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A Beginners Guide to Upcycling

0As we say goodbye to March, we have only good things to come. Vaccines are rolling out with the Winter clouds, and the sun has finally decided to make an appearance. Barbecue season is coming, and you'll be sat down to dinner with your grandparents in absolutely no time. It's enough to stick a smile on any skeptic's face.

A change of season, a change in weather - that means a whole new wardrobe, right? Wrong.

Contrary to popular belief, the seasons change just four times a year, meaning you don't actually have to reinvent yourself every time the weatherman dictates a new forecast. And definitely not every time Zara drops a new collection - which is 24 times a year, I might add.

The constant production of new styles, new designs, new clothes is one of the main selling points of the fast fashion industry. There are so many stores, so many selections to choose from, you'll never see two people wearing the same thing. And so cheap too! But with prices so low, someone must be paying for it.

And it's true, someone else is paying for it. The workers who are thousands of miles away, hunched over sewing machines, crafting your clothes until their fingers bleed for tuppence an hour - they pay for it. Our beloved animals and eco-systems, which are currently dying of contamination from the microplastics found in cheap fabrics dumped into the oceans - pay for it. Every corner of the planet, every element we have is paying the price for the fast fashion industry, and what for? So you can have different color sneakers for every day of the week?

Fast fashion is the rapid production of inexpensive clothing by mass-market and high street retailers in response to the latest trends.

Here are the facts: the fast fashion industry produces 10% of ALL human emissions, which equates to 1.2 BILLION tons of carbon and other greenhouse gases a year. Considering a fully grown brown bear weighs just one ton, it doesn't take a genius to realize that this amount is quite a lot. However, it's not always easy to recognize that your wardrobe may be your biggest carbon footprint downfall, and it's even harder to know where to start to reduce it.

But do not fret! There are plenty of places you can source your clothes from without partaking in the fast fashion industry. Because, let's remember: if you pay for it, you fund it; and if you continue to fund it, you're complicit.

You could:

  • Buy secondhand, either from Depop, in thrift stores, or charity shops

  • You can search for independent retailers which only produce 100% sustainable clothing

  • You could try your hand at upcycling your own clothes

Upcycling is the process of transforming old clothing, fabrics, or accessories into new materials or products with a greater value.

Benefits of Upcycling

At face value, upcycling is a great practice simply because it helps the environment. In the US, 13 million tons of fabric waste is dumped onto landfill sites every year and is sometimes even burned. Upcycling not only prevents this kind of fabric waste but also reduces the number of natural resources spent on making clothes. It currently takes roughly 2,700 liters of water to make a single t-shirt - and that doesn't even account for the water it takes to transport it to your home or local store. 2,700 liters is enough to provide someone water for 900 days. YIKES. But by using recycled fabrics, there's no need for natural resources to be used during the production process. Apart from in maybe for a cup of tea if you're parched...

What's more, when making fast fashion items of clothing, many nasty production chemicals are often used to give the pieces a certain look, color, or texture. These chemicals, such as toxic dyes, then leak into the environment, contaminating water supplies, airways and even killing wildlife. Upcycling removes these chemicals, and a whole lot of excess energy, from the equation completely. In fact, upcycling is even more efficient than recycling, as it doesn't require any extra energy to break down the particles inside the fabrics. You can quote me on that.

But it's never just about the environment, is it? We have to keep our wallets in mind, of course. Funnily enough, it's actually a lot cheaper to transform a piece of clothing that you already own, than buying another one. Crazy, right? It also stops money going into the wrong hands - *coughs* fast fashion stores - who will most definitely use that money to produce more items that damage the environment.

From a personal point of view, learning to upcycle means learning a new skill. You will be much savvier with a sewing kit, and the next time you rip a hole in your favorite trousers you won't even flinch. You can be as creative as you want, transforming outdated garms into brand new masterpieces, all perfectly tailored to your body. It also means you're doing your bit to help the environment in our fight against climate change, and that's as good a reason as any.

Advice for beginners

For someone who has never used a sewing machine before - or has barely picked up a needle and thread - upcycling clothes can be quite daunting. So here are some top tips for anyone who wants to get in on this eco-friendly action...

1. Start Off Simple

When I think of making my own clothes, I think of That's So Raven, and how she makes it look so easy. Well, it's nothing like that, and chances are, you're not gonna be able to make a jaw-dropper outfit in a week. So start off easy, transforming an old t-shirt into a hemmed crop top, or try your hand at tie-dye. Beginning with a simple task can still be really rewarding and often helps motivate you to continue.

2. Don't Give Up If You Go Wrong

Sewing can be HARD. Especially when you look into all the different types of fabrics, hemlines, and sewing patterns out there. But the final product is always worth it, and your skill will grow with each project you work on. If you're consistent and persevere, you'll be a pro in no time.

3. Invest In Your Tools

Kitchen scissors are not fabric scissors. If you start hacking away at a hoodie with blunt AF meat shears, you are gonna shred that sweater to pieces. Invest in your tools, buy the right equipment, and you will achieve industry-standard clothing. Also, word for the wise, buy a seam ripper (stitch unpicker), it will save you so much time.

4. Research and Plan

You should always have a plan of what you're going to make before you make it. Upcycling isn't really a 'wing it' kind of activity, and if you don't keep on top of measurements, you're gonna be making some funny-looking clothes. It always helps to research beforehand, too, whether that's researching the latest trends for some outfit inspo, or looking up how to create certain techniques on YouTube. Seamingly Sera is one of my favorite inspirations, and she documents all of her upcycling on her YouTube and Instagram.

5. Always Keep Your Cutoffs

Self-explanatory really. Reserve some space for a 'cut-off' bin or bag. These will come in handy for patches and repairs, and also stops fabric from going to waste. You'd be surprised what you can create from tatty bits of fabric. If you are going to bin it, find out where can recycle it here.



What You Need: an old t-shirt; a pencil; a ruler or tape measure; a needle; some thread; pins; a sewing machine.

Step 1 - Measure out your straps. You will need two 2x18inch strips of fabric. (They need to be at least 2 inches wide in order to hem them).

Step 2 - Cut out the straps and main body of the bag (the size of this doesn't really matter, it just depends on how big you want it). You should have 2 thin rectangles and 2 wide rectangles of fabric.

Step 3 - With the front of the bag facing inwards, pin around three edges of the main body of the bag and tack (tack means to sew a small running stitch with a needle and thread).

Step 4 - On the final edge, fold over each side about 2cm - this will be your hem. Pin and tack.

Step 5 - Sew each side on the sewing machine and then unpick the tacking.

Step 6 - Pick up your straps and fold them each in half longways. Pin and tack.

Step 7 - Sew on a machine, unpick the tack, and begin to turn your handles inside out (this is a long job and you might want to use a metal straw to help you).

Step 8 - Pin and tack the handles to the top of the bag and then sew on the machine. Turn the bag inside out and VOILA.

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