These Upcycling Creators Will Make Your Old Clothes New Again

A vintage jumper riddled with moth-holes might be considered 'old' because its physical appearance couldn’t convince you otherwise. A sparkly, now miraculously shrunken dress that you bought for a birthday five years ago might be 'old' because it no longer fits or suits your style. That trend you bought into six months ago – often in the form of an impractical fit or overhyped style that you tired of after one wear – could also be considered 'old'. In short: There are several factors we consider when deeming a piece of clothing 'old'.
Today’s culture of throwaway fashion, driven primarily by cheap, fast fashion buys and one-off trendy pieces, is shrinking the average lifespan of our clothing. According to a Stitch Fix survey carried out in July, 44% of people grow tired of a piece of clothing after they’ve worn it just six times. With fast fashion making it increasingly convenient to buy new clothes, it’s even easier to forget about the ones we already have, hanging at the back of our wardrobes.
However there are considerable changes in the ways we’re consuming and treating our clothing. According to thredUP, 62% of Gen Z and millennials say they look for items secondhand before buying them new, and resale continues to build its fashion street cred, increasingly backed by both high street and luxury brands. Coming up fast behind this growth in secondhand and resale are two smaller pillars of circular fashion: mending and upcycling.
What's involved exactly? It's when stains, tears and discolouration on clothes are creatively covered up with fabric or embroidery, and when old clothing and offcuts are transformed into completely new garments. These hands-on and relatively easy-to-learn techniques breathe new life into old clothing and slow a garment's journey to landfill.
Studies show that extending a garment's lifespan by just nine months can reduce its environmental impact by 20 to 30%. Unfortunately, according to a survey by clothing brand Thought, only 36% of Brits actually repair their clothes. Happily, initiatives like Love Your Clothes, a campaign run by UK waste charity WRAP, are working to promote mending and upcycling, and clothing repair apps like Sojo and The Seam employ these same business models to prolong the life of our clothing. And there are plenty of independent creators taking the initiative to make old clothes new again.
We spoke with three women across the UK about the joy of mending and upcycling their wardrobes, and how they're inspiring others to reevaluate what their clothes mean to them before they ditch them for good.

Rosette Ale, The Denim Upcycler

"Upcycling was completely new to me when I started. We’d never done sewing in Ghana but when I moved to London at 10 years old, it was part of the curriculum. In sixth form, I started blogging, buying vintage clothes and getting into the thrifting world but stuff didn't always fit me well. So I started customising and taking clothes in. Then I did a fashion foundation diploma and that's when I learned about deconstruction and reconstruction. I remember we had this project that was about taking a garment apart and making something else from it and I was like, 'Oh my God, I love doing that with my own clothes'. And it kind of evolved from there. 
"I then started selling vintage clothes that I upcycled on Depop. I would take the sleeves off or change the buttons to make them more modern. The first thing I ever deconstructed was a faux leather jacket; I took it apart and turned it into a vest, which was really cool.
"In 2020 I registered my brand, Revival.
"Revival is a redesign and upcycling brand centred on sustainability. I work with a textile sorting factory that gets deadstock from Levi's, Lee and other brands and manufacturers. We also take textile waste and redesign it into contemporary, stylish pieces that can be worn again. I really love the patchwork pieces that I create. They take the longest time because it's all the remnants from other pieces I've made – I put them together to make the patchwork and then cut the pattern out to create the jeans. It’s time-consuming but when you see the end result it's just beautiful and it's one of one. Every single piece is unique. 
"One of my goals with Revival is also to teach people how to upcycle their own clothes and get people doing stuff themselves like mending and sewing – really making it a normal thing. In the same way you can make yourself a fried egg, you can mend a button yourself. I started doing workshops this year just to get people to understand their wardrobe a bit better. They can bring along an item from their wardrobe that they haven't worn in years or the zipper’s broken or something so they can mend it or transform it into something completely different. They go home with a feeling of like, 'Yeah, I accomplished this', and hopefully feel empowered to do that again and again."

Rosie Brain, The Free-Motion Embroiderer

"Growing up I was always encouraged to mend my clothes. I was always the one who'd hem my brother’s trousers and shirts, lengthen them again, stitch on badges, that sort of thing. Then at one point while I was at uni doing a BA in textile design, I worked on a repair project that was focused on ways to mend denim jeans. It was about drawing attention to the holes in them and making them into something beautiful, instead of trying to kind of cover them up. I think we should be proud that we keep our clothes long enough and still keep them after they're damaged. You can just find new ways to make them beautiful so you can carry on using them. 
"Early last year I started mending things. I got a blouse from Depop and it had a little hole in the sleeve so I embroidered some leaves over it. Now alongside my own embroidery practice, I’ve started working for clothing repair startups who have teams of makers that connect with clients and mend products in particular ways. I also started going on Vinted, Depop and to charity shops, and literally looking for things that were damaged or had holes or stains in them. I’ll upcycle and sell them, or use them as samples that people can look at and say, 'Hey, maybe I'd like something similar to that'. So I've been working more on that recently and trying to get the word out.
"People tend to find me because of my TikTok and Instagram. Most of them like watching my videos because I think they find them particularly satisfying. They also get confused about how the machine works, because the width of the stitch is controlled by a knee pedal and it's not a particularly common machine and not a huge amount of people really know how to use them anymore. Some of them say it looks like witchcraft or magic when I'm stitching things. 
"What I love about mending is, firstly, there's a story behind it. And it's just nice to know that it's not going to end up in landfill, that you can turn an item into something beautiful that somebody is going to really appreciate. If you have a piece that's particularly special, particularly unique, you're more likely to keep it for longer. You're likely to wear it more and also just get it mended again if it does get damaged in the future."

Georgia De Castro Keeling, The Tender Mender

"My mum had an upcycling label called From Somewhere and she works in sustainability now. So growing up I always had threads and needles and buttons and offcuts to play around with and I would mend my clothes – but just in a functional way. Even though my mum worked in fashion, I was never very interested in it. Like, I hate shopping (although I've been lucky in the sense that my mum did also make loads of beautiful clothes). But my background is fine art, so I suppose I’ve kind of come to it through an art route. 
"When my mum wrote a book called Loved Clothes Last, I did the illustrations for it – it’s about sustainability, upcycling and my mum's work, and there's some basic mending techniques in it. In order to learn how to do the drawings, I taught myself the techniques because I wouldn't have been able to draw it without knowing how to do it. And then I became completely addicted. Like really obsessed. I started doing my friends' and family’s clothes, mending holes, mending tears, patching, bits of embroidery here and there, and it just became something that I really loved doing. There's something really tender about it. 
"A friend of mine was recently in hospital for quite a long time and she had a dressing gown that belonged to her grandmother who had recently died. It got really muffled so I repaired the gown for her in really bright, beautiful colours for her to wear when she was at the hospital. At the time she was living in America and so I sent it to her as a way to be there with her.
"Mending is ancient and essential work that feels quite lost in the world of throwaway [culture]. And I suppose I think about repair quite a lot in general. It's an important thing in life – not just repairing clothes but in relationships and environmentally, and in terms of mental health. I also run an art group in an inpatient psychiatric ward so repair and creativity all kind of fuses together in this small act of mending."

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