You may already be familiar with the term ‘recycling’ and probably dutifully separate your plastic bottles, glass and paper from your trash and send them off to be transformed into some other useful product, giving them a new lease of life.
It’s a great concept that works for your home, but what if you applied that same principle to some of the clothes that you own but haven’t worn in ages. You know the ones that are stacked in piles or shoved at the back of your closet and haven’t seen the light of day? Or the clothes that you love but have unfortunately gone out of style? Do we toss them out like the daily trash?
How about we give them a second chance and ‘upcycle’ them?
‘Upcycling’ is one of those terms that hasn’t quite made it into the dictionaries just yet but refers to the process of taking a material beyond it’s original usefulness and making it more valuable and desirable. And this term perfectly describes the process of reinventing neglected or out-of-style items in your wardrobe.
People who are pretty crafty with a needle and thread and are very creative know that practically any old piece of clothing has the potential to become a new couture item. This reminds me of my high school days: taking clothes from vintage stores and second-hand shops, cutting them up, piecing them together with other clothes, and dying them to make them my own. Hand creating new styles was the only way for me and a lot of teenagers my age to maintain our individuality.
That idea still applies today and even more so as our spending limits have drastically reduced and most of us are keeping our wallets snapped shut. Who can afford to keep up with fashion trends or new seasonal outfits? Taking clothes that you already own, but don’t wear as often as you’d like and reinventing them is a great way to add ‘new’ pieces to your wardrobe, not to mention a great creative exercise.
As an added bonus, repurposing old clothes and fabrics even if they are curtains or pillowcases and making them into something else is one way to be be truly ‘green’ and eco-conscious.
Even if you don’t know the first thing about sewing, you can always partner up with someone who does; make it an afternoon or weekend event with your family or girlfriends. Why not host an ‘upcyclying party’ and have everyone bring in a few pieces of clothing they want to upcycle and trade amongst each other. You will definitely open up an infinite amount of possiblities and could even be in process of making some new trends.
Decontruct dresses, T-shirts and jeans. Piece together 2 wrap scarves of different colors to have a bi-color hijab. Bead or embellish a plain top. Dye some of your pieces with new colors or try your hand at an ombré dye effect that shows one color blending into another. Take adult clothing and make it into children’s clothing. The ideas really are endless!
But just because it sounds like a home craft project doesn’t mean it has to look like one. These newly reinvented pieces can stand up to any runway look as long as you take care and finish them well.
The ‘upcycle box’
I usually keep a large plastic box at home where I toss clothes, fabric, embellishments, and other odds and ends I want to upcycle. When I get a free weekend or even a few hours, I will sit down with my ‘to-be-upcycled’ clothes and decide what parts of each garment I want to save and think about what I could make out of them. I may sit down with some patterns, look at magazine pictures, or even start sketching out some possibilities. Maybe I like the cut of a certain top, but now want to make it into a cute short sleeve top to wear at home. Or I may like the sleeves on one top and want to change them for the sleeves on another top and play with the contrasting prints and fabrics.
My latest upcycling project was to give new life to a silk and cashmere sweaterdress that I have. I had bought it hoping that it would be long enough for my tall frame but unfortunately the sizing was wrong. Instead of hitting my ankles it hit mid-calf. What I was hoping for was a long ankle length sweaterdress and what I got was a long sweater – I wasn’t thrilled. I didn’t want this expensive sweater to just sit in my closet and to return it would have cost more than the sweater. I tried to wear it with trousers, but the outfit looked odd and bulky. So I decided to get out my cutting shears and do something about it. And oh yes, when upcycling, do not be afraid to cut up expensive material. That is part of the thrill of reinventing your clothes, to see what you can make out of them in the end.
The best thing that I could do with a sweaterdress with an awkward length was to make it into a tunic length and give the sweaterdress a Trapeze cut so that I could wear trousers underneath. I decided to make this a handsewing project, given the delicate nature of the knit and because I love the process of sewing by hand. If you are working with knits in any of your upcycyling projects, you can use a sewing machine if you have the right needles, thread, and experience with knits.
First, I cut the sweaterdress to just below my knees, then I cut open the side seams. I then made side seam panels out of the hem that I had cut off the dress. I stitched the panels into the side seams with overcast stitches or a zigzag chain stitch that would give it stretch and flexibility. After sewing in the panels, I stitched the hem using a blindstitch hem. Believe me, I tried the top on several times before it was actually finished because I was just so anxious to see how my project was progressing. I was so happy that I didn’t have to give it away or toss it, I just had to give it a new look.
My new garment is very feminine and subtle with a V-neck, straight slim sleeves, then it opens into a swinging Trapeze cut and hits just below the knees. The sweater doesn’t have a wide, tent effect, but hangs from my body with small fluid folds. To finish it off, I will be adding a large organic deconstructed rosette to the shoulder like a 1940’s corsage made out of all of the scraps.
However, I wore the top out recently without the corsage because I was so anxious to wear it. The first sister I happened to run into kept staring at my sweater while talking to me and then cut me off mid-sentence and asked me if I was selling my top!
I was thrilled! This goes to show you that repurposing your wardrobe can lead to some interesting results. So, what will you be upcycling today?
Tabassum is Head Designer at SHUKR and is based in a small town in Andalucía, Spain with her husband. And when she is not busy designing, writing, or knee-deep in other creative projects, she and her husband take groups on tour of Al-Andalus.