Clothes modification – giving a second life to the clothes you don’t love anymore

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[Written by Martha Scott]

We constantly hear about how bad ‘fast fashion’ is, both from an environmental and an ethical point of view. The rapid cycle of production and consumption of clothes is destroying our planet; it’s also well known that the people making our cheap clothes rarely receive a fair wage.

Although these problems are now widely recognised, our appetite for cheap clothes is only increasing. Some signs of change have emerged within the industry, as retail giants like H&M, have been responding to criticism by launching high-profile sustainability campaigns. Recently, the British Fashion Council launched the ‘Positive Fashion’ initiative to encourage companies to make better choices. An American company called Everlane has introduced a strategy it calls ‘radical transparency’, openly displaying the costs of materials and labour on its website. But critics say openness without a radical change in practices is not enough – is all of this just lip service?

While it’s promising to see some accountability being promoted at the top, it’s hard to feel like we consumers can make a difference. Do we actually ‘source’ our clothes or just accept what’s presented to us? Something I have always enjoyed, somewhere between the new and the old, is modifying existing items of clothing to create something that feels new and looks different.

I was brought up with a very ‘make do and mend’ attitude. My mum taught me how to sew and how to patch clothes, and so customising garments was something I did without thinking. In my early teens, I would consider clothes ‘boring’ unless they had some kind of embroidery. I loved the idea of having a totally unique style, while also having endless projects to improve the life span of my wardrobe.

So if you have ever wondered how to get more use out of an aging jumper, or what to do with those plain black pumps, here are some tips that I’ve found inspiring over the years. Some require a little sewing ability, and the others only need a smattering of glue!


1. Cut it. Even if all you feel able to do at this stage is grab a pair of scissors, there are still some great possibilities. The most obvious one is, of course, old jeans converted to shorts. Because it’s denim, you won’t even have to worry about that hem! Another easy transformation is from a shirt to a vest top – chop the sleeves, and you’ve got another summer style. This technique can probably be applied to any basic top/shirt (if you don’t mind a little fraying), and not only to the sleeves, but also to the length for a crop top. If the fraying bothers you, a thin hem can be hand sewn with the most basic stitches.

2. Convert it. Sometimes we make impulsive buys – even from charity shops – where the item just isn’t needed. But you can convert them with a little sewing skill and imagination. Square summer scarves can be tied into tops, held in place with a brooch or badge. An old winter jumper can be sewn into a hat and pair of gloves that redeem the winter months.

3. Combine it. If you are slightly more ambitious, two garments can be combined to make a new one with the help of a sewing machine. Turn a top into a tunic (if you have a little extra material to hand), or cut out an embroidered or patterned neckline from one top and apply it onto another. Or combine the bottom of a top with the top of a shirt (try saying that five times)…

4. Dye it. If you’re feeling retro, why not tie-dye? Or if you’re playing it a bit safer, simply change the colour of a faded old top into a bright new one! It’s a great solution for when fabric looks a bit tired and faded, but is not used enough to justify recycling.

5. Embroider it. This is my personal favourite. Ever since my mum taught me how to do running stitch, I thought jeans were dull without embroidery on the pockets or the hem. Very amateur stuff, but effective. There’s pretty much no limit to where a few stitches can make a great difference – sleeves, necklines, hems, shoulder seams, pockets…

6. Embellish it. Finally – and all you need for this one is glue – embellish what you’ve got! This works with plain black pumps or  handbags as well as clothing. Everyone will have some bits and bobs lying around, regardless of how crafty they are – even if it’s just the spare buttons you get with coats and shirts. All sorts can be used to add some pizazz: trims, lace, ribbons, buttons, badges, patches, beads, glitter… Some of my favourites have been tying bows with ribbons and sticking them to the front of pumps or the back of heels, switching up the buttons on coats, adding trims or badges to bags, and adding lace to the sleeves/hems of pyjamas.


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