to the care instructions. If in doubt, machine wash on a cold, delicate cycle, or hand wash.

Star a DIY wardrobe overhaul

Get creative and have fun with restyling to give the clothes you have an exciting update and more longevity in your wardrobe. Experiment with:

  • Buttons: Change the colour and material for a different look.

  • Sleeves:  Cut them at ¾ length, the elbow or shoulder – then hem – for a fresh silhouette. You can also add sleeves in contrasting fabrics for an individual result.

  • Trims: Add lace to sleeves or hems, or edge fabric with velvet ribbon or faux fur. Beads, faux pearls or rhinestones can add sparkle to a neckline.

  • Collars and cuffs: Attach contrasting fabric, sequins or beads.

  • T-shirts: Cut off sleeves or rework necklines to update their appearance. Cut along seams to insert panels in a different fabric.

  • Patches: Cut up a garment you no longer wear and make patches that can be sewn onto jeans, jumpers or shirts.

  • Fringing: Glue or sew to a dress or a jacket for added movement and flare.

  • Jeans and tracksuit bottoms:  Adjust leg lengths at the calf, knee or thigh.

  • Skirts: Change the length or add straps to make a slip dress.

  • Appliqué: Use this technique of embroidering fabric onto clothing for a range of effects.

  • Dye: Trying this tie-dyeing technique to give discoloured clothes a new lease of life.

Originally published