Looking For Eco Friendly Clothing? Try Upcycling!

by Nicola Temple on February 15, 2012

The experience of clothes shopping can range from being a fun day out with friends to panicked mayhem with a dose of self deprecation on the side. Either way, we’re often more concerned about how clothes look than whether we’re buying eco friendly clothing.

I can’t deny there have been many times when a good fit has superseded all other purchasing decisions. However, I know in my heart that I need to be just as conscious about my clothing purchases as my food purchases.

(Easy enough to say, but I don’t have to try and squeeze my hips into a tomato!)

One of the best ways to be green in the closet is to shop at second hand stores and/or upcycle old clothes. If you’re at all handy with a sewing machine upcycling can be a lot of fun and an opportunity to bring out your inner designer.

Even if you aren’t handy with a sewing machine (like myself), there are so many people out there upcycling clothes that you can find them at local markets, boutique shops and online. In fact, many designers are now specializing in upcycled clothing.

Here are some great upcycling ideas that I got just in my brief scan of the internet…many of which are simple enough even for my sewing skill level (which is just slightly above I know how to thread the machine).

Upcycle old clothes to make eco friendly fashions

Armwarmers: You can use old sweater sleeves and knitted socks to create some trendy arm warmers. Cut the socks and sweater sleeves into two inch segments and then sew together with a reverse seam in a bold color yarn for some funky arm warmers. Or just use a knee length sock or sleeve of a sweater to build the arm warmer. Here’s a how to video:


eco friendly clothing

Upcycling is one of the more creative options for eco friendly clothing. This can be a summer top or if made a bit smaller, a summer dress for a little girl - all from an old t-shirt. CC image courtesy of Karen Lee on Flickr.

T-shirts into dresses: You can convert t-shirts into dresses for little girls. Slap some spaghetti straps and an elasticized top onto an adult t-shirt and suddenly you have a cute dress for a little girl, or a summer top for yourself.  Might be a good use for all those old concert t-shirts you’ve been keeping under the bed…then again?

Felting sweaters: Felt old wool sweaters and make them into hats and scarves. Many of us have done this by accident; shrunk our favorite wool sweater.  But you might want to do it on purpose (though maybe not your favourite sweater). Thrift store finds and old sweaters from your closet that are 100% wool but from a fashion era not likely to return any time soon can be felted by washing them in hot water. This felt can then be used to make hats and scarves, bags…the list goes on.

Skirts to aprons: It’s fairly obvious, but converting skirts into aprons is a great way to use an old skirt.

Shirts into dresses: Here’s a great video that shows you how a shirt is converted into a dress

Overalls from old jeans: Need some overalls for getting dirty in your organic garden? This video shows you how to convert a couple of old pairs of jeans into some overalls (you might need to watch it a couple of times as it’s fast).

However, there are occasions when we spot something new…a must have piece. For those instances, I’ve started asking myself some questions in my endeavour to be a more eco friendly shopper.

5 questions to ask yourself when clothes shopping

1 – Do I really need this? I rarely have luck with spontaneous buys. Whatever hallucinogenic state I was in when I purchased it is usually gone by the time I get the item home and try it on in front of my own mirror. The item is then usually relegated to the back of the closet before I can justify donating it to charity. So now I take a breath and really consider whether I need the item and how it fits with my existing wardrobe. The more outfits I can make with a piece the better.

2 – What type of material is it? Is it a natural fiber, like bamboo, or synthetic? Does it need to be dry cleaned (I never buy items that need to be dry cleaned). Is it a long-lasting material like cashmere that will give the garment a long life? Does it incorporate recycled materials such as PET or reclaimed yarn?

3 – How was it grown? If it’s a natural fiber, was it organically grown?

4 – Where was it manufactured? Has it been made locally or was it mass produced overseas? Supporting local designers and manufacturers makes local communities more resilient.  Whereas buying products manufactured overseas means the product comes with a big carbon footprint as a result of shipping.

5 – Who made it? There are health and social issues associated with a lot of clothing manufacturing. I don’t want any of my purchases to be polluting rivers with tannery effluent or contributing to child labor or sweat shops.

It isn’t always easy to walk away from an item that fails one or more of these questions. Particularly when it has met the trinity of shopping: it fits, looks good, and is on sale. But you have to be ruthless sometimes to be green!

For me, I think I’ll be dusting off my sewing machine as I have to admit that the idea of upcycling clothes has even got this non-sewer in the mood to experiment. After all, something used is the most eco friendly clothing you can get!

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