How can I get into upcycling clothes?

@yvonneandmitchel on Instagram

Asking for a friend: DIY clothing is sustainable and saves pennies – it’s a win-win. Want to give your wardrobe a revamp but don’t know where to start? We’ve consulted some experts so you can give old garms a new lease of life.

There are three pretty good reasons to start trying your hand at DIY clothing. Firstly, it’s cost effective, which is handy since we’re in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. It’s also infinitely more sustainable than those fast fashion hauls you swear you’ll cut down on, and usually much cooler than anything you’ll find on those sites anyway. The end result? A one-of-a-kind piece customised by yours truly. It’s a no brainer, really.

But taking a pair of scissors to an old jacket you once loved can be scary, y’know? That’s why we got on the phone to couple Caylin Yvonne Willis and Jared Mitchel Armstrong, AKA the minds behind upcycling label Yvonne and Mitchel. You might recognise them from TikTok, where their videos have earned them tens of thousands of followers. In their world, anything can be transformed into fashion: old chair upholstery turns into a maxi skirt, denim scraps become mini skirts, unwanted cargo shorts find new life as a halter top.

The pair initially bonded over vintage clothing and soon began a business selling their finds. But, having been taught to sew by his mother in high school, every now and then Jared would put a piece aside to play with. As the years went on, his sewing skills got better and better with more practice. In 2020, we decided we would transition from selling vintage to selling upcycled pieces,” explains Caylin, who handles the business side of things. Neither of us have a fashion background – Jared studied health sciences, I did journalism – so I think it’s helpful for people to know that, even if you don’t know all the technicalities of [making clothes], you can still do it.”

And as you’d expect, sustainability is at the heart of what they do. We really are trying to show that no matter the industry you’re in, no matter what you’re doing, we should be trying to find creative ways to use what we already have,” says Jared. Let’s put our creativity together to find new ways to use old things instead of new ways to make new things and over-consume.”

Already feeling a little more inspired after these words of wisdom? Well then, you’d better keep reading for all of their best tips on how to get started.

Stock up on the basic kit

Jared: I just use a pretty basic at-home sewing machine. I don’t know the exact model, but it is a Singer and it’s heavy duty, so I can work with a lot of different fabrics. Then I would say you need a pair of heavy duty sharp scissors, a large table and some old clothes that you want to cut up. A mannequin [is also useful], as it’s hard to make something that fits to a form without having a shape. Honestly, having a mannequin was a big jump in my creative process.”

Caylin: Thread and a seam ripper is also necessary as well, to deconstruct those pieces and repurpose them.”

Use clothes and fabrics that no one else wants

Caylin: Our first advice is to always try to gravitate towards something that’s less likely to be worn. We try to find stuff that maybe has a few holes or a few stains that, if someone’s just shopping for something to wear at the thrift store, they might overlook. We try to push ourselves to find those items that are most likely to end up in a landfill, so that we can give them a second life.

In terms of fabrics, denim is great to work with. It’s hard to sew because it’s thicker, but it lasts a really long time and there’s so much that you can do with it in terms of distressing and fraying.

You can even go beyond your closet and clothing, too, especially for people who like to use patterns. Look into your linen closet or, if you’re thrifting, find cool antique towels, pillowcases, blankets or even curtains. Those big pieces of fabric are similar to the ones you would buy at a fabric store. And when you’re working with a big piece of cloth like that, it’s easier to cut up and use a pattern with.”

Start simple

Jared: When upcycling something out of your closet, a good starting project would be cropping something and then trying to finish the hem with a simple, rollover technique.”

Caylin: We actually uploaded a YouTube video on our channel that was three different no-sew upcycle ideas, where all you really needed was a pair of scissors, an old shirt and maybe some fabric glue. So even if you’re not comfortable sewing, there are different ideas out there that you can try out.”

Take your projects to the next level with hardware

Caylin: Something Jared does a lot is add different hardware recycled pieces that we find from thrift stores and yard sales. At those places, we’re able to find little necklace or earring charms, belt loops or buckles, or even keychains that you can hang from different parts of your clothing – safety pins are a lot of fun to play with, too. Adding chrome or gold accents like that is an easy way to elevate a piece.”

Jared: I use a lot of silver grommets, too. Those add a little bit of texture and shine. A lot of the time, we’ll also have bags that I will cut buckles, rings and chains off to reuse in certain ways.”

Look to the past for inspiration

Jared: I think this resurgence of upcycling is really reminiscent of what was happening in the early 2000s. Often, I’ll make a piece and then I’ll see something on a Pinterest board from early 00s Dolce & Gabbana, and I’m doing the exact same thing today without even knowing it. So look back at vintage [for inspiration], even just trying to recreate things that you’ve seen before, and even if you don’t get exactly what you’re going for. The great thing about upcycling is it’s just so personal to you.”

Don’t give up on DIYs gone wrong

Jared: This happens to me two or three times on every single piece I make. If I create a hole somehow, I will just find new ways to patch over it. If something doesn’t quite fit right, then I add fabric in certain ways to help.”

Caylin: A lot of the time, Jared will make a piece and maybe he’s not super satisfied with the outcome, so we set it aside. He might not come back to it for a few weeks, a few months, or even a year, but he’ll revisit it and sort of upcycle the upcycle. DIY is very raw, it’s kind of rugged, and the whole point of it is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. If you end up messing up or creating something you don’t like, just come back to it later. You could always repurpose it and change it into another item.”

Future proof your creations

Caylin: The more durable the fabric, the longer it’s going to last. So like I mentioned earlier, denim is our go-to, just because it lasts for such a long time. Also, we don’t ever upcycle modern fabric or modern garments. We find vintage fabrics, because a lot of the time, those fabrics aren’t modern blends and took longer to make, so they’re a lot more durable. If you find something in a thrift store or your closet that you’ve had for a really long time, and the fabric is still holding up, that’s a good sign.”

Jared: A little bit of basic knowledge on thread and stitching techniques would be helpful. A lot of times, I get worried about how long an upcycle will last, so I will double stitch certain areas to make sure that it’s just a little bit more durable.”

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