When talking about a whole new wardrobe capsule, it wouldn’t be a full conversation if we didn’t really dig into textile waste, fast fashion and upcycling. At the the most basic level, wardrobe capsules are about thoughtful planning to optimize your wardrobe.
For the most part, sewists are so solidly in the anti-fast fashion camp it’s a little like that elementary school experiment with pepper and dish soap. We cannot abide the same space as disposable fashion.
But let’s dig into upcycling a bit, shall we? I mean, there’s a whole, entire universe of DIY websites that slobber all over upcycling like it’s the secret of life. Up to and including Joanna Gaines and shiplap and, as I just learned researching this article, H&M’s recycled denim project.
I mean, I can’t even.
So as I was wrapping my mind around this post, I made a few notes. Trust me, we’ll get to techniques in a jiffy, but first. Why are we even bothering to upcycle? Is it all about saving the planet?
Top Four Reasons to Upcycle Clothing/Fabric
Sustainability — Let’s get this elephant out of the room, shall we? We have a fairly large problem in the textile/fashion industry, of which us sewists are a small part. There. Is. So. Much. Waste. The waste comes about in two big buckets.
- Fast Fashion and Discarded Clothes (post-consumer waste) — I found this super interesting article that covers some of the biggest troublemakers (big fashion-focused mall stores) trying to ameliorate the effects of the bazillion cheap t-shirts they sell every year. What’s interesting is not only the obvious problems of dealing with tons and tons of no-longer-worn clothing but a little glimpse into the odd world of donations. Yes, there’s a pile for your super cool stuff and donated vintage Levis or a funky army jacket might very well end up in a high-end thrift shop in Brooklyn, whereas the cold-weather stuff goes to eastern Europe and Africa gets the donated garments that nobody wants.
- Construction Waste (pre-consumer waste) — This is the bucket that we are all familiar with as home sewists. What, in this great green earth, do we do with all the scraps leftover after cutting our patterns? As home sewists trying to figure out what to do with your scraps, multiply that a thousand-fold to get an idea of what the textile industry has to deal with. Of course, clothing manufacturers are in it to win it, and as such, don’t love wasting fabric with bad markers (the pattern layout). That said, us fabric types tend to waste a lot of fabric.
Alright, god’s green earth out of the way, let’s touch on a few other reasons why we might dig a bit of upcycling…
Fixing It — Everyone raise your hand… who’s got a garment your closet that you never wear because it was a bad purchasing decision, a bad pattern decision or because you’ve dramatically changed size or comfort with a style you used to love.
I’m about 99% sure that we all just raised our hands. Closets get littered with duds over the years. For those of us who didn’t grow up sewing and wear ‘non-standard’ sizes, there’s a string of almost good enough garments — right style, wrong color or vice versa — that we bought due to limited options. There are finished me-mades that just ended up… not great. Not bad enough for the wadder pile, but not something that gets worn. And sometimes we just move to a new size or get more comfy with a new style, leaving a dud in the closet. I have a teal wool crepe sheath dress that I made in my Mad Men fervor that not only doesn’t fit the way I’d like, but I have zero places to wear it. But… teal wool crepe! HOW CAN I GET RID OF THAT?
This is where upcycling can be our friend.
Great Fabrics For Less — If you jump in and get inventive, upcycling from thrift is an awesome way to work with fabrics that you might be hesitant to pay for in straight yardage. Or can’t even source in straight yardage.
I love, love, love cashmere. I wear it year round. I have a ratty, mid-thigh length grandpa cardi that’s mustard yellow and we lovingly refer to as my ‘sleeping sweater’ that I wouldn’t be caught dead in outside the house, but it’s soft, smooshy cashmere and I snuggle up in it most nights. I have a hankering for silk and wool tweed and have built up quite the collection of denim thrifted garments to use to make into… something else. With thrift shop prices between $3 and $10 for most garments, you can get a few yards for a steal compared to fabric shop, off the bolt prices.
Save Time — This is for you layered, dress-wardrobe lovers like me (and the rest of you too)… sometimes thrifted garments just save us time. I tend to wear a longer ‘slipdress’ (sleeveless dress, around calf length) under a more fitted ‘frock’. Those slip dresses are super boring to sew and the thrift stores are packed full of rayon challis castoffs that are perfect for a layered wardrobe. I never, ever wear an unaltered thrift find — I add a few tucks, gathers and ruffles — but it’s a lot easier and quicker to embellish an already-made garment. Plus, in line with the previous point, a lot of these garments are constructed from hard-to-find or pricey fabrics that would be hard to source as yardage to make a 100% me-made version of the same thing.
Top Upcycling Ideas
Piecing and yardage
Head out to the thrift shop (or your closet) and think more in terms of yardage instead of altering. Dresses and roomy shirts likely have between one to three yards of usable fabric. I love to find the rather conservative denim shirtdresses with long, full skirts. Not only is there a ton of usable fabric in dresses like that, there’s also cool button plackets, collars, and pockets to integrate into your upcycle.
When looking for denim dresses, I have a particular love for funky printed denim. I recently made a fun pair of bloomers from upcycled denim shirtwaists and button up shirts, integrating the bodice as the button-front and the button plackets from two shirts for a fun detail on the back of the legs.
I also love to play with denim and bleach. This dress was a rather dowdy shirtwaist that I crumpled up and soaked in bleach for a few days to get a cool pattern and then added a bit of ruching to the hem to add some volume and swing. Now it’s a little less school marm circa 1988 and more funky-western-steampunk outerwear for spring nights.
If you’re looking for yardage, wander outside the clothing section. Not only do most thrift shops have a fabric section (although the fabrics are usually pretty icky, in my experience) but the linen section can be a treasure trove of great yardage. Duvets and sheets are a few yards each and look at the tableclothes and curtains as well. I hoard curtains trimmed with Battenburg lace.
Here’s a cardigan made from a vintage crocheted table cloth…
And my wedding ensemble, with a train and sleeve/hem detail fashioned from a Battenburg lace curtain.
Layering Pieces and Wardrobe First Aid
As I already mentioned, one of my favorite reasons to upcycle is to save time. I like to devote my sewing time to fun things that I can’t get any other way. But I also like to wear a lot of basic layering pieces and who wants to spend time making boring stuff, right?
A good middle of the road option for those of us looking for layering pieces is to head to the thrift shop. Most shops are packed full of 90’s era floral tank dresses that are usually long, shapeless and more often than not, show off a good bit of underarm bra. These dresses are $3 or $4 a piece where I live and are perfect as a foundation piece.
Here’s a slip dress that I had in my stash and matched perfectly with the green linen Sew Tina Givens tunic I made last fall. Full disclosure, this outfit was worn once (by me) for photos and then I gave to my mom for Christmas. I love how well the fabrics look together and it was great to get a whole ‘ensemble’ pulled together in one day.
I also keep an eye open for dresses that button from neck to hem. I love this style as a layering piece — they were definitely more popular in the 90’s, so there’s usually a few good, floral, flowy finds to be hunted down in the shops! In this photo, the full button thrifted dress has a few pickups for fun plus I recut and hemmed the neckline. It’s worn over a thrifted linen dress that I split the skirt on, added vintage crocheted trim and filled in the split with some more vintage linen with crocheted trim — I believe it was originally a curtain panel.
Upcycling is also a great option to fix poor buying (or sewing) decisions that yielded never-working garments hogging up closet space. Here’s a dress that my mom bought online — she actually bought two of the same dress and neither fit well. I wasn’t able to salvage the arms because they were very tight with giant armsyces, but I think the final remake is fun and totally wearable with a layering tank under or cardigan over.
Remade knits are my favorite thriftventure by far. I love cardigans and wear them year round. I tend to get cold and have learned to never leave the house without a cozy coverup. Even though I’m a knitter, I don’t knit myself sweaters. I’m more of a quick and easy sock knitter than a darnit-I-forgot-where-I-was sweater knitter.
I obsessively buy cashmere sweaters at thrift shops. I have a fairly good hand for cashmere and can usually find one or two good finds on thrift shop runs. There’s a ton of less expensive cashmere in the market from Banana Republic, Ann Taylor and my personal favorite, LL Bean. Over the past few years of moving around I’ve noticed that college towns are usually a great place to find thrifted cashmere, so if you live in a university area… lucky you! Don’t forget the men’s section — I’ve had great luck finding larger sized cashmere in the men’s section, although the colors are usually fairly drab.
Most cashmere in thrift shops tends to be of the crew neck of v-neck variety. But it’s SUPER easy to convert a pullover to a cardigan. A few tips for crewneck conversions:
- Cut off the ribbing at the hem carefully, save, then use to finish shortened sleeve or body hems.
- I usually skip buttons and button holes, but if you’d like, use grosgrain ribbon as a ‘facing’ and to stabilize the placket. It’ll make it a lot easier to add button holes and secure buttons with the extra firmness to the fabric.
- Knits are pretty easy to work with — the ‘finer’ the knit (looks more like a t-shirt, less like a big wool sweater), the less finishing you really need to do. For a traditional cashmere crewneck you could even just cut/shorten carefully with sharp scissors and leave unfinished.
- Starting with a men’s sweater and want it more fitted? You can reduce the size by turning inside out and sewing from the wrist to the underarm along the existing seam. Pivot and stitch from the underarm to the body hem, again following the existing side seam. Quick and easy way to tighten up a too-loose sweater!
Here are two of my favorite cashmere crew to cardi projects. The white sweater was the same style as the green prior to my sweater surgery.
Sweater surgery works for more bulky knits as well. I had two sweater dresses in my closet that I bought at Lane Bryant, hoping to wear with leggings, but I always kind of hated them because of giant cowl necks and strange, loose, elbow length sleeves. Here’s the before and after of the green sweater dress remade to a simple cardi. I tightened up the sleeves using the method mentioned above, cut a scooped neckline and hand-hemmed with a simple turn-and-whipstitch, and added a button loop made from scraps and a vintage button. Love that this previously-never-worn sweater dress is now a great, basic, wearable staple!
Resize with clever inserts
Another way to upcycle is to use clever inserts to make for a better fit. This is a photo of a recent make of mine — a Cashmerette Concord T that I cut a bit long to allow for a funky hemline. Once I cut the hem, I wasn’t happy with how the fabric was getting hung up on my bloomers. It actually was more about the fabric (super thin, clingy knit) than the fit, but my solution worked. I added inserts made from thrifted doilies for a bit of extra room. While this is technically on a new-made item, the concept works for thrifted duds as well!
My Thrift Shop Must-Buy List
In addition to being a sewing junkie, my husband and I have an antique shop at the B&B where we live, so we find ourselves at thrift shops, junk shops, estate sales and the like quite often. Here’s my textile list that I have in my head and look for whenever we find ourselves shopping secondhand…
- Denim or floral rayon dresses that are 2X or larger. Will pay up to $6 or so for most, as long as I like the colors.
- Anything silk, linen or velvet and under $7 — I’ll usually bring it home.
- Wool suits/suit jackets — one warning, I’ve gotten burned on this more than once. Wool holds the smell of smoke FOREVER. Give wool garments the sniff test. Then give the sniff test again.
- Cashmere. Anything.
- Any stretch lace shirt or tank. Fun for trims, cuffs and the like.
- Wool sweaters — this isn’t as much about clothing upcycles, but I will always buy a wool fisherman’s sweater if it’s in good condition. Great for pillows!
- Lace, trim or binding tape. Extra points if vintage and/or handmade.
- Basic fabrics that can be used for making muslins from the ‘craft’ section of the thrift shop.
- Vintage crocheted yardage — tablecloths and the like. I’m sort of picky and usually will only buy hand crocheted, which is usually an antique shop find more than a thrift shop find.
- Doilies or vintage napkins — great for trim, accents, and patches.
- Duvets, curtains, sheets and shower curtains. It’s always worth checking out the household linen section. Most of what I find tends to be a poly blend, which I’m not personally a fan of. I usually like the fabrics of curtains and shower curtains more than sheets and duvets!
So how can you work upcycled thrifted or in-your-closet garments into your wardrobe capsule to save time, money or rescue a poor closet orphan from a lonely, unworn existence?