Upcycling of clothes

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Anne Payen, Intern.

See also: Product development

Setting the context

Every year, synthetic fibres release 500,000 tonnes of plastic micro-particles into the oceans, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. What is even more worrying is the fact that this pollution is only increasing. People now buy twice as many clothes as 15 years ago and wear them for half the time. And brands are manufacturing more and more to keep up with this rising cycle of mass consumption. Some, fashion brands, especially those geared towards the general public, release up to 24 collections a year. This is how we end up wasting a huge amount of textiles, buried or burnt, every second. Moreover, the industry produces 10% of the world's carbon emissions; more than aviation and shipping combined; and 20% of waste water.

Faced with this growing problem, the fashion industry and individuals are looking for several solutions to reduce their negative impact on the environment. Therefore many people are turning to a new concept called "upcycling".


Upcycling, or creative reuse, simply defines the process of giving a new and more upscale life to an old used product or material.

One of the first benefits of upcycling is its positive impact on the environment. Indeed, the principle being to reuse, we avoid creating a new product. This saves on grey energy and raw materials inherent in the manufacturing process. Ucycling is part of the vast movement of the circular economy and reuse.

In addition to the ecological benefits of reuse, upcycling provides the opportunity to create and recreate unique objects. As a result, upcycling can be found in many contexts: at home, in businesses, in art galleries, in associations, and also in fashion.

Upcycling of clothes

Therefore, upcycling, sometimes referred to as creative reuse, is a term that defines the process of transforming waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products perceived to be of greater quality, such as having an artistic or environmental value.

It's a recycling process which can touch many domains; in this case we will be focusing on the use of this recycling process on clothes.

So what does upycling clothes even mean? What does it consists in doing?

Well basically, upcycling clothes is to take old, worn out or damaged clothing and transform it into something new.

In that same perspective, clothing that doesn’t fit any longer, is torn, stained or otherwise damaged, can be refashioned into a new product. Also referred to as repurposed clothing, reused clothing and recycled clothing, upcycled clothing is becoming increasingly popular in today’s fashion industry.

Upcycling through machine embroidery

While the goal is to convert useless and discarded items into valuable products, everyone has their own way to achieve this goal. Some prefer to knit by hand to upcycle their clothes. The use of embroidery machines in order to give new shape to old and or damage cloths quite common. Machine embroidery can be used mainly to add designs to hide stains, holes and therefore give old cloth a new life.

Moreover, the use of this machine allows to speed up the upcycling process and thus to satisfy a greater demand. So, if you are planning to create a feasible market based on upcycling process: offering this service, selling upcycled clothes, teaching classes on how to upcycle discarded textiles etc. it would be better to use this tool.

In a video a women named Laura working in Trash Culture shows a step by step guide how to ucycle clothes as summarized below.

The difference between recyling and upcycling

Upcycling and recycling are two different concepts of material or product reuse.

Upcycling is reusing the same fabric and turning it into something else.

Where as recycling is a process that consist in breaking down materials before they are reconstituted into something else. This is usually done in two ways; mechanically and chemically. Mechanical recycling is when a fabric, such as cotton, is shredded, so that the resulting fibre is woven into a new fabric. Chemical recycling is when a fabric is treated with a chemical and then dissolved. The resulting fibre is then mixed with other fibres to make a new fabric.

Therefore recycling is very demanding in resources and in the case of chemical recycling it utilizes a lot of harmful substances to create something new. On the opposite, upcycling isn’t as damaging to the environment and uses no other natural resources.

The fashion industry and sustainability

Despite sustainability taking a central place, now appearing in the center of political debates and even taking an international scope, fashion those not appear to be following this ongowing trend but there is some change.

Worried about this situation and public awareness, manufacturers are now rethinking their approach.

  • They then set up new means to answer this growing problem: Recycling, innovative yarns: eco fibres: With 20% of materials coming from the ocean, marine plastic is particularly popular in some innovative companies. For example, Adidas, in partnership with Parley for the Oceans, has made five million pairs of shoes from recycled marine plastic since 2018. Veja, a French brand founded in 2004, has also specialised in recycled materials. With a few exceptions, all the fabrics for its trainers are made from recycled polyester.
  • Even the luxury goods industry is getting in on the act. The latest collection from Stella McCartney a long-time advocate of sustainable fashion includes a range of accessories made from bottles, fishing nets and other plastic waste pulled out of the ocean. Besides being recycled, materials can also be produced as part of a circular and clean economy. We already have renewable, organic, water-efficient and energy-efficient materials such as flax, hemp and bamboo. Ekyog, for example, has been using them since 2003. Other materials are not yet widely used but are promising. One example is nettle, which requires neither irrigation nor pesticides. To make clothes, nettle fibre (which protects against both heat and cold) can be mixed with organic linen and with wool. The "eco" jeans of Dutch brand Netl have been made using this process for two years.

In addition to changes in the manufacturing industry, the second hand industry is growing and becoming more main-stream:

  • To make fashion more sustainable, consumers have chosen to buy second-hand clothes. With that, they help avoid overproduction and clothing waste while enjoying themselves. A dynamic clothing reuse online second-hand market is emerging, e.g., Vinted (12 million users), Videdressing.com, Vestiaire Collective and many more.

Repair vs upcycling

The art of repairing is according to [1] the process of fixing old clothing, shoes and accessories that are ripped, have holes, stains or other blemishes. One of the processes is also mending where a variety of materials is used and one can be as creative and artsy as they feel. Deciding to repair a damaged or old piece of clothing has a vast amount of benefits for one’s mental health, closet and most importantly for the environment.

The difference between repair and upcycling, although it may seem as two similar processes, is quite simple to understand. Indeed, the art of repairing has as aim to fix used or damaged clothing, handbags etc. In order for it to regain it's previous shape. Whereas upcycling emphasizes the fact that there is a transformation of the material concerned. The used material is transformed in such a way that it becomes a newer and better version of what it was already. Whereas upcycling emphasizes the fact that there is a transformation of the material concerned. The used material is transformed in such a way that it becomes a newer and better version of what it was already.