How To Upcycle Your Unloved Clothing All By Yourself

Got a wardrobe full of clothes you don't wear but no idea what to do with them? Get upcycling.

We all have at least one item of clothing in our wardrobes that make us feel capital-G Guilty. Maybe it was bought on impulse and never worn, maybe the fit isn’t great, or maybe you purchased it in a moment of fancying yourself as a rainbow sequins woman, when really you’re more of a jeans-and-a-nice-top kind of gal. Despite all this, it’s sometimes hard to let these clothes go. Somewhere deep down, they still hold some promise.

By now, most of us are well aware of the impact the fast fashion industry has on the environment. Worldwide, over 2.1 billion tonnes of clothing goes to landfill each year. According to UK figures, only a third of the clothes given to charity end up being resold, with the rest going to recycling centres – and of those items, less than one percent are actually made into new garments. That’s a whole lot of waste.

So what do you do with those tricky pieces of clothing that are languishing in a drawer, calling to you yet also giving you the guilts? Well, why not transform them into something you’d actually wear through tailoring and alterations?

After working on costumes for the TV show Vikings, Karen O’Mahoney set up her Dublin-based alterations company Rag Order, which has come to specialise in ‘upcycling’ and revamping clothing. Her client list now includes the likes of broadcasters Tara Stewart and Louise McSharry as well as Paralympic swimmer Ellen Keane, who have all tasked her with restyling items from their wardrobes.

Karen has a knack for seeing something special in a piece of clothing that’s otherwise unloved and unworn – from a glance at her Instagram (@ragorderdublin) you’ll see maxi dresses turned into chic co-ords, charity shop vintage finds given a modern twist, and simple black evening gowns livened up with sprays of tulle. “[The client and I] will have a good chat about the item, their budget and style and then start to bounce some initial ideas around,” she explains of the process. “Sometimes we agree on a direction there and then, or if it’s a large project I’ll take a day or two to think about it before going back to the client with some options. “My favourite part of my job is always the big reveal – seeing a client looking and feeling amazing in something I’ve made for them is so rewarding and makes all the hard work worthwhile.”

Karen is currently working on a show for RTE in which members of the public give her a beloved piece of clothing to turn into something new or more wearable – something she recently did for herself by remaking a white shirt owned by her late father into a ruffled masterpiece. Her favourite project so far? “A green and black African-print dress I made into a full length coat. I loved the print and I loved working on it,” she says.

“The client is a super stylish female who gives me full creative control so I feel comfortable taking big risks, and this is when the magic happens!”

The advent of fast fashion means we can replace clothes cheaply and easily. If something breaks or is stained or has a hole in it, just throw it away and buy a new one. If it doesn’t fit exactly how you’d like or you end up wearing it only once or twice, so what? On to the next. The concept of ‘slow fashion’, however, asks us to instead think about extending the lifestyle of our clothes as much as we can – buying quality items, making repairs when needed, re-soling shoes, storing things properly, and refraining from over-washing.

Remember Marge Simpson and her pink Chanel suit, reinvented as a golfing outfit and an evening gown? Marge’s resourcefulness may have been a punchline in that particular episode, but like most things, The Simpsons inadvertently predicted the future. Restyling, tailoring, and taking proper care of the clothes we buy so they can last as long as possible is the way forward. Not only will you save yourself some money, but you’ll build a wardrobe of clothes that are unique to you.

“I’ve been shopping in charity and vintage shops for the past 15 years and gave up high street shopping completely about five years ago,” says Karen. “People are addicted to fast fashion, however if they put in a little more thought or effort into what they bought and where they shopped, they could have a totally unique, sustainable wardrobe and more money in their pockets.”

So you see – with a bit of imagination and the expertise of a dressmaker, an item of clothing once deemed unwearable can become your favourite outfit. All you have to do is open yourself up to the possibilities.

7 ways you can upcycle your unloved clothing all by yourself

Use a razor to get rid of bobbles.

“Sit with your item flat out and get picking, or use a blunt-ish open blade razor and gently shave your garment,” advises Karen. “Be careful not to press too hard as you might damage the fabric.”

Iron-on hemming web is your friend.

You can use it to take up trousers, skirts and dresses in a pinch, so if you have anything you’re not wearing because it needs a wee hemming… here’s your answer. Make sure to read up on technique before you dive in, though!

Crop stuff!

Another gem of a tip from Karen: “I just love to crop old sweaters that have lost their shape. Put the item on and mark where you want it to sit while looking in a mirror. Take it off, lay it flat on the ground, fold it in half vertically and then cut across where you’ve marked as evenly as possible. This works well for sweaters because you’ll end up with a raw edge that looks intentional.”

Teach yourself a few easy embroidery stitches and go wild.

It’s not as hard as it looks – take it from someone who learned from YouTube tutorials. Embroider cute patterns or phrases on old t-shirts and jeans and save yourself the couple of bob you’d spend on a similar item from a shop.

Go wild with fabric paint.

Sustainable fashion queen Tara Stewart (Instagram: @tarastewartdj) customises vintage jackets and boots with a lick of paint, turning them into wearable works of art.

Curl up and dye.

Dylon is a great way to refresh clothes that are looking a little tired, from white dresses acquiring a yellow tinge to charity shop purchases that need a boost. They now even make ‘colour pods’ that you can pop into the washing machine with the fabric you want to dye, which is ingenious.

Search Pinterest for jobs that don’t require sewing, and have a little ‘crafternoon’.

Pinterest is a DIY haven, and a quick search reveals hundreds of things you can do to refashion your tired clothes.

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