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7 Easy Ways to Upcycle Clothes and Better the Planet in the Process

Don't toss out your worn-out tees! Learning how to upcycle clothes is easy. Use these fun ideas to transform your old clothes.

Written by
Michelle Gunawan

Upcycling is the creative transformation of a used-up product into something that can be of value again. And if you’re looking to upcycle clothes, you probably already know it’s an excellent way to combat a little something called fast fashion.

First thing's first: What is fast fashion, exactly? Here's a quick breakdown: Fast fashion brands manufacture and sell clothing at quick rates and low prices, making it widely accessible and affordable. Unfortunately, that comes with huge costs to people and the planet. It has an extremely degrading impact on the environment and often violates workers' human rights. The fashion industry is notorious for exploiting predominantly female POC garment workers.

As for the planet, the environmental effects are disastrous. Not only does fast fashion promote overproduction and consumption, which are both dangerously unsustainable. It also contributes to enormous amounts of waste: 85% of all textiles wind up in landfills every year. Sadly, that's just the beginning: There's also water waste, plastic packaging, chemical pollutants, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Luckily, there’s a great alternative to buying into fast fashion: upcycling your old clothing. Refraining from contributing to the fashion industry can notably reduce your carbon footprint. Instead, by learning how to upcycle clothes, you can increase the lifespan of your current wardrobe. (Pro tip: If your clothing is too worn out to wear or donate, consider textile recycling.)

There are tons of creative ways you can upcycle old clothes. Here's how to take advantage of the versatility of the textiles, and make the most of what you have.

7 Fun Ways to Upcycle Clothes

1. Cutting and Sewing

A pair of scissors, a needle, and a thread can easily transform a piece of clothing into something new entirely. Perhaps you’ve thrifted a t-shirt several sizes too large, or you own a pair of jeans that have always been too long on you. Simply cropping your clothing can suddenly make them fit better―and look trendier!

Similarly, cutting up the fabric of old clothes and sewing them together can create brand-new pieces. Though sewing fabrics can be a little bit complicated, it's relatively easy to learn. You can follow online guides that provide simple instructions and patterns that can be used to fix up an old shirt into a new tank top, sun hat, and much more.

2. Embroidery

The art of embroidery is easy to pick up and is a great creative outlet. With just a needle, thread, and embroidery hoop, you can embroider any design you’d like onto your old clothing―a flower on a pair of jeans, the name of your hometown on a hoodie, the silhouette of your cat on an old bucket hat. You name it.

Adding embroidery to your clothes will give them a personal touch of originality. It also transforms an unworn piece into something you'll be excited to begin incorporating into your outfits again.

3. Painting

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Unleash your artistic side by painting graphics and designs of your choice onto old clothes. Just like embroidery, this allows you to personalize your clothes and give something a brand-new look.

Painting is also a great way to cover up old spills and stains, or simply to brighten things up by adding a pop of color to your wardrobe. This works best when using acrylic paint on clothing of a thicker material, such as denim and canvas.

4. DIY Hair Materials (Scrunchies and More!)

Do you have leftover fabric from cutting up an old t-shirt? Instead of letting it go to waste, turn it into a matching hairpiece. These pieces of fabric can easily be used to create a new scrunchie (with the help of an elastic and some sewing) or can even be turned into a headband. If you’re looking for a simpler means of creating a hair accessory, you can also use extra fabric as a bow.

5. DIY Reusable Towels

If you have clothes you don’t want to wear and can't fix, a great alternative is to turn them into a reusable kitchen towel. Cut your clothing into square or rectangular pieces―based on your preference―and fold them up for storage in the kitchen.

The kitchen is where you're probably most likely to use single-use paper towels. Use these reusable towels in place of unsustainable paper options to clean up spills and wipe things clean. If you’re willing to take an extra step, you can easily sew a trim on the raw edges of the cloth, giving the towel a more store-bought appearance.

6. DIY Plant Holder

If you have a plant in need of a pretty fabric plant holder, grab an old t-shirt. This no-sew method simply requires you to cut your tee into strips then use some knotting skills to tie them together. Grab our step-by-step guide here.

7. DIY Reusable Food Wraps

Similarly to making reusable towels, you can also turn your old clothes into reusable food wraps―specifically, beeswax food wraps. To make them, simply iron shreds of beeswax onto your desired fabric, wait for it to dry, and then they’re ready for use.

These wraps are relatively easy to make and will save you from using single-use plastic food wraps every time you store your food. Over time, using these food wraps will save lots of plastic waste, both reducing your carbon footprint and giving your old clothes a new purpose.