There’s a deep, dark corner at the back of every wardrobe – a place only abandoned clothes call home. These are the garments that are dusty, or broken, or boring. Maybe they’re sporting mysterious, stubborn stains. Or they could be never-worn-before, still with their tags – victims of a change of mind, or body.
It’s time to tackle the corner. And you have a few options.
You could Konmarie your closet. Strip it back to bare basics and sell, scrap or donate them. Or you could perform CPR.
Garment upcycling requires a little time, a little faith and sometimes high-level sewing skills. But a lot can be accomplished with a trip to the tailor, too. Here seven upcyclers of varying skills share how they transformed unloved items into pieces they actually wanted to wear.
From a McDonald’s uniform to festival flares
Cheianna Wilson, designer at Shy Denim
I have been sewing my own outfits, together with my mum, since I was young. So, after studying fashion communications at university, I started my own brand. It’s a one-woman show that I work on here in my little Sydney apartment. All of my pieces that I make are from recycled, secondhand denim.
My favourite pair of jeans are a set I made for Coachella. They were originally a part of my McDonald’s uniform, when I worked there back in the day. I then upcycled them by slitting them down the front and using an eyelet machine to create a corseting effect. I have since styled these with multiple other outfits. In my opinion, I turned them into a super cool, perfect pair of jeans.
Skills required: I’m still learning to sew along the way, and all this required was some basic sewing skills, access to an eyelet machine, and some creativity.
Cost: Most of my supplies I buy at fabric stores. The denim I source from markets, thrift stores or hand-me-downs from friends and family. The McDonald’s jeans I used for my original Coachella outfit were a part of my old uniform, so they were free.
Simple alternations that saved a twinset
Jan Fran, journalist and presenter
This is a hemmed skirt-and-top combo. It belonged to my mother, actually – she bought it in Tripoli, Lebanon, for her honeymoon, which was in Syria. So it is a very special two-piece. She has kept it in pristine condition for 36 years, she gave it to me and, basically, I had to get it altered.
It was a little bit too big. The skirt needed a little bit of taking in. And because it is this four-decades-old garment, the zipper was kind of coming undone, so I had to get a new zipper put in as well, just to make sure everything worked. It is 100% silk, so I didn’t want to be damaging that by pulling up a zipper too tightly.
I took it to an alterations place – someone who my friend recommended because she got her wedding dress altered there. It was such a special piece for me, I wanted to make sure it was altered by someone who wasn’t going to screw it up – and they didn’t, so that’s great!
Skills required: It was easy for me because I just dropped it off and then came back and picked it up.
Cost: It cost just over $100. So, for a free item, the most I spent on it was getting it altered. And ultimately, an item like that is just priceless, isn’t it?
Cloning a favourite button-up shirt
Andrew Carpenter, Papa Drew Shirts
It all started with one shirt I found in an op shop in 1995. I wore it until it practically fell off my back. I was so attached to the style, I unpicked it and had a pattern drafted, allowing me to make more.
My pattern had hung silently for about 15 years, as life got busy. Fast forward to now: slow fashion is here, upcycling is part of everyday life and being unique is celebrated. Using reclaimed fabric I find at op shops, and the pattern described above, I’ve started making shirts. I cut the shirt patterns myself, then get them sewn locally in Brisbane.
No two shirts are the same. It’s important to share the simplicity of the process with as many people as possible, from adults at markets to young children who’ll inherit the environment that’s been impacted by the spoils of fast fashion. I get my shirts made professionally now, and it doesn’t cost as much as you might expect.
I’ve come to realise that you don’t need to buy extravagant fabric to create a quality garment. It simply needs to incorporate good design, a good fit, and suit the personality of the wearer. There’s enough material in the world already.
Skills required: Unpicking, pattern following and basic sewing skills – or a tailor who can do this for you.
Cost: The best deal for op-shop fabrics you can find.
Dying and reviving a dirty suede bag
Alyx Gorman, Guardian Australia’s Lifestyle editor
I think Loewe hammock bags are beautiful. Unfortunately, I know paying a month’s rent for something that will wind up filled with crumbs is obscene, and also I couldn’t afford one. So I set up a sale alert on Vestiaire Collective (great for if you want something specific, secondhand) and when one came up for less than a tenth of its original price, I bought it, even though it was stained – and I hated the colour anyway.
Although they’re not as common as cobblers, you can find a good “bag spa” or “bag doctor” in most major cities. Many also provide their services by mail. Restoring a beaten-up handbag is a specialised skill, often requiring dye, deep-cleaning and even hardware replacement. This means a good bag spa is also capable of transforming a bag, not just scrubbing it up.
After some online sleuthing, I decided Doria Bag Spa would do a good job, and discussed what could be done to the bag. Originally I wanted the bag dyed forest green, but they advised me that choosing black instead would lead to better results. Getting it cleaned, dyed and treated with a dirt repellant cost more than I paid for the bag itself, but it turned an impulse buy into something I wear all the time. The suede stiffened slightly in the dying process but it quickly softened, and the end result is something that’s better-than-new.
Skills required: None, beyond a willingness to read Google reviews and pay someone talented for their time.
A school skirt that became a plaid vest
Georgia Robinson, fashion student
My high school kilt was worn only by the year 11 and 12 students – with a green blazer, cream blouse and brown shoes.
Both my mother and auntie wore the original kilt when they were students, too. And funnily, my mother came across the exact school kilt, in a size 16, at the local Vinnies. She purchased it for just $2, adjusted the waistband and it became my uniform.
In my last year of school, a new senior uniform was introduced. We all farewelled the checkered monstrosity and I was left with no one to pass the kilt onto.
I was about to embark on a degree in fashion design. Plus, I have always loved plaid. So I had some fun and gave the kilt a new life.
I decided to make a vest using a basic shirt block pattern. I loved the pleating of the kilt, and so I cut the back vest piece from the pleating. Eyeballing the garment, I reinforced the back of the vest by running a stitch across the pleats, approximately 16cm from the hem. This kept them in place, while creating a flare at the bottom of the vest.
The rest of the kilt was used for the front of the vest, along with interfacing for reinforcement. I lined the vest using scraps of a black-and-white checkered fabric that I had at home, and I also used black and white check buttons I had on hand.
Skills required: It was an easy process that drew on basic high school textiles pattern-making and sewing skills. I used a mixture of overlocking, machine and hand sewing. By keeping the pleats and hemline intact, I also saved time.
Cost: In total the project cost the use of a sewing machine, overlocker, remnants of fabric I had at home and the $2 my mother spent on the secondhand kilt from Vinnies.
A ‘thrift-flipped’ patchwork denim trenchcoat
Maddy Rawlings, the Essentials Club
The driving ethos of the Essentials Club is to make what you can from what you have, and ethically source the rest. One of my favourite upcycling projects is my thrift-flipped denim trenchcoat.
You can read the full instructions here. But, in short, this garment was brought to life by sourcing and joining together a few denim pieces that I was no longer wearing in their original form. I used a button-up short, a skirt and some jeans – all in slightly different denim washes.
Each of these were deconstructed, so they could then be patch-worked together to create the final oversized jacket. The button-up shirt became the base for the rest of the garment to be constructed around, which I did by removing the sleeves and trimming it mid-waistline. The jeans were trimmed down to the desired arm length, and each leg section was attached to the armhole of the shirt to form the sleeves. Then I figured out the final length, to be added to the bottom of the button-up shirt – and used an old skirt for this section. And that’s it! A simple solution to give these old pieces a new life.
Skills required: Unpicking, deconstructing and recutting old clothes, and patch-work sewing.
Cost: Free, made from dusty old denim that was already on-hand.
Transforming a sleeping bag into a puffer jacket
Allie Luecke, @allie.upcycles
I’m a size 14/16 with unreasonably large boobs that very rarely fit into any clothes off the rack (pun intended). @allie.upcycles is where I show people how to make their clothes fit better by letting out a seam, or Frankensteining two ill-fitting garments together, or creating a brand new piece from a garment that you love but just isn’t working for you any more.
I started the upcycling process for this piece where most of my upcycling processes begin: Brunswick Savers. I absolutely adore cropped puffer jackets, but the price tags on the nice ones always scare me away. Because sleeping bags are designed to hold up against the elements, they’re perfect for a coat.
The full tutorial is available to view on my IGTV, but here are my top tips:
Choose a sleeping bag with a separating zipper. I cannot stress this one enough.
Stay-stitch: sew along the perimeter of your pattern pieces before you attach any pieces together.
Use French seams: it sounds fancy, but just takes a bit of folding and a basic sewing machine.
Skills required: This is an intermediate project. I’d say the trickiest thing about this is the sheer number of layers of fabric involved. That and attaching the collar. Some experience in tracing existing patterns, sewing sleeves, working with French seams and lots of layers of fabric will help.
Cost: A thrifted sleeping bag – only $5.99 at Savers. And if it all goes wrong, you can always turn your first attempt into mittens for you and all your friends and try again.