The jumpsuit that sporadically pops open and bares my bra. The T-shirt with a weirdly wobbly hem. The wrap dress my husband tells me looks “a bit Tory party conference”. I’m not proud to admit that my wardrobe contains many misfires. There are items that don’t fit, don’t suit me or which feel like souvenirs from a forgotten identity crisis. There are cherished gems, yes, but they are bookended by many more examples of buyer’s remorse.
But all is not lost. An increased interest in repairs and upcycling – seen everywhere from the rise of alterations businesses on Depop to the new repair “concierge” at Selfridges – could bring such unloved garms back to life. And with charity shops overflowing – and more of us wanting to save on waste, spend less money and keep our clothes for longer – making the most of what we have got could not feel more timely. You don’t need sewing skills to spin your wardrobe – all of the tips below could be taken to a professional – though you may need some time, and to think about your clothing a bit differently.
“As a society, we are so removed from the process of making an item of clothing that we don’t even understand what is possible using the clothes we already own,” says Layla Sargent, who last year launched The Seam, to connect customers with local seamstresses. The following expert tips will give you some ideas.
1. Cuff trouser hems
Sarah Hunter is a fashion fiend who started upcycling and altering charity shop finds – and her existing wardrobe – about a year ago, when she started feeling uncomfortable about “getting sucked into Instagram, and the idea of buying lots of new things for the grid.” Having studied costume design in the 90s, she has excellent sewing skills, and her Instagram is chock-full of fashion-hack inspiration. She promises me that elastic cuffing is very easy and can transform any wide-legged trousers, from jogging bottoms to jumpsuits, provided the fabric is “flimsy” enough to take the new shape. YouTube tutorials abound, but Hunter believes the simplest way is to make a small opening at the seam of an existing hem, feed the elastic through with a safety pin on the loose end, tie the elastic with a knot and sew the opening closed.
2. Rethink office shirts
When Gayle Bennett’s father died of cancer 18 months ago, she decided to transform one of his shirts into a top with a low neckline and a tie on the front: “My dad’s shirt, but in my style,” she says. Reworking men’s shirts is now a design signature for her Soul and Flare Depop shop, which sells vintage and customised pieces from a sewing studio in Nottingham. Bennett is passionate about low-waste fashion, and says that office shirts are great for upcycling (“first, because the cotton has already been produced, and is a beautiful fabric, and, second, because they are one of the hardest items to sell in charity shops”), given that many office workers want a crisp look and will only buy new. Bennett runs a customisation service should you have a shirt to transform, with prices ranging from £28 for a simple top to £98 for her “Renata” dress, which uses frills and pleats.
3. Turn old T-shirts into accessories
Black Girl Knit club was founded early last year, taking inspiration from the hashtag “#diverseknitty”, which called for diversity within craft and knitting. Founders Sicgmone Kludje and Vea Koranteng describe the club as a “safe and inclusive space for Black women and female creatives”, with a mission to promote hand skills, and explore sustainability, “in a way that is fun and available for all”. One of their best upcycling tips involves turning T-shirts that have reached the end of their life into yarn, which can then be knitted into headbands, bracelets and necklaces, making superb gifts. Details for the T-shirt process can be found here; the bracelet technique is here.
4. Make use of the better half
If your wardrobe is full of dresses that would be great if only they had different sleeves, or jumpsuits whose chic necklines are undermined by saggy bottoms, you could try repurposing them using the half you like. Hunter frequently combines two garments, stitching the top of a dress to the skirt of another, for example, something an alterations service should be able to do for you fairly inexpensively, particularly if the skirt has a built-in waistband. An even simpler version of this fashion hack is to make a skirt or top by slicing up a dress.
5. Revive your old denim
“Don’t throw denim away,” says Hunter, who believes that “denim upcycling is going to become a big thing. Lots of designers are working with contrasting denim, which can give you ideas.” Denim hacks range from simple tapering – one of Bennett’s most popular services is transforming wide-legged jeans into something slimmer for which she charges about £16 – to more complicated upcycles, such as swapping in contrasting denim panels in denim jackets. For patches and panels, Hunter buys kilo-bags of unsaleable denim from the online charity shop Refashion for £8; she is currently mulling putting triangular panels into a pair of skinnies for a vintage 1970s look. Bennett is passionate about repairing jeans, too, and a “big fan” of visible mending, adding patches and closing holes with embroidery or hand-stitching. Meanwhile, Twishika Daley, a designer who works a lot with The Seam, has put the calves of trashed jeans to good use, upcycling them into the arms for an oversized, baggy jumper made of loopback jersey. (She could do something similar with your old jeans from about £45, depending on the level work required.) If you’re brave and you know what you want – and you like the frayed look – you could very easily slice the bottom of some jeans, or even the collar off a denim jacket, yourself.
6. Repurpose vintage scarves
If you have any silk scarves around that you do not wear, Bennett recommends turning them into a scrunchie, a simple process that can be done by hand, she says. “Get a piece of elastic, sew your favourite vintage scarf into a long tube, by hand, put the elastic through the tube, scrunch it up and hand-sew it closed.” The Eco-Age founder and campaigner Livia Firth has gone further and repurposed four of her mother’s vintage Hermès scarves from the 70s and 80s into two maxi skirts, commissioning a seamstress she works with a lot to sew them together, adding just a waistband and a button at the side.
7. Jazz up your sportswear
“People may overlook their gym wear when looking to upcycle, but they can be altered to be very wearable for lots of different occasions just by changing the fit,” say Eme Ikpeme and Heather Swindlehurst, the duo behind Hemmed, a Depop shop which has a very distinct aesthetic – quite a body-con take on upcycling – with cropped hoodies and shrunken sports tops its most popular styles. Hemmed offers an alterations service which, they say, was developed during lockdown “when we knew people would be looking to save money and clearing out their wardrobes. Charity shops were closed, and many were no longer taking donations. It seemed like a great idea to provide a service for people that would allow them to relove their clothes.” Alterations start at about £8, and rarely veer over £15, and Ikpeme and Swindlehurst will brainstorm ideas for alterations if you’re not sure what you want. They also make multiple garments out of single items – shorts and a top out of a T-shirt, say – and scrunchies and headbands out of their offcuts, ensuring nothing goes to waste.
8. Dye it
Tie dye was almost as intrinsic to lockdown life as sourdough bread and anxiety, and is a superb way of rejuvenating tired cotton T-shirts and boring old socks. Here’s how to do it, according to London Fashion Week designer Golan Frydman. If you are keen to reduce your impact on your wardrobe on the environment you might want to give commercial dyes, with their harsh chemicals, a swerve. Start with this excellent guide to natural dyes by Justine Aldersey-Williams of the Wild Dyery.
9. Replace dodgy fastenings
Sometimes bad fastenings happen to good garments, whether it’s the button that repeatedly catches in your hair or my own personal repeat wardrobe fail, the aforementioned jumpsuit with its basically useless hook-and-eye fastening. All can be replaced, says Bennett, whether you’re swapping a button for a decorative ribbon or putting a zip in or trying corset-style lacing. Or, if there is another fastening elsewhere on the garment, stitching up the seam altogether.
10. Take time to address the small issues
Regrettably, I’ve always felt too short on time – and not keen to spend as much on alterations as I did on a garment in the first place – to take repairs and alterations seriously. I’ve also had more than my share of days when I feel – daftly, as I rifle through garments – that I have nothing to wear. Now, in my wardrobe I see T-shirts that are made from lovely fabric, but are too long for my very short body (£12 to fix that, reckons Daley), a jacket that makes me feel like an extra in Working Girl (Hunter suggests snipping out the shoulder pads for a softer look), and a skirt I love but don’t wear owing to a broken stitch which puffs out of the seam (Bennett tells me, very patiently, that she could mend this for the princely sum of £2). I am starting to see the error of my ways.