What even is upcycling?

Posted by Marina Fleites on

You’ve probably heard the term upcycling thrown around, but what does it actually mean? 

Well, in essence, upcycling is taking something old and turning it into something new - also known as a thrift flip. In many cases though, it can be as simple as altering a garment that has been handed down or thrifted to make it wearable. It can also be mending a garment that has been well loved so that it can have a longer life. You can also upcycle pieces that you already own that you just don’t reach for in your closet anymore. In my case, my favorite upcycled projects have used thrifted curtains, tablecloths, blankets, and quilts to make new garments such as dresses and coats. I've added some photos of my favorite makes at the end.

What I love most about upcycling is its sustainability. There are so many textiles that already exist in the world, it makes sense to use those before creating more. However, as with all things sustainable, there are pros and cons to the upcycling movement. 

First, I’ll say that I am absolutely a supporter of upcycling. So many of the newer textiles contain plastic and even the production of some natural textiles is far from eco friendly. This doesn’t even begin to discuss the horrible treatment and wage theft garment workers around the world face in the fast fashion industry. Check out these articles from The Guardian, Thred, and Fashion United UK to learn more. Upcycling promotes slow fashion, keeps both natural and synthetic textiles out of landfills, and often offers more affordable materials when making a new garment.

All that said, with its rise in popularity upcycling has had negative effects as well. One way we’ve seen this trend implemented is by thrifted oversized and mainly plus sized clothing to upcycle into straight sized pieces. The issue here is size inclusivity. While I am the first person to wear a piece several sizes too big for me out of preference, I try to avoid picking up those pieces in thrift stores. The conversation around size inclusivity asks brands to consider why their clothing often only goes from XS-L or 2-14, while the average size of a woman in the United States is now a size 16 or 18. (See this Forbes article.) For so long brands have not served the average American woman, and so those larger sizes are already harder to come by off the rack, let alone in the thrift store. Those brands that have served larger people often don’t offer the same range of styles or patterns that a straight sized person would have to choose from in finding their personal style. For that reason, if you are a straight sized person and you choose to try upcycling I’d encourage you to find pieces in your own size or try bedsheets, blankets, tablecloths, curtains, or really anything else. Textiles are all around us and we interact with them every day, so get creative!

Upcycling can also lead to waste. Challenge yourself to have a plan for your fabric scraps, and to be mindful when purchasing pieces. Make sure you’re considering mending the pieces you have and seeing what new life you can bring them. The Making App has a mend along going on right now, and they even offer free mending classes you can check out. I am far from perfect in these practices, but mindfulness is key to getting a little bit better as we go. 

Remember, you don’t need to have a sewing machine or even a knowledge of sewing to get started with upcycling! You can learn to mend through Youtube, you can paint over stains on denim and other fabrics, you can use simple dye methods, and one of my favorites, you can embroider over stains or holes in your clothing to add embellishments. I have embroidery patterns coming soon, and will be filming some tutorials for you as well, so stay tuned.

Now if you’re looking to get started with some sustainable sewing or upcycling, here are some of my favorite places to start.

  1. Your closet! A plain sweatshirt in need of some embroidery? A dress that you would probably wear more if it had a higher hem? Any piece that you don’t reach for, think of what might make you reach for it more. (For me, this usually means adding pockets.)
  2. Mercari and Poshmark. These are my favorite places to find textiles. I search for wool blankets, vintage bed sheets, and really anything with silk. Silk is one of my favorite fabrics, but it is so expensive to buy new, that I love finding pieces that are in need of a new home. Shopping second hand on these sites can be much easier than sifting through a thrift store, and it also gives you the opportunity to think through your purchase more instead of impulse buying a cart full of pieces you don't really need at Goodwill (to which we can all fall victim). 
  3. For Days. This one isn’t for upcycling pieces, but their Take Back Bags are a wonderful way to not only clean out your closet, but also a great way to responsibly dispose of your fabric scraps. Most clothes donated to places like Goodwill end up in a landfill anyway, but For Days takes what you send in and recycles it into new textiles. You even get credit towards a future purchase, and all of their clothing and accessories are sustainably and ethically made. 
  4. Even if it's not technically upcycling, there are tons of second hand fabrics out there to choose from. Check out Swanson's Fabrics and A Thrifty Notion for second hand fabrics and sewing notions. 
  5.  Mood Fabrics. If you do have some knowledge of sewing, Mood has tons of printable free patterns that can help you get started making garments.

All in all, upcycling is a wonderful way to practice sustainability and have a unique wardrobe. I love wearing pieces I've made, especially because they usually have some kind of meaning behind them. The quilt coat I just finished had too many stains to be used as bedding, but by turning into a coat and covering up those remaining stains with embroidery, I'm now able to take this incredible hand stitched quilt and make sure this heirloom lives a bit longer, just in a different form. As with anything, just make sure you're collecting your potential upcycled pieces in moderation, and try to leave sizes that are rarer to come by on the rack at Goodwill (unless they're your size, of course). 


Now here's some of my favorite upcycled makes, though there's definitely more where these came from.


Mar's 24 Birthday DressThis dress was made from upcycled curtains and deadstock fabric from A Thrifty Notion. This dress was also self drafted. Paired with thrifted heels from Mercari.


Be A Lady They Said Upcycled Denim JacketThis is one of the original upcycled jackets I made. I found it in a thrift store and though it had no flaws, I knew I'd reach for it more if it had a feminist message on it so I painted it during Women's History month.

Upcycled Blanket CoatsAll of these pieces were made from wool blankets and one comforter that I found on Mercari. These were all self drafted.


Mar's Quilt Coat in Tahoe Upcycled And finally this quilt I picked up at a local thrift store for $16 and held on to it for almost a year until I decided on a pattern to make (The Ilford Jacket from Friday Pattern Company). I accidentally made it a little bit too big but I love it so much. More photos, and probably its own blog post coming soon!

Have any upcycling questions or other suggestions? Drop them below!

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