We tend to like new stuff. Novelty has an irresistible attraction—which is why it can feel so intoxicating to buy a bunch of new clothes on a shopping spree.
As we wear those clothes over time, they often lose the allure they had when we first got them. Maybe they’ve become damaged or worn out. Or maybe they’ve just become so familiar hanging there in the closet that we hardly notice them any longer. We find ourselves passing them over in the mornings for stuff we bought more recently, or just itching for a new purchase entirely. The idea of a closet full of nothing to wear is a cliché for a reason.
This feeling is understandable, but not ideal. Obviously you don’t have to keep every piece of clothing for all eternity. But once you buy an item—after considering your purchase thoughtfully, of course—it’s worth getting as much use out of it as possible.
There are also bigger-picture concerns: Across the world, we’re buying growing volumes of clothes (pdf) that we’re keeping for less time. Most of the clothing we discard can’t be effectively recycled—at least not yet. What we throw out goes to landfills by the ton. What people in wealthy countries donate is frequently bundled up in huge quantities and sold in poorer places such as East Africa, where it can choke out the local textile industries.
The good news it that there are ways to make your clothes feel novel and exciting again, and it’s actually really easy to give them new life. Here are tips for turning those old clothes in your closet into something fresh that you can’t wait to wear.
It sounds obvious to say that you should repair clothes that have been damaged, but too often we don’t. Particularly if an item was cheap, our solution to the problem is simply to throw it away.
Most repairs are extremely simple, and cheap. They could include ripped seams, or stitching that’s come undone. One common issue you find in inexpensive clothes is they’ve been stitched with low-quality thread that breaks under pressure. Thankfully, while a nuisance, it should be a quick fix for your local tailor and shouldn’t cost much at all. (If a button has fallen off, by the way, you should really just learn how to fix it yourself. It’s so easy.)
There are fixes that get a little more tricky though. One of the most common you see in your heavily worn jeans is what’s often called a crotch blowout. That’s when the fabric in the crotch and seat of your jeans wears away from the constant stretching and abrasion that happens as you walk around. Because the fabric itself has worn out, it requires more than just stitching the edges of the hole back together.
Even that, however, is fixable. A number of denim repair services exist that will actually weave new fabric into the destroyed areas to match the color of your jeans. They can often do other fixes, too, including mending torn knees, holes worn in the back pockets, or broken belt loops.
You can try a Google search to see if there’s a denim repair service in your city. (I personally use Self-Edge in New York.) But even if there isn’t, some services do accept mail-ins, such as Denim Therapy. If you’re in the UK, Manchester’s Denim Doctor take jeans by post too.
The repairs aren’t always completely invisible, but on a garment that’s already well worn, they often don’t look bad at all—in fact, they can add real character. You may even want to let your repairs stand out, taking a cue from Japanese boro textiles and using contrasting fabrics for patches or making the stitching an ornament in itself.
Denim isn’t the only fabric you can have rewoven. If a hole has opened up in a favorite sweater or wool jacket, whether from wear or hungry moths, there are reweaving services that can take care of those, too. Knitwear Doctor and AlterKnit accept mail-ins, but there may also be a local service in your city.
Sometimes the damage to your clothes isn’t a hole at all, but a stain. Or maybe you find you just don’t wear that banana yellow dress, though you would if it were a different color.
In either case, a simple way to give old clothes a radical makeover is dying them. Stubborn stains can be covered up, and changing the color of a garment is an easy way to make it feel brand new.
You can try dyeing at home yourself. But it can be messy, and you might not get the results you hoped for, depending on the fabric and the color you want. For more than the simplest job, particularly if it’s something of value, consider going to an expert.
Metro Dyeing is one service that will dye individual garments for you. Just approach the process knowing that the results can vary based on factors such as your item’s original color, what color you want to dye it to, and the fabric composition. Turning a dark shirt into one that’s brightly colored might just not be an option. Or if it’s a polyester-cotton blend, the polyester fibers and the cotton fibers will take in the dye differently, potentially meaning the final color might not be as deep and rich as you want.
Polyester, in fact, can be particularly tricky, since it doesn’t accept dye easily. “Polyester has to be dyed at 280 degrees Fahrenheit in an enclosed pressure chamber, otherwise, it is impervious to the dye,” Metro Dyeing notes on a handy page laying out what can and can’t be dyed, and what customers can expect. “When polyester is blended with natural fibers such as cotton or silk, it can sometimes be difficult to dye both fibers to match without causing damage to the natural fiber.”
Garments can also shrink in the dying process—especially delicate items such as wool sweaters. Be flexible about what your options are, and get in touch with the dyeing service you choose first to ask their opinion.
One thing people tend to forget about clothing is that it’s adjustable. Sometimes changing the shape of an item, whether the fit isn’t perfect or it’s just something you’ve grown tired of, is enough to refresh it.
There are all sorts of ways you can alter your clothes, from jeans all the way up through suits. You can taper pant legs, shorten them, raise the hemline of a dress or skirt, take in the width of a jacket, or add darts to the back of a shirt to make it fit better. Your pleated pants can become flat-front. Your long-sleeve shirt can become short-sleeve. These are relatively inexpensive ways to revive your clothes. Just find a tailor you trust and ask them what’s possible.
These options are also important to remember because our bodies don’t all stay the same for years on end. We may occasionally need the waist of an item taken in, or let out, if we want to keep wearing it.
To know whether you can get a little more room in, say, a pair of pants or a skirt, check the seams on the inside. Clothing often used to come with some extra allowance in the seams for that purpose, but that’s less common today. Andy Kozinn, of the tailoring shop Kozinn + Sons in New York, told the fashion blog Man Repeller that a minimum of 3/8 of an inch of fabric should be available to let a seam out. The more you want it let out, of course, the more extra fabric you need. (If it’s something you anticipate, that’s something you may want to look for next time you go shopping.)
Tailors can also change garments more fundamentally. You can alter the neckline of a dress, or adjust its entire shape. “I wish that people looked in their closets to see what they have,” Ashley Liemer, founder of Dress Noble, which designs and makes hospitality uniforms, told Man Repeller. “I think a lot of clothing can be reconstructed and repurposed.”
Just keep in mind that the more complex the job, the more a tailor will charge. Reconstructions can get expensive.
If you find yourself bored of everything you own and purchasing new clothes just for the sake of it, you might actually consider spending more per item. You may find that you get more value for your money if you’re buying thoughtfully and springing for better quality.
When you buy well-constructed clothes, they can—and should—last a long time. Simple changes or more extensive ones can help you fall back in love with an old favorite garment, whether it’s a one-of-a-kind designer dress or a fast-fashion knock-off. And that’s the point: Whatever you spent on your clothes, you bought them to wear them. Now wear them as much as you can.