Up-cycling clothes for unique personalised fashion: easier than you might think


Do you get tired of seeing articles that ask what you’re buying and what you’re throwing away at the start of each fashion season? Most of us can’t afford to buy a completely new set of outfits several times a year, and throwing clothes away is wasteful. What’s more, following fashion in this way leads to everybody looking the same. Up-cycling your older clothes can give you a whole new look that’s unique, with very little waste and a lot less expenditure.

Basic alterations

Thirty years ago, almost everybody knew how to repair damaged clothes. The art of sewing has gradually been lost, and is only re-emerging now as a consequence of recession and excitement about programmes like The Great British Sewing Bee. If you’re a newcomer to it, it can seem like there’s an awful lot to learn, but take it step by step and you’ll find it’s not especially difficult. Most basic alterations and fixes only take ten minutes to learn and a few hours of practice to perfect.

Over the past 30 years, new technologies have emerged that make sewing even easier than it used to be. Most sewing machines can now produce a huge range of stitch types and some can sew things like buttonholes automatically (though you’ll have to set the size). Wonder-Web makes it easy to stick fabric where you might previously have needed stitches, and it can also be used to reinforce stitching.

Fitting for your changing figure

The most common reason people need to alter their clothes is to take account of their changing proportions over time. There are a number of little tricks that are effective for resizing garments.

  • Getting bigger – Adjust waistbands by stitching a suitable length of stiff ribbon with a buttonhole in it in place of an existing buttonhole. Adjust dresses with zips in the back by replacing those zips with eyelets on both sides, so the dress can be laced up. Insert panels of contrasting fabric in place of strained seams on shirts, skirts and trousers. If shirts are tight across the back, take out any darts and simply wear them open over vests, t-shirts or dresses.
  • Getting thinner – Simple darts are great for taking in shoulders and waistlines, but they can be a bit tricky to get right, so practice first on scraps. If you have an old skirt that’s much too big, consider running elastic through the waistband so you can make it tighter but adjustable – always use the broadest piece of elastic that will fit, as a narrow band will dig into you uncomfortably. If you need to shorten trousers, roll the bottoms inwards to create a new hem – remember to measure first so you do them evenly. Where possible, tack clothes into their new shape and then try them on before making permanent changes.

Getting equipped

Although there are a few things you can do with just a needle and thread, if you’re serious about this you’re really going to need a decent sewing machine, a number of spools of thread, a tape measure, tailor’s chalk (for marking before you cut), good scissors, a variety of needles, pins, a quick unpicker, and lots of bits and pieces like buttons and zips. Buying all this at once can be expensive, so it’s a good idea to look on and ask around your friends and relatives to source things second-hand.

One garment to another

If you love the fabric in a particular garment but are bored of it in its current form, you may be able to rework it into something else. This can begin with simple things like cutting the arms off t-shirts or hacking down jeans to make them into shorts. It’s easy to create a waistcoat from an old shirt and use lacing or an adjustable band to tighten it up at the back if necessary. There’s often enough material in a skirt to make a simple top, while patterned tights with the feet cut off and the crotch cut out make striking mesh tops for wearing under things (they’re also great insulation if worn under jumpers in winter). When you switch garment types like this, the most important things to think about are the texture of the fabric and how it will hang.

Uses for leftovers

When you’re up-cycling clothes, nothing needs to be wasted. Even the smallest scraps can be saved for stuffing cushions. Other odd bits of fabric can be used as patches to brace garments from the inside where you’ve mended a rip or a split seam, or can be used to make patchwork skirts or quilt covers. Always save oddments of lace or ribbon, and hoard your old buttons, as you may find uses for them elsewhere. It’s easy to make a plain garment look more exciting through the judicious application of bits and pieces like this.

Social sewing and swaps

Reinventing your wardrobe is much more fun if you have people to show it off to, and it’s also fun to share the creative process, so why not organise sewing meets with your friends? They’re a great chance to exchange hints and tips and talk about your new ideas and discoveries. If you find the designing bug bites you, they’ll also give you a wider range of body types for which to design.

Alongside sewing meets, consider getting together with your friends for clothing swaps. You may find garments you love just as they are and you’ll certainly find things that spark your imagination.

Where to learn more

Although you may no longer be able to learn the skills from your parents that they might have learned from theirs, in terms of the availability of tutorials there has never been a better time to learn to sew. Websites like Sew Can She and So Sew Easy provide fantastic beginner-level advice on all sorts of useful techniques – all you have to do is watch, read and practice!

In 2012, over 14 million tons of textiles were sent to landfill. That’s something we can put an end to. Up-cycling your clothes is fun, easy, good for you and good for the planet.

Sewing items photo from Shutterstock

This article has 11 comments


    I was taught to sew & knit/crochet in primary school and it’s a skill that I use regularly as I’m a firm favourite of charity shops. Even changing the buttons on vintage clothes can completely change their appearance. I’m no expert though and have been known to resort to staples, sellotape & super glue so many thanks for the websites.

  2. Penny

    I love the idea of this. When I had just left school and was much poorer I frequently made minor adjustment to my clothes (usually for the dreaded ‘getting bigger’ reason, hehe), but I guess once money wasn’t quite so tight I got lazy and fell out of the habit.

    With summer coming up though, this seems like a good idea to have a little wardrobe review. I don’t have a sewing machine, but I’m pretty sure there’s a few items I could apply that ‘stiff ribbon with a button hole’ to and give something a new lease of life 🙂

  3. Jemma @ Celery and Cupcakes

    Upcycling is such a great way to reinvent and use up old clothes to save money.

  4. Laura

    I absolutely love this idea! I’ll definitely be holding on to more clothes!

  5. Cazi

    Great ideas, i just wish I was better at sewing; maybe I should make this year the year I learn it would be so useful!

  6. Carol Peace

    Fabulous idea’s and tips

  7. Annaloa Hilmarsdottir

    Thank you so much, you have given me some great ideas. It’s true, we are now so accustomed to buying cheap clothes that we have forgotten the old tricks.

  8. Suzanne McC

    I love upcycling and adding quirks to clothes – I’m currently doing quite a few and intend to make a business out of it in the near future.

  9. Ann Cluck

    Upcycling is new to me and my sister and I are really into it. I will have to share this with her!!

  10. Su Tyler

    I used to up-cycle clothes for my two sons. I’ve also made storage bags from old jeans, cushion covers from old sweaters.

  11. esther james

    Some really great tips here, I must go and get a sewing machine!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.