i tried upcycling my old UNIQLO blouse. here’s what happened.

Inspired by a contest organised by UNIQLO Singapore and DesignSingapore, one futr writer tries her hand at upcycling pre-loved clothes…

What do you do with old clothes, or clothes that no longer fit you? In my home, most of our old garments usually meet one of two possible outcomes. Clothes in good condition get donated, while tattered ones become rags. However, not all textiles are created equal, and even a rag has some ideal qualities, such as not easily fraying or leaving behind lint. Unfortunately, materials like cotton and linen are prone to forming lint, and thus aren’t ideal for cleaning glossy surfaces like windows and mirrors. After clearing out my wardrobe one day, I thought, why not get creative with some of these would-be rags, and upcycle them?

what is upcycling?

The idea of upcycling is not altogether new, but is still fairly modern compared to the three ‘R’s, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. A few different definitions float around, and upcycling is sometimes used interchangeably with recycling. However, a key difference lies in the end product of upcycled and recycled material. Upcycled items are often considered to be of higher value, or have some artistic value. On the other hand, recycled items are broken down before they return to a manufacturing cycle as one of the base materials. Upcycling also doesn’t necessarily retain the original purpose of the item, such as these metal sculptures made from scrap metal and parts at an open-air exhibit in Busan, South Korea. (Imagine if Bumblebee’s engine started revving though.)

Some time ago, I’d come across a design challenge organised by UNIQLO Singapore and DesignSingapore Council, where participants were asked to design wearable garments from pre-loved UNIQLO outfits. The refreshed outfits had to be both aesthetically pleasing and functional, while weaving in each designer’s signature style.

Well, colour me inspired.

And it just so happened that of clothes I’d cleared, one of it was an old UNIQLO top, perfect for upcycling!

At this point, I have to admit my complete lack of experience working with fabric. Sure, I’ve crocheted and knitted a thing or two, but with my finer needlework confined to only fastening loose buttons, I wasn’t feeling too confident about successfully pulling my ambitious upcycling project off. 

And so, I opted to start simple.

item #1: a seat cover for my chair.

Here’s the thing. Spending many hours WFHing means you tend to discover a thing or two about your room you never previously realised. Like how hot your seat can really get, especially if the air conditioning isn’t turned on. With the seat of my IKEA office chair being made of more coarse and thicker material, it often traps a lot more heat than I am comfortable with.

Luckily, I had more than enough fabric to go around.

For a UNIQLO top I had owned for about ten years, it was still in mostly great condition apart from the odd hole and some frays in the collar. The material was also 100% cotton, which is often touted by many bedding manufacturers to be ideal material since it is more breathable than others and regulates temperature well. Most of all, the top’s oversized cut afforded me a large enough sheet of fabric that almost perfectly fitted the seat of my chair. All I needed to do was tie the ends together at the base.

Tadah! No assembly required.
Image credits: Samantha Phua

Well, that wasn’t so bad. Was I ready for something more challenging? Sure thing!

item #2: a hair scrunchie.

The other thing about really warm days is how everything feels that much warmer when your hair is long. A hair scrunchie seemed liked the perfect idea — I could put my hair up and not worry about the strands getting tangled with the elastic, as hair is prone to do. A quick Google later, and I had some simple-enough instructions to follow courtesy of The Spruce Crafts.

Just let Google be your guide.
Image credits: Samantha Phua

It soon became clear how out of my depth I was with sewing in general. Sure, the instructions were simple to follow, but who knew how tedious they’d be without a sewing machine? It would be at least another hour and a half and many hand stitches later, that I would have a reasonable end product. I even tested it out for good measure, too.

Achievement unlocked! I had one more item on the list, and now, brimming with (over)confidence, I went about my merry way.

item #3: a carrier for my collapsible containers.

For a few years now, I’ve had these silicone collapsible bowls that I’d use instead of single-use disposables. Since the bowls are collapsible, these were convenient to carry around in my work bag. Especially when I was more inclined to eating at my desk, these bowls came in handy for dabaoing food from nearby coffee shops and hawker centres. The only problem was, most of the lunch bags and carriers I had were ill-fitting, and often the bowls would sit lopsided, poorly balanced and prone to leakage.

Having gained confidence from my rather successful hair scrunchie, I sought to “design” my own carrier for these collapsible bowls. There was still plenty of fabric to spare, so what could go wrong?

Everything, of course.

It seems that beginners’ luck only lasts so long, and with one too many irreversible errors (like cutting the fabric wrong and stitches going awry), I ended up with a much, much smaller carrier than intended. Cue facepalm.

Thankfully, not all hope was lost. The carrier turned out to be a good fit for my collapsible Stojo cup, which means that now I wouldn’t have to worry about the cup leaking in my backpack, or my hands getting too cold holding my iced coffee-filled Stojo. I see this as an absolute win.

By this point, not only had my ego been taken down a few notches, my fingers were also sore from nearly five hours of sewing. It was time to call it a day.

is upcycling easy?

Like many other sustainable endeavours, upcycling is not the easiest thing to do. It will require planning and effort, and sometimes may not turn out the way you expect it to. But is it worthwhile? Absolutely. From a single, threadbare outfit, I’ve come away with three different items that will come in handy in my daily life. And, it’s not just old clothes that can be upcycled. Once you’ve opened up to a world of possibilities, there are many more household items that can be given new life through upcycling. Just imagine all the waste you could avoid producing… So, give it a shot! If you’re not sure where to start, Google has plenty of ideas for you.

Now, time to figure out what to do with all that scrap fabric…

Enjoyed this article? Find out how this writer shopped eco-consciously for a month, or how coding could save the environment.

samantha phua

When she's not busy being the editor of autoapp.sg, Sam has a myriad of unique hobbies to keep life interesting. She also loves cats, bad puns and a good cocktail.

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