Curious about upcycling? This guide has everything you need to know.
We’ve all heard the maxim of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but out of those three, reusing is perhaps the least common. Sure, some people reuse food containers and other items like gift bags, but by and large, many Americans just don’t reuse what they already have.
That aversion to reusing is largely because it’s not built into our society. For one, Western society is obsessed with disposable, single-use items. In addition, reusing is typically associated with poverty while buying new things is a clear sign of wealth.
But in a world where it’s becoming increasingly important to be more sustainable, reusing is critical. This is the whole idea of a circular economy in which everything is constantly reused or recycled.
Upcycling is one form of reusing that offers a unique opportunity to give old objects new life, but most of the upcycling ideas out there are targeted at women. That’s why I set out to explore the idea of upcycling specifically for men.
What Is Upcycling?
Upcycling is a form of recycling that involves repurposing an object to serve a different function. (A common example is turning a glass food jar into a planter).
When it comes to clothing, upcycling refers to the process of altering or reusing a garment or several garments to either create a new piece of clothing or a different type of object entirely.
Upcycling can also refer to mending old items to get more use out of them. This doesn’t really result in new items, but it does breathe new life into old objects that would otherwise go unused.
Think of upcycling as reducing, reusing, and recycling all in one. Since you’re extending the lifespan of a product you already own, you’re reducing your consumption, reusing what you have, and recycling the object into something new.
Here’s Why We Don’t Upcycle More
While there are tons of benefits to upcycling, it’s not nearly as common as traditional recycling, and it’s especially rare for men to upcycle what they have.
That’s because the process of upcycling involves a fair amount of sewing and mending, which men typically don’t have much experience with.
In addition, many upcycled garments have a distinct, clearly handmade aesthetic that often resembles something like a patchwork quilt. Upcycled clothes can also be quite visually loud, especially if they’re made from a melange of items.
And that aesthetic doesn’t really work for everyone. For example, if your personal style leans more Ivy League, a tote bag made out of seven different shirts will seriously clash with your outfit.
But all of that doesn’t mean that upcycled items can’t be useful and stylish — it just takes some creativity. Practically speaking, you probably won’t upcycle every spare scrap of clothing you have lying around, but upcycling should definitely be an arrow in your sustainability quiver.
5 Ways to Upcycle Clothes (For Men)
Here are 5 methods of upcycling that are easy enough for beginners but useful enough for even upcycling experts to take advantage of.
#1: Tailor Your Existing Clothing
The easiest way to upcycle clothing is to simply tailor garments you already own. While tailoring does have a bit of a learning curve, it’s a worthwhile skill to learn that you’ll carry with you for life.
If you’re like me, then you have a few too many items in your closet that you never wear because the fit just isn’t right.
Tailoring solves that problem. And, sure, you could just take your items to a tailor, but if you don’t have a reliable one nearby — or if you just want to improve your DIY skills — at-home tailoring is a valuable solution.
To get the hang of tailoring, it’s beneficial to first understand the general concepts. Understanding what tailoring involves for different garment types will prepare you for actual hands-on experience.
Once you know the basics and understand how tailoring shirts is different from tailoring pants, hit up YouTube for tutorials on sewing, hemming, and making other types of alterations. You’ll make mistakes when starting out, so it’s best to begin by using really old clothing you don’t care much about.
#2: Repair Holes and Mend Flaws
Another easy way to upcycle clothing is to repair garments that have holes, stains, rips, tears, or other flaws.
Got a pair of jeans that are busted at the crotch? Grab some materials for patching and get to work. Have a shirt with a ripped seam? Stitch it back up.
There are all kinds of clothing repairs you can learn, but even mastering a few simple fixes like sewing buttons and darning socks will help you get much more life out of your clothes — and save more money.
#3: Make New Garments From Scraps
Here’s where you can get really creative. If you have lots of old clothing that’s unwearable as is, consider using the scraps to make entirely new garments.
This is where the art of patchwork comes in. This is a more involved (but extremely rewarding) process that will involve learning how to use a sewing machine and familiarizing yourself with different fabrics.
You can either fully embrace the patchwork look and create a statement piece, or you can keep things more minimal with something like a color-blocked design.
Once you get some foundational knowledge down, you can do all kinds of things. You can turn a bunch of old jeans into a patchwork jacket or use some raggedy shirts to make an apron.
You can even make garments from non-clothing textiles — for example, you could turn a blanket into a cardigan.
#4: Create a Unique Blanket
Speaking of blankets, you can easily turn old clothing into a one-of-a-kind blanket or quilt. This admittedly gives a bit of a grandmother vibe, but you can get all kinds of results depending on what you use.
Again, you can get creative here. Wool is a common blanket material, so if you have any old wool clothes, those are prime ingredients for a nice blanket.
Also, going with thicker fabrics and larger patches can help create a less obvious patchwork that doesn’t look as obviously handmade. Of course, the results will also depend on your stitching and sewing skills.
#5: Make Pot Holders
If you want to make something relatively simple but also practical, go for pot holders. You can make these out of just about anything, and there are loads of tutorials to walk you through the process. (Here’s just one of them to start with.)
While you can go with a patchwork approach, you can also make pot holders from single fabric scraps for a slightly more refined look. For extra aesthetic points, go with sturdy, hard-wearing fabrics like cotton drill, canvas, and denim.
Upcycling thrifted clothes is a fantastic alternative to buying new ones. Check out our guide to menswear thrifting to learn the secrets of secondhand shopping success.