5 Ideas to Upcycle Your Clothes When You Can't Donate Them


In the book The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt, there is a character who has an amazing bird costume made for a play. And you know what? He wears it to Halloween that year. And then again the next year. And then the following years, his sisters wear it. And then the neighbourhood families borrow it.

This book is set in 1950 – where the characters think about conservation, rather than consumption, of the objects they engage with every day.

It stunned me to read this, because, through a modern perspective, it seems baffling that he’d wear the same outfit multiple years in a row to the same event. But that’s because we’ve got a culture which is focused on consumption. We imagine the pressure of needing something “new to wear” when we are seen. High consumption has become normalised in our society: wear something once, then never again.

And we need to change the way we think. Not so we’re not spending money on things we don’t need, but for our environment.

And one thing we can do is change the way we think about fabric.

Rethinking how we consume fabric

When I was a teenager, I remember cleaning out my grandfather’s house as he moved into a nursing home. I remember my father shaking his head as he found drawers rubber bands my grandfather collected, which he had saved from groceries. The rubber hands had held vegetables like asparagus together. My dad said my grandfather never threw anything out, even rubber bands, with a Depression-era “waste not, want not” attitude.

But it’s something I’ve been trying to reconnect with. Because it’s actually not such a bad idea.

While we might not be financially limited the way people were in The Great Depression – we can’t afford to keep thinking wastefully because our planet just won’t survive if we keep it up.

Online, I came across this poster, the “Buyerachy of Human Needs” created by Sarah L: the idea that before you do anything, you see if you can use what you’ve got first.


Now, this is something that is actually a pretty big mental shift for me. I’m so used to buying things new when I need something. I am still getting used to borrowing things, but there’s no reason I can’t more actively use the things I have.

I feel like “reusing what you’ve got” is often seen as a negative trait. Perhaps in our consumerist, Instagrammable, money-focussed world, it’s seen that if you don’t buy something, it’s because you’re poor. And being poor is something which some people in our society seems to think is criteria by which you judge what someone is worth (it’s not).

According to The Millionaire Next Door, those who flash cash around and show off expensive products, often don’t actually have much wealth. Those who live on less than what they earn are more likely to have strong financial foundations. And one simple way to live on less than you earn? Use what you’ve got.

So, I want to become much better at reusing the things I already have. And, lucky for me, a great opportunity to do so came up recently.

RELATED: The Simple Formula to Ensure You’ve Got Stacks of Cash in Your Bank Account

Reusing Fabric

I recently did a clean out of my wardrobe. I have always donated my clothes to thrift shops, because I believe it’s essential to do what we can to help our local community, but also because sending clothing to landfill is such a waste. Did you know that it’s the second highest polluter in the world? Yikes.

After cleaning out my wardrobe, I sorted my clothes into:

  • KEEP: the ones I loved and wore a lot
  • DONATE: the clothes that were still in good condition but I didn’t wear because the cut wasn’t perfect on me (note to self: don’t buy things that will fit “one day!”)
  • DAMAGED: clothes that had a been worn through or damaged

I was going to throw out the damaged clothes, but I kept them aside because I thought there might be an opportunity to use the fabric in the future.

I recently started learning to bake my own bread, but I discovered that the reason people in cooking shows always wear aprons is that flour and dough are really hard to get out of your clothes! So, I was considering buying an apron. Now, this is where asking “can I use what I already have?” really came into play.

I thought about the clothes sitting in my thrift shop pile, and it occurred to me that I could just make an apron. At first, I was hesitant, because I don’t own a sewing machine.

But, undaunted, and always amazed by the resourcefulness of the internet, I found a “no-sew” apron on Youtube, where you just cut an old shirt a specific way and viola, an apron.

And so I made one. I made it from a t-shirt a friend gave me that didn’t quite fit. I loved the shirt because it reminded me of my friend, but didn’t wear it because it was too big. So now, a shirt that makes me happy because of sentimental reasons, but I didn’t wear, now has a new life as something that protects me while I bake.

Even more ideas for fabric

Across my Pinteresting, I’ve come across a few other uses for used fabric, including:

Now, if I had a sewing machine, it looks like there are a million more things I could do with my old clothes. And I love this blog with really practical ideas, like a no-sew rug, a cat toy, and pillow covers.

If you follow @happymessmag on Instagram, you might have spotted the story I posted a few weeks ago, where I upcycled some jeans. The thighs always wear through in my jeans long before the rest of them do (like any normal human, yes, I have thighs).

With the rest of the fabric being only a few months old, I wanted to see what I could create when I upcycled the jeans. Inspired by Pinterest, I tried to create a toy whale to give as a gift to my niece.

… But it’s didn’t turn out as planned.

Well, it’s certainly not like the one I saw online, but it does have it’s own charm to it! I actually really love it and it’s dorky smile makes me laugh.

Repurposing the things I own

This got me thinking about how to be a lot smarter about my giving the products I use a second life – not just fabrics, but everything.

I am still learning how to navigate this space, but I am seeing more and more that I can repurpose the things I already have in my possession, rather than buying something new. It’s just about thinking about things differently.

Some things I repurpose already:

  • I already reuse nearly all my glass jars either for use in storing food, or my DIY beauty products like dry shampoo.
  • If I receive paper and the back is blank, I tear it into quarters and use the flipside as shopping lists.
  • I collect cardboard boxes and toilet paper cores. I’m an aunt and having a steady collection of things for an emergency crafternoon is always wise!

The next steps from here to me is to reflect more actively whether I actually need to buy something when I’m shopping, or if I can repurpose something that I’ve already got.

It takes conscious and creative effort to think in a new way, but so far it’s been really interesting solving problems with things I think I need to buy, using what I own.

DIY Inspo

Instead of throwing out a worn through shirt or jeans, start a collection of fabrics which you can upcycle into other projects.

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