From Riches to Rags: The Afterlife of Your Old Clothes

We all know that person—the one who holds onto unworn clothing for years. Maybe they’re waiting to sell it at a yard sale. Or they haven’t gotten around to sewing a button on their sweater. Maybe they swear they’ll get around to turning old shirts into that quilt idea from Pinterest.

We all know that person. Well, I am that person. Recently, I dug the un-wearables out of my closet and decided to take action. But what to do with all of them? Turns out, there’s plenty you can do with your old clothes—from repair to upcycling to recycling.

And why wouldn’t you want to make your clothes last? After all, we spend lots of time and money on our clothes. And lots of time, money, and resources—like water—goes into making them in the first place. Cotton, for example, is one of the most chemically intensive crops in the world. And many materials that go into clothing production are nonbiodegradable and emit harmful gases once they reach landfills.

Infographic about old clothes going to waste
Infographic courtesy of UsAgain.

In the spirit of making things last, here’s a handy how-to on keeping your clothes in your closet and out of the trash.

Clean or Fix Your Clothes

Upcycling old clothes

Don’t ditch your duds: A simple repair or cleaning can extend the longevity of your clothing. You don’t have to be a seamstress to work some thread magic. Sewing buttons, fixing zippers, and hemming pants are all pretty easy to do. (Be sure to click the links above for more in-depth sewing tutorials.)

Sell, Donate, or Upcycle Your Apparel

Selling or donating are great options for clothes in good condition. Apps like Poshmark or Yerdle let you sell or trade clothes with people. Or check your area for consignment shops or thrift stores. For you DIYers out there, consider upcycling your worn clothes into something entirely different, like this rug crocheted from T-shirts or these mittens made from old sweaters. A quick search on Pinterest will give you limitless options.

Recycle Your Clothes

Too torn to be worn? Textile recyclers shred unwearable clothing for use in industrial rags, mattresses, and insulation. Check out some of these organizations for more info on how to donate your clothes: PlanetAid, SMART, and Council for Textile Recycling. Even retailers like H&M and Patagonia will accept clothes for textile recycling! Pro tip: Many Goodwill locations ship unsellable goods off to textile recyclers, but contact the Goodwill in your area to be sure.

Whatever you choose to do with your old duds, just make sure they don’t join the 11 million tons of textiles American dump in landfills each year. And speaking of old clothes, what did I do with the bag of clothes I dug out of my closet? I upcycled my old tank tops into armbands for my phone, I turned tights into headbands, and I’m always making alterations to my clothing (hemming pants, altering straps on dresses, and stitching up tears).

Upcycling old clothes
I turned my old tights into a headband

I also advocate exchanging clothes with friends. See if there is a Swap-O-Rama-Rama near you, or host your own clothing swap with your friends. I know, the point is to get rid of clothes, not to bring more home—but trust me, we have them at iFixit, and they are a blast!

Banner image cred: Suijten