What is Upcycling?

My projects for the 2015 Refashioners project.

Upcycling is a movement that is getting more and more popular with the sewing community. We’re all familiar with recycling, but what is upcycling?
The dictionary definition of upcycling is to “reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original”. That phrase “higher quality or value” is the key to upcycling and that’s where the creativity of the sewist comes in.

Examples of Upcycling

One of the biggest upcycling events in the sewing community is Portia Lawrie’s annual “The Refashioners” challenge. Each year Portia sets a theme for the challenge; this year it was jeans, last year it was shirts. Every summer sees dozens of sewing bloggers and hundreds of home sewers creating amazing things from old clothes and I think the restriction of the project to just one garment type sets the creativity bar even higher.

refashioners 2016A small selection of this year’s Refashioners projects to be found under the #therefashioners2016 hashtag on Instagram.

Personally I’ve been interested in upcycling and textile recycling since the end of my fashion degree in 2000, an interest I managed to continue working on during an MA.

Some of the work I made during my MA.

I managed to incorporate some of this work into my teaching and ran a successful community outreach adult education course for 3 years where I introduced lots of adults to upcycling. We made accessories, home furnishings and even new fabrics from old clothes, using lots of different textile techniques from weaving, knitting and pompom making to general sewing skills.

applique bag

Some of the work created by my students during my outreach community adult education teaching.

Upcycling is something that also seems to go down well with kids and I taught a few upcycling projects when I was doing my teacher training. I think it may have something to do with the novelty of being allowed to chop up clothes….!

This autumn I’ve been working with a local Brighton charity: The Martlets, on an upcycling project to encourage people to do more with their old clothes and to think of the clothes for sale in their charity shops as a potential fabric source, as well as just a source of new clothes.

I’ve come up with a range of easy accessories that I’ve written detailed guides for how to make, some of which I have put together as a mini e-book which is now available to download for free here.

We deliberately timed this project for the run up to Christmas, which can be a stressful time for people both in terms of time and finances. What better alternative to spending hours racing around the shops spending money you don’t have, than to spend a few hours crafting a unique gift? A process that will also make you feel infinitely calmer than fighting the crowds in the shops!

handmade purse handmade accessories handmade accessoriesSome of the upcycled accessory projects I created for the Martlets.

Why Upcycle

As a society we have developed a horribly disposable attitude to clothing, giving very little thought to the people and processes that went into making them, let alone what happens to them once they’re discarded, often having only been worn a few times.
We generate tons of textile waste every year and the clothes we discard either end up in landfill or charity shops and unsold charity shop stock goes to places like Africa.
Just look at this graphic which clearly shows the impact of the cycle, recently shown in Brighton museum at an excellent exhibition “Fashion Africa” :

textile recycling
There’s lots of evidence that this isn’t necessarily good for local textile economies in African countries and actually makes it difficult for local communities to establish their own textile industry and culture. Clothes say a lot about the wearer and are an important part of identity and this dumping of our textile waste in a way forces our identity onto cultures that are completely different to our own. Having said all that there are local designers who are doing their own upcycling of our cast-offs, a great example is the work of designers Too Many Siblings based in Nairobi.

As a maker, limiting your materials forces you to be even more creative – you can’t just go out and buy anything you want, you have to find interesting ways to work with what you have. I love the challenge of turning something considered waste into something of value again. Weirdly, I also find it easier to work within tight restrictions, it stops my mind wandering off questioning if I’m using the best fabric, whether something else would work better. When decisions and choice are taken away, you have to just rely on your creativity and for me that restriction is strangely calming!

You can get some great fabrics from old clothes, often fabrics that would cost a lot more if you bought them new from a fabric shop. I recently found an LK Bennett suede maxi skirt which provided loads of good quality soft suede for just £20.

How to get started:

  • Have a Marie Kondo moment and de-clutter your wardrobe, set aside all the clothes you no longer wear and might have taken to the charity shop.
  • Alternatively take a trip to your local charity shop or car boot sale and look at clothes as a source of new fabric. Check collars and underarms first for stains that you might not want to work around!
  • Make something easy to start with: I had a student who made her old band t-shirts into cushions and another who turned her husbands old shirts into bias binding for her dressmaking projects. Other easy projects would be tote bags, making old t-shirts into yarn for knitting, crochet or making into pompoms.
  • When you’re ready to try something a little more complicated, have a look for inspiration in books and online – The Refashioners projects on Portia’s www.makery.uk blog are a good starting point, www.goodone.co.uk use textile waste from the fashion industry combined with sustainably produced fabrics to make new clothes, Alabama Chanin use a combination of reclaimed fabrics and organic cotton jersey to make beautiful clothes and new textiles. These two books are packed full of inspiration: ReFashioned: Cutting-Edge Clothing from Upcycled Materials by Sass Brown and Natalie Chanin and Cut-Up Couture: Edgy Upcycled Garments to Sew by Koko Yamase.


6 responses to “What is Upcycling?

  1. Great post, Wendy. I think people often get confused with recycling and upcycling because there are often some shocking examples of it! But then I suppose it’s quite hard to decide if it is of higher quality or value because that’s subjective?? I really love the work with your students some really lovely pieces in there. Thanks for including my refashioned top X


    • Loved that top Kate!! Upcycling, recycling, refashioning – it can all be a bit confusing really can’t it?! I think essentially I see it all as recycling, if it’s done well and sensitively it all adds value. Glad you enjoyed reading. X


  2. Absolutely LOVE the idea of creating bias binding from worn out work shirts. There are many in my other half’s wardrobe that have frayed collars and cuffs (why?!), but are otherwise still in good nick


  3. So much food for thought there Wendy – a great read 🙂


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