Green Your Everyday
Personal Care

How to recycle clothing

Clothing is such an interesting thing. Something that was once used solely as a simply practical thing used to keep us warm and clothed has now become a symbol in society. A symbol of status, of tastes, of interests, of orientation and much more! We use our clothes as an expression of who we are and what we want others to perceive us as. In North America, this has become especially true and in an effort to boost sales, clothing companies have lowered clothing prices by employing low cost labor, moving production overseas, and using lower quality materials. They have also employed a concept called fast fashion. Fashion used to be seen in terms of one or two new trends every few years, with customers purchasing only a small number of high quality items to replace older, worn out pieces. But now, new styles are introduced several times a year and sold at ultra low prices which gives the impression that clothing should be seen as a commodity that can be bought, used a few times, and thrown away. So we want to help you stop that last step and make the most out of that clothing.

1 Sell it or give it to someone else. Try this before any of these next suggestions because keeping the clothing item in tact and allowing someone else to use it is the most sustainable way of recycling this item. Post it on kijiji or any of the Facebook Swap and Buy groups (taking pictures with a neutral background and good lighting often boosts people’s interest in the item). You may even earn back a bit of the money that you used to previously buy it. If you can’t get it to sell, try passing it on to someone else. Wear it to the next few social gatherings and offer it to anyone that compliments you on the piece. Or if it’s an item that no longer fits, think of a few friends that the piece would look great on and offer it to them while mentioning why you think it would compliment them. 

2 Use it yourself. If you can’t sell or pass on the item, here are a few suggestions for ways that you can use it yourself.

Fix it. This tip should have been mentioned earlier, but if the piece needs to be mended in any way have a look at this site that gives instructions on how to treat, fix, and maintain most fabrics. There are instructions on how to remove so many kinds of stains, how to care for different materials like leather and lace, as well as mending instructions for beginners to advanced sewing ability. 

Alter it. If you really hate the piece because it doesn’t fit right or gives you a strange silhouette, try tucking it in, pulling it up, hiding the sleeves and seeing if there is a way that the piece could be altered to suit you and your style better. Admittedly, altering clothes gets pretty tricky if you don’t have a sewing machine, but if you’d like to tackle the challenge, you can borrow one from the Lethbridge library. If you’d like to leave the sewing to the experts though, try bringing it to a tailor and having them make the changes. 

Reuse it. If you really hate the piece and don’t want to use it as clothing anymore, there are plenty of ways to put it to use instead. 

Kids clothing. If a dress, shirt, or pair of pants don’t quite fit you, and if you have a little talent with a sewing machine then it’s a great chance to downcycle them into little clothes for the kiddies. This site has some great sewing patterns for lots of kids’ clothes.

Gift wrap. If you have an especially beautiful or quirky piece of clothing, you can cut it into squares or rectangles, sew the edges to keep them from fraying, and use the pieces as unique fabric wrap. This also works wonderfully for sheets or curtains that you would like to preserve. Even better, use old pillow cases as ready made fabric gift wrapping bags. Just fold it smoothly over the item or put the item inside and decorate the case with some twine or a lovely bow. Add a few decorative items like twigs, flowers, or greenery to give it a little more flair. 

Cleaning cloths. Not all fabrics work as cleaning cloths since synthetic fabrics like polyester don’t have a great ability to absorb liquid. But if you have any cotton shirts or old towels or even sheets that just aren’t in the best shape anymore, cut them into uniform squares and use them as washcloths, dish towels, or keep a large stack as a replacement for paper towels. It’s a great way to save some money and prevent more waste. 

Stuffed animals. If you have some worn out socks or old and tattered kids clothes, turn them into stuffed animals or sock puppets that will keep getting used and entertain the kids. 

Doll clothing. Making doll clothing is a great way to use up old clothes, or even scraps from sewing projects. Plus getting the kids involved in the project will be an exciting way to start teaching them how to sew as well.

Grocery and produce bags. If you don’t already have a huge collection of these or you would like to have a few cuter bags, transform old or misfitting shirt into grocery bags (or arm bags).

3 Give it to a secondhand store. This should be the last option, because even though it’s a better option than throwing clothes away, secondhand stores are often inundated with clothing and end up disposing of it themselves when they can’t sell it. Also, finding local secondhand stores is a great way to support local businesses and keep the local economy healthy.

The bottom line with recycling clothing is that…. it’s hard. Really hard. Unlike many other materials like metals, glass, and paper that can be broken down into their individual components, grouped together, and molded into something new, textiles are made with a wide array of materials. And not just that. Materials are also combined and intertwined to create fabrics that have new textures and features. Alone, cotton fabrics are long-lasting and a bit rigid, but adding some elastane gives the fabric a bit more stretch and makes them more comfortable. The problem with this is that, rather than just having one material to recycle, we now have to separate the two materials before they can be recycled. Which is massively time consuming, virtually impossible, and effectively not worth it. While materials like high quality leather can be reconditioned and reconstructed into new pieces, most textiles are made in such an abundance that there is virtually no market for recycling clothing. Instead, it is off loaded onto other countries (flooding their own textile markets with low quality clothing), or it is chopped up and turned into rags and low quality filling. Which is why looking for ways to recycle clothing ourselves is the best way to keep our actions sustainable.