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10 Ways to Upcycle Your Clothes

Upcycle your clothes

This guide on how to upcycle your clothes was written by Barley Massey who runs regular sewing and upcycling classes all year round at her shop/studio Fabrications in Hackney, East London. She is also a ‘Love your Clothes’ Super Crafter, offering workshops as part of the  Love your Clothes campaign and teaches upcycling classes in the ‘Learning Curve’ at the Knitting & Stitching shows.

Introduction to upcycling

I don’t buy new clothes any more! Traid encourage people to take an annual #secondhandfirst pledge and you decide on a percentage of your wardrobe that you will source second hand or upcycle. The aim of the campaign is to give us an opportunity to look at the way we buy, use and value our clothes.

Last year I pledged 99%, which I found very easy to complete! My main sticking points were shoes and underwear, but the pledge inspired me to look into upcycled and ethical shoe sources and start making my own underwear from silk scarves! I recognise that in running my own creative business I don’t have to adhere to work place dress codes and that I can sew, so repairing, refreshing and refashioning comes with ease. But you too have these skills, or if you don’t there are many amazing sewing schools around the country or online tutorials – so I hope you will find this feature inspiring and useful.

How to upcycle your clothes

Why do I find dressing, styling and this type of sustainable fashion so appealing? On a personal level I am creating unique items which I love to wear, especially when you have a firm favourite like the jeans that fit you perfectly and are moulded to your body but they are in need of some TLC!

I also enjoy discovering items in charity or vintage shops, but you need an open mind on what you might be looking for!  On an environmental level, it helps existing clothes realise their ‘full potential’ in terms of the time, resources, production and distribution costs, keeping them in use for longer (maybe through several incarnations!) and stay out of landfill. On an emotional level, many clothes hold memories and sentimental value; it is wonderful to create therapeutic items and future heirlooms with these pieces. Oh did I mention that you can save lots of money too??  

Here are some ideas to get you started or add to your existing portfolio!

Ways to upcycle jeans

Ways to upcycle old jeans

There are many great ideas on sites like Pinterest, but I want to share my love of using a ‘free motion’ or darning foot to not only repair ‘high wear ‘n’ tear’ areas but to embellish and embroider jeans (and other clothes). This has become very on trend with high fashion brand denims costing around £1,000, but you can do it for free! 

The benefit of a free motion foot is that you can sew in any direction or sketch with the machine, so on hard to reach areas like knees/trouser legs you can feed your jeans leg over the narrow working area of the machine and stitch! Stitch over a tear or add some appliqué patches. Create your own shapes or cut around existing prints (on cloth like flowers, birds, or re-use old embroideries).

TIP: tack on some reinforcing denim or similar underneath before you start. As a new hole or worn area emerges, add a patch!

Over time your denims become a work in progress, telling a story! My favourite jeans are five years down the road and looking like a painted lady! One day I will start adding denim to revert them back!!

There’s a guide to upcycling denim skirts on the Sewing Directory here. 

Ways to upcycle shirts

Turn a shirt into a dress

Shirts are fun to use as especially if you are new to sewing as shirting cotton is usually good quality and lovely and stable to experiment with. Shirts are in abundance in charity shops too, or watch out shirt owners in the family!

Upcycle a shirt into a skirt

Use the sleeves to make a pretty summer skirt. Cut down the under arm seam to open out the sleeve into a flat panel. Calculate your waist measurement to determine how many sleeves to stitch together and the depth of your seam allowance. The cuffs give a natural waist band. 

10 clothes upcycling ideas

Feeling adventurous? Join three shirts together to create a dress with button opening all the way down. Add a channel around the waistline for a drawstring belt and give some shaping! Or turn a large man’s shirt into a feminine top. Cut off the collar and sleeves by cutting in a straight line through the shirt under arm to under arm. Turn the sleeves into straps. Add channels to elasticate and shape the back panel.

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How to upcycle silk scarves

Ways to refashion old clothes

It was fun seeing the ‘Sewing Bee’ contestants creating lingerie from charity shop silk scarves on their alterations challenge, some great ideas came out! Prior to the airing of the show I had been experimenting with this approach myself and inspired by the wonderful Stitchless TV YouTube channel (I highly recommend following). Stitchless Tree has a great tutorial on creating a beautiful raglan style top from two vintage tourist scarves. I find many damaged scarves which gives an ideal opportunity for transformation into another garment or to use decoratively as appliqué.

How to upcycle a top

You could also combine a decorative scarf with a plainer item of clothing to give it fresh life. As shown with the top above. 

Ways to upcycle ties

How to upcycle old ties

I am fascinated by ties! I love the different designs and vibrant colours, how you can take a garish tie and patchwork with other ties and it turns into beautiful cloth!

TIP: Unpick to open out and maximise the fabric, remove the inner liner. I iron on a lightweight cotton stabiliser to reinforce and stop the tie distorting when you work with them (ties are cut on the bias). I have made many items from ties – tote bags, purses, cushions, even curtains!

Figuring Out Fashion’  

I recently contributed to a book called ‘Figuring Out Fashion’ (Fils Rouge Press) it provides practical advice from fashion stylist Jay Hunt on planning fashion shopping to achieve a fashionable and sustainable wardrobe in line with your budget.I offer 20 step-by-step exercises on how to re-use, adjust and re-make existing garments to fit and flatter. You can buy a copy from Fabrications. Here are some pointers from the book. 

 Getting a good fit: I’m sure most of you will be familiar with the traditional methods of ‘taking in’ a garment or adding darts to reduce volume. Using elastic is a fun, decorative alternative, either by creating a channel on the inside of the garment to thread elastic through or stitching directly onto the garment, using a 3-step zig zag (this does require some practise as you have to stretch the elastic while stitching, and support the back of the fabric behind the presser foot).

This technique can work well on waistbands where it is bulky or awkward to take in. To add volume, add inserts into existing seams. Sometimes you can find extra fabric inside a pocket (replace with another fabric) or in the hem turn up. Or consider making it a decorative feature.

10 easy ways to upcycle your clothes

 Removing Dated Detail: This involves being a seam detective and seeing if elements of a garment can be easily unpicked! I purchased a hand painted, tartan inspired silk dress from a charity shop. The dress had a pussy cat bow and pleated skirt – full on!! On closer inspection I realised I could easily unpick the skirt from the bodice (without unpleating it!) to create separate skirt & top. I unpicked the tie bow and added it to the bottom of the bodice and opened up the centre front to create a lightweight jacket! 

Accessories: Create your own removable collars, cuffs or epaulettes to spruce up a plain dress or top. These are lovely items to make or give as gifts. I enjoy making highly embellished ‘textile necklaces/bib style collars’ using found buttons, old jewellery pieces, labels, threads.

Remember me... Sewing memory items

How to sew memory items from old clothes

 I have been offering a special service for many years now at Fabrications called ‘Remember Me’ which enables people to bring along clothes and textiles which hold sentimental value and memories, often from lost loved ones. I work with the customer in transforming the items into comforting items and gifts such as cushions, quilts and bears. A key element of my cushions is to stitch the sleeves on to the back so the cushion can be ‘held’.

The process and holding of the object is very special and therapeutic to all involved.

Visit Barley’s website at www.fabrications1.co.uk

Memory cushions from Fabrications