Raise your hand if you’ve got “that chair” in your room—you know the one. It sits in the corner, slowly collecting clothes you can’t be bothered to donate. Maybe it’s home to a growing pile of items that need to be repaired: leather bags with broken straps, well-loved shoes with worn-out soles, or fast-fashion dresses you wore twice before they started falling apart.
Or perhaps The Chair is in such a state because there’s not a free hanger to be found in your closet. Your drawers, too, are stuffed to the brim. And you’ve already got an overflowing donation bin sitting in your garage.
Despite this glut of garments, you may still feel as if you’ve got nothing to wear. This isn’t some kind of personal failing—the fashion industry’s emphasis on seasonality and the social stigma of “outfit repeating” has hammered home the idea that “new” equals “fashionable.” In fact, the average consumer wears a piece of clothing just seven times before discarding it.
But before you toss out your pre-loved clothes or schlep your overstuffed donation box to the nearest Salvation Army, it’s worth giving some of those items a second look—or, with a dash of creativity, even a second life.
Upcycling clothing is a growing trend that involves transforming old, unused pieces into new, fashionable designs—and it’s as fun as it is eco-friendly. Whether you’re looking to refresh an existing wardrobe or seeking to dabble in the world of DIY fashion design for the first time, upcycling old clothes is a productive way to transform your shabbiest rags into chic pieces fit for the runway.
Here’s an overview of how to upcycle clothes.
What Is Upcycling?
In general, “upcycling”—sometimes called “creative reuse”—refers to transforming an old or unwanted item into something that’s like-new and looks high-quality. If you’ve ever watched HGTV, you’ve probably seen dilapidated pieces of furniture upcycled into shining new coffee tables or bookshelves.
In the fashion world, upcycling clothes involves repurposing garments so that the finished products are even better than the originals. There are countless ways to upcycle clothes, including adding embellishments like embroidery, patches, paint, or tie dye. Thrift store upcycling is increasingly popular these days. You can even upcycle a shirt or pair of pants by fashioning entirely new pieces out of its cut-up fabric.
Not only can upcycled clothes help you declutter your physical space, but the practice can also help cut down on the immense amount of waste produced by the apparel industry. One 2019 article noted that the fashion sector is responsible for up to 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions. The industry is also a major consumer of the world’s water supply. If you upcycle a shirt, pair of shoes, or tattered pair of jeans, it not only gives your old clothes new purpose—it also prevents them from ending up in a landfill or incinerator.
So, what things can be upcycled? You may be surprised at the types of clothing items you can revitalize with minimal effort.
Upcycled Clothing Ideas
From once-beloved T-shirts to jeans that no longer sync with your style to that heaping collection of sweaters your great aunt sends you every year for the holidays, just about any item can become an upcycled work of art.
Here are just a few upcycling ideas for clothing to help you refresh your wardrobe.
Upcycled T-Shirt Art
Before you relegate your ratty t-shirts to dishrag status, consider if there may be a path to redemption. For upcycled t-shirts, take your threadbare favorites and add flair like a patch or embroidered design. For example, you can easily cover small holes or a pilly texture with hand embroidery, tie dye, screen printing, and more. Many of these projects are simple and require little if any knowledge of sewing.
Regardless of where you fall on the skinny vs. wide leg jeans debate (looking at you, Gen Z), nearly everyone can agree that the destroyed denim trend has staying power. But if your jeans are a little too demolished these days—i.e. hanging in shreds around your legs or showing off skin in some, ahem, sensitive places—you can still salvage the material.
You can upcycle jeans into a fashionable vest, denim belt, or bag. Alternatively, if you’ve got a pair that still fits but no longer inspires you, you can jazz them up with attractive, hand-painted designs, which are very en vogue at the moment.
Upcycled Sweater Slippers
If you’ve got a whole collection of moth-eaten sweaters, there are a few simple ways to repurpose them. A few careful cuts and some basic hemming can turn a stuffy sweater into a cute cardigan, for example. Or, you can go rogue with your upcycled sweater and create a brand new item like socks, slippers, or mittens.
Make Cozy Slippers Out of Old Sweaters!
DIY: Upcycled Sweater Slippers
Fabric Scrap Flowers
If you’ve already been dabbling in the world of DIY upcycled clothes for some time, you might find yourself with a pile of leftover fabric scraps. Before you toss them in the trash, consider turning them into unique upcycled fashion accessories, like a lovely fabric flower crown or embellishment for a jean jacket.
DIY Mix-and-Match Dress
Sometimes, the right mix-and-match combination showcases an old piece of clothing in a new light. If you’ve got some loose tops and skirts you’ve grown bored of, try pairing them together in new and unexpected combinations—or even sewing them together to create a one-of-a-kind, upcycled dress.
Among the countless upcycling ideas for clothing, fabric weaving is one of the more unique. Once you’ve created a loom and gotten the hang of the basics, you can create captivating patterns in just a couple of hours. You can sew woven fabric designs onto pants, T-shirts, scarves, and other wardrobe staples. For instance, fabric-weaving is a perfect way to liven up the back of an old denim jacket.
Thrift Store Upcycle Clothes
You don’t need to cut up your existing wardrobe to upcycle clothing. Hitting the thrift store is one of the best ways to find source material for your projects. Thrifting has gained significant popularity in recent years, and a simple search online for “thrift store upcycle clothes” will likely lead you to some hidden gems nearby.
In addition to brick-and-mortar stores, there are dozens of online sites and apps where you can browse for second-hand and upcycled clothing. Depop, Poshmark, ThredUp, and eBay are all places you can peruse for pre-loved items and find inspiration for upcycling old clothes.
Upcycling clothes is about more than just cutoff jeans—these days, upcycled clothes can be just as fashionable as the latest designs gracing the pages of major magazines. Here are a few ways of repurposing and upcycling clothes for styles that align with today’s hottest trends.
Leather-Crafting with Scraps
Leather is generally one of those fabrics that gets better with age, but that’s not always the case. If your old leather items are looking a little rough around the edges or have gotten water-stained in spots, you may want to consider cutting them up into salvageable fabric scraps. Then, you can play around with the material to create upcycled totes, toiletry bags, and bow ties.
Give New Clothes a Vintage Twist
Certain things never go out of style, and that’s the case with “vintage” clothing. After all, there’s always some throwback trend that’s making its way back into circulation (hello, fanny packs). But you don’t need to spend a pretty penny at a consignment store to give your wardrobe that oh-so-’80s vintage vibe. Adding fringe, acid wash effects, or sewing pleats into fabric are all ways to makeover your modern clothes for a more retro look.
Another fashion trend that’s resurfaced in the past few years is tie dye. Any white or light-colored clothing can easily be upcycled with this time-tested, easy-to-learn dyeing method. Or, take your upcycled fashion efforts up a notch with botanical dyeing. Botanical dye is a beautiful way to add bohemian flair to pre-loved pants, pajamas, jackets, shirts, scarves, and more.
Upcycled Sewing Projects
There are a slew of ways to create upcycled clothes with a simple needle and thread. You can find tutorials for just about any skill level, whether you’re an expert stitcher or you’re all thumbs when operating a sewing machine.
Here are a few project ideas.
Jeans Alterations and Repair
If your jeans are in need of a little TLC, there’s no need to beeline to the tailor. In fact, with some basic sewing skills under your belt, you can make affordable alterations right from the comfort of home. Embroider over small holes. For larger holes or bedraggled bottom hems, consider adding patches or turning a long pair of pants into high-waters or shorts. Alternatively, if you’re trying to make your mom-jeans a little edgier, you can use scissors or a razor to rip and tear your way to that coveted “shabby-chic” look.
For truly bespoke pieces that reflect your whimsical style, get creative with appliqué. Appliqué is a form of needlework that involves sewing or sticking pieces of fabric onto a garment to create shapes or patterns. With this fun form of fashion-forward DIY, the possibilities are as limitless as your imagination.
Japanese boro stitching is a way of creating upcycled clothes that dates back decades or even centuries. It involves “visible mending” methods such as piercing, patching, and stitching. Today, it has evolved into its own art form.
What Will You Create?
Beauty is in the eye of the upcycler. If you’re interested in upcycling and repurposing clothes, there are plenty of video class rabbit holes you can fall down. Everything from thrift store upcycling tips and tricks to DIY design templates for turning tattered trash into tomorrow’s hot trends. Beyond Skillshare’s classes, you can find inspiration on sites like Pinterest, at major retailers, in thrift stores, on second-hand clothing apps, or even just passing by strangers on the street.
In the long run, upcycling is a hobby that can save you money and improve your carbon impact. It’s a win-win if we’ve ever heard of one. Plus, wouldn’t it be nice to actually sit in that chair for once?
Upcycle Your Fabric Scraps!
Create a Classy Zipped Pouch