Five Ways Under $5 to Upcycle Used Clothes

No, it isn’t time to give that stained shirt away

Brittany Atkinson
Aug 25, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by Atikh Bana on Unsplash

Summer is nearing its end, and many people are ready to transition to a fall wardrobe in the next couple of months. With this changing of seasons comes the boxing up of last seasons' clothes until they’re needed once again. For many, this is also an opportunity to clean out clothes that do not fit, were not worn, or have become damaged through summer nights spent near the fire, or days spent near the lake. If you’re thinking, “I have a few stained pants or shorts that need to go,” I’m going to stop you right there. No, it isn’t time to give those away, because I have five inexpensive ways to upcycle those worn items into something new.

As I mentioned in a previous article I wrote on thrifting, 80% of donated clothes still end up in landfills, according to re/make, whose mission is to make fashion a force for good. In fact, they also state:

“The U.S. alone sends about 21 billion pounds of textile waste to landfills every year. And sadly, only 10–15% of donated clothing actually ends up in the secondhand market.”

This is to say that pieces that are stained, heavily worn, or damaged are especially prone to get discarded or passed up at the thrift store. Not only is upcycling your own clothes a cheap way to add to your wardrobe, but it is also an opportunity to be sustainable and eco-conscious. So, let’s get into the fun part: ways to upcycle!

1. Bleaching or Tie-Dyeing

Although the season for tie-dye clothes is coming to a close, there is still an opportunity to use a shade of fabric dye, such as orange or black, to give that dirt-stained white shirt another life for Fall. Fabric dyes can be found for $3 or $4 if you’re okay with dying a single color. I’m especially excited to create an orange tie-dye shirt for the quickly approaching Halloween season.

Additionally, something I’ve recently become obsessed with is bleach dyeing, which is sometimes also called reverse dyeing. Bleach is a product most people already have in their laundry room, and it can be done on an array of colored shirts. If you’re looking to do a cost-free project, this is the upcycling technique for you! I included a picture below of what bleach dyeing looks like on a crewneck I did.

Photo by Brittany Atkinson

2. Patching

Another inexpensive way to revamp a worn-out or damaged piece is by attaching a patch. You know, that shirt with a ketchup stain right in the center? It’s the perfect opportunity to iron-on or stitch a patch right over the stain. Patches come in all shapes and sizes and can be found for a few dollars at your local craft shop. It can make a plain shirt much more interesting, and easily hides a stain that won’t come out no matter how many times you wash it. This is the perfect example of a piece that previously may never have made it to the shelves and racks of thrift stores. But, with your help, you can give the shirt a new life.

3. Cropping

Cropping items is a cheap fix that most people already know about, and it can be applied to all sorts of garments. I decided to mention it, just because I’ve brainstormed some unique crops you might not have thought about. I recently used the cropping technique for a shirt that had holes near the bottom hem, but this technique could also be used for a dress that is too short. That 100% cotton dress that now barely covers anything? A great opportunity to crop it into a peplum shirt or a tank. The excess fabric leftover after a crop also gives you the opportunity to make a headband or scrunchie if you’re savvy enough. You could even use the excess fabric for a patch on pants!

4. Distressing

This is a technique I’ve yet to try but have recently seen all over on fashion inspiration pages. Again, this is probably one you may have seen before, especially in regards to jeans, but I wanted to take this a step further. I’m using the term “distress” loosely, and also want to encourage people to not only DIY some rips, but also use fabric paint or craft rhinestones to rework pants or shirts. If you’re okay with hand washing, trying out whatever paint you have, even if it isn’t specifically for fabric, could be an awesome way to also utilize resources you have in your house already. These techniques are perfect for pants or shirts that have holes or stains that just aren’t fixable or washable. It also allows you to have a truly one-of-a-kind piece of clothing.

5. Safety Pinning

I’ve recently been immersed in the world of grunge streetwear. One of my favorite clothing colors to wear is black, so it makes sense I gravitate toward grunge in fashion. One trend I’ve seen popping up is utilizing safety pins to ornament shirts. One particular design I’ve seen is safety pinning near the neckline of a v-neck to close it, or to decorate the hem. If your shirt already has a hole, depending on where the hole is located, it could make it the perfect canvas for this technique. If you have a hole near the neckline, don’t be afraid to cut your own v-neck and then add safety pins to ornament the cut.

I hope you enjoyed these inexpensive ways to upcycle damaged clothes. Again, I’d like to reiterate the importance of keeping clothes out of the landfill. I know money is tight for many, and most don’t have an excess of money to spend on clothing. I hope this article allowed you to realize that used does not always equal useless. That centered stain might just be the perfect place for a patch, or that hole on the side of a tank might be the perfect opportunity to safety pin a design on both sides. Get funky, have fun, and stay eco-friendly!

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Brittany Atkinson

Written by

Western Washington ‘22 MFA in Poetry // vegan poet who loves coffee and thrifting 🌿ig + etsy: thriftedpoet

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Brittany Atkinson

Written by

Western Washington ‘22 MFA in Poetry // vegan poet who loves coffee and thrifting 🌿ig + etsy: thriftedpoet

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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