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Here’s how to recycle clothes and renovate your wardrobe

A woman cuts clothes with garment bags behind her into garbage bags.

Halima Garrett has made wrap pants out of a vintage skirt and real estate sale fabric. He became interested in upcycling because of his large collection of vintage clothing that he has collected over the years. Photo courtesy of Halima Garrett

Have you ever looked at the bottom of your closet and thought, “I have absolutely nothing to wear?”

If your normal inclination is to look down on what you already have, it turns out there is a better way, and it doesn’t involve buying anything new. Enter the world of upcycling.

Here’s how to recycle clothes and create a whole new wardrobe (sort of).

First, what is upcycling?

The term ‘recycling’ comes from the idea of ​​recycling an old item, but with a twist. Recycling is not just reusing something, but adjusting that item to make it better than before.

A recycled garment often bears little resemblance to its former state. Take Colorado-based designer Maggie Henricks from Create Good Company. She makes groom skirts with men’s dress shirts. With patterns ranging from plaid and polka dots to bright Hawaiian flowers, Henricks’ designs are an interesting cross between men’s and women’s fashion norms.

Halima Garrett, who runs Thread of Habit from New Jersey, got into recycling because of her love of vintage clothing. Garrett had accumulated so much clothing over the years that he just didn’t know what to do with it. Finally, he decided that the best option was to rework a few pieces.

Even though she calls her sewing skills “basic,” Garrett was able to make wrap pants out of a vintage skirt and real estate sales fabric. In fact, their website features a complete lingerie collection – each reworked piece contains at least one vintage lingerie item.

A woman creates a new outfit with an old skirt and an old purple shirt.
Garrett combined the fabric of two old garments to create the outfit on the right. Photo courtesy of Halima Garrett

Here’s the best part about recycling – your clothes will be one of a kind. And if you want to give a friend an inexpensive gift that they will appreciate, recycling an item for them is a great idea. You don’t even need to have a sewing machine, and all of these DIY projects can be done from your own home. It has an exclusiveness that might be enough to make even the least inclined person to sew want to recycle clothes.

For those of us who don’t want to sell our recycled clothing but do want to wear it, Garrett and Henricks have some tips and tricks for taking your grandma’s nightgown, or whatever you want to remake, from scruffy to elegant.

1. Know what to save and what to cut.

If you’re working with vintage clothing or just old clothes in your closet, Garrett advises evaluating what you’re cutting before taking the scissors to your favorite jeans.

If an item has underarm stains or a hole that is too large to repair, by all means cut it off.

But if you’ve salvaged a pre-1970s item from Goodwill containers and want to retain its original quality, it may be best to choose a different item to recycle. The same goes for an item with sentimental value. Ask your mom, and yourself, before cutting her old wedding dress.

2. Start Simple.

Garrett has shown that it is possible to recycle old clothing without the skills of an advanced seamstress. The easiest way to dip your toes in recycled clothing is to start small. Try cutting a pair of pants into shorts or cutting a long-sleeved shirt into a short-sleeved shirt.

3. Use your wardrobe for inspiration.

Is there something in your closet that you love? Would you love to replicate it? That’s a great place to start recycling. Use the garment you love as a model for how you want another garment to fit. Or if you like the color scheme of an outfit, consider wearing that combination on a recycled piece. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Another way to reimagine what you already have is by looking at what something could be if it were a different type of garment. Love the fabric of a dress but hate the fit? Make it a two-piece ensemble with a tank top and skirt. Tired of your old jeans but they still fit? Try sewing a knee-length fabric patch.

4. Look at your old clothes as part of a whole, not as a single garment.

Henricks always thinks of any item as different pieces of fabric rather than a shirt, skirt, or dress. That helps her get inspired.

Measuring the size of your garment can help you think of a way to creatively rework it. And if you don’t have enough to make something new with one piece, consider combining several into one.

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“It’s important to think about what it is now,” says Henricks, “and focus more on the fabric and the patterns that you have available in the material.”

5. Youtube tutorials are your friends.

Youtube videos are usually the best place to start for any technical skill. Garrett recommends looking for tutorials on “seamless recovery cycle” or “minimal sewing recovery cycle”.

The fact that there are videos under that designation shows that it is possible to recycle without sewing. Three of Garrett’s favorites are BlueprintDIY’s Angelina, Mimi G Style, and Shania O. Mason.

6. When seeking guidance, be as specific as possible.

When looking at the part you want to redo, think about what specifically you want to change. Do you want to cinch the top or the pants? Do you want to put slits in a dress?

Once you have a tentative visual in mind, it will be easier to search online for guidance. You can then find a specific tutorial online with the exact modifications you want to make.

7. When you find your niche, stick with it.

Have you had success reworking an article? You don’t necessarily have to diversify. Stay there and see what else you can do within that framework.

Henricks focuses on the field of men’s dress shirts. And she has found ingenious ways to upcycle different looks – not only does she make groom skirts out of shirts, but she also makes dog collars out of shirt and blouse collars. She is a great example that finding your fashion lane and sticking to it can spark some of the most inventive and creative ideas.



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