Making Old Clothing New Again

Clothing thrown away before it reaches the real end of its useful lifetime is not only wasted, but wastes resources. For example, that T-shirt you threw in the trash last week required 400 gallons of water to create, from cotton boll to store shelf. That pair of blue jeans you’re thinking about dumping ended up using 1,800 gallons; add another 200 gallons if they were stonewashed.

Silk, linen and wool also use water in their growth and/or production, though in lesser quantities than thirsty cotton. Synthetic, manmade fibers like polyester, Dacron, rayon and Orlon use petroleum instead, but petroleum is, like water, becoming increasingly scarce and expensive as populations rise and industry grows.

The cost of clothing is not just its price in terms of dollars, but its cost in terms of environmental resources. Thus, when you throw away clothing that still has some life left, you are throwing away not only hard-earned dollars but also natural resources — some of which (like petroleum, and water) are not renewable.

There are a lot of obvious remedies for recycling clothing back into your wardrobe once they become slightly warn and outdated. Some of these remedies include turning pants into shorts, adding decorative buttons, a fabric or leather belt, or even embellishing with embroidered patches or appliques, which come ready-made or can be ordered custom-made.


In fact, there are a lot of quick fixes. If you’ve got a hole in one knee, add patch pockets to both. If the sleeve of a blouse is torn, remove both sleeves and add a rim of lace or rickrack. If your hands are afflicted with arthritis, you can sew or glue buttons to one edge of a blouse, and cover the buttonholes with narrow, white Velcro.

Many of the quick fixes, and some of the more involved projects, may appear to require a sewing machine. However, given the long-lasting adhesion of many modern fabric glues, this is no longer true. You can, for example, extend the hem of a pair of blue jeans, adding a fabric insert in the outside seam (a la 1970s bellbottoms) using nothing more than glue or an iron-on fabric bonding compound called Pellon.


Stains are another quick fix. One spot of paint on your favorite sweatshirt can be heartbreaking. But what if the whole shirt were spotted with paint? That might be an artistic statement, and you can create it by (a) buying a long, 3-inch wide nylon bristle paintbrush; (b) hanging the sweatshirt in the back yard, where paint residue won’t matter; and (c) rapping the paint-soaked paintbrush sharply against a piece of wood or metal, creating a splatter pattern of paint blotches. Experiment with the technique on an old sheet until you find the best way. And remember that the same technique (using bleach instead of paint) can rescue a shirt on which you accidentally dripped Clorox.

If you’re not satisfied with splatter-painting, try tie-dying or batik. The first requires nothing more than a rubber band, while the second is achieved by melting wax on fabric — either in random patterns or using a stencil (prior to successive coats of dye) and is somewhat more complicated.

Iron-On Decals

You can also make your own iron-on clothing decals with a color printer, iron-on transfer paper, and images you take from the Internet. Just be sure the image isn’t under copyright. A paper sized (8.5 x11) iron-on will cover a lot of “oops” and give you something to talk about if the image is that of your first baby, for example. Or your favorite pet. When you’re tired of the image, iron the transfer until it can be peeled off again. Then use Goo Gone to clean up the residue.

Colorful Square of Fabric

Another wonderfully colorful and interesting way to rescue any knit shirt (sweatshirt, T-shirt, etc.) from oblivion is to sew a colorful square of fabric to the back side of the front of the shirt, print side facing up. Then sew a grid (of horizontal and vertical stitching lines of equal distance) inside the large square, making the squares about 1-inch for heavy fabrics and as little as 1/2-inch for lighter fabrics.

After sewing the grid, cut from the center of each square toward one corner, forming an X. Wash the shirt in cold water and dry. Watch as each fabric triangle curls back to reveal the pattern beneath. The effect is like a field of flowers. However, don’t try it on non-knit fabrics, as they will only ravel.

Layered Look

You can also use the layered look to rescue that favorite shirt with the stain on the front. A tiny, strappy pink stretch tee over a red silk blouse is a fashion statement without parallel; vibrant, avant garde and sexy. If your teenager argues that your clothing creation isn’t stylish, remind her that all ‘new looks’ have to start somewhere. Why not at home?


Finally, when clothes are past resuscitating, donate them for use in quilts or braided (“rag”) rugs, or make them yourself. You can find how-to videos on the latter on YouTube, and books on making the former in any book or craft store.

That way, the fabric can “live” for many more years, even generations, getting full value of all the resources consumed in making it.