Giving old clothes new life

Olivia Ho learning fashion upcycling from textile artist Agatha Lee. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

The Sunday Times' Olivia Ho goes on a quest to learn how to upcycle her old apparel

I hold my breath and position my scissors. I am about to cut into fabric that has been dated to the 1930s - which means it could be as old as my grandmother.

"I don't think I can do this," I whisper to textile artist Agatha Lee, Agy for short, who is leaning over my shoulder.

"It's okay," she says soothingly. "Just go for it."

Every few months in the shophouse quarters of Fashion Makerspace, Agy runs a workshop on how to repair and restyle clothes, which I am now attending as part of my quest to learn how to upcycle.

For nearly three years now, I have not bought new clothes. I wear mostly second-hand, thrifted or vintage apparel. At least a quarter of my wardrobe was handed down from a family member, usually my mother.

Despite this, my closet is still brimming with clothes I do not wear, which I would like to address without contributing to the world's dire problem of textile waste.

Thanks to fast fashion and relentless consumption rates, the fashion industry is the second-biggest polluter in the world.

In her new book, Fashionopolis, journalist Dana Thomas looks at the environmental cost of fashion. She quotes World Bank estimates that the sector is responsible for nearly 20 per cent of all industrial water pollution annually and releases 10 per cent of the carbon emissions in the air. One kilogramme of cloth can generate 23 kg of greenhouse gases.

“Upcycling takes effort. It is the choice between the ease of throwing away or donating a piece of clothing and taking the time to really look at it again, to consider what else you could do with it.”

Colossal amounts of natural resources go into producing our clothes - only for most of them to be thrown away. Of the more than 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, writes Thomas, 20 per cent goes unsold. "Worldwide, we jettison 2.1 billion tonnes of fashion," she claims, adding that we might think it is going to needy folk - but really, most of it ends up in landfill, where it will spend hundreds, if not thousands of years failing to decay.

Obviously, the best way to counteract all this would be to stop buying clothes altogether, but convincing billions of consumers to do that off the bat seems unlikely.

Thomas recognises as much. In Fashionopolis, she explores options that are more sustainable as well as ethical, given how rife labour exploitation is in the industry.

These options include "slow fashion", the move towards growing locally and producing small-scale instead of en masse; biotech innovations such as laboratory-grown leather or crepe made from orange juice by-product; and circular systems involving the likes of Evrnu, a fibre made completely from garment waste that can be turned into clothes, which can then be broken down again and turned into more clothes.

The cost of such innovations, however, means they are still not widely available to consumers like myself. Not everyone can afford the 3D-printed dresses of Dutch couturier Iris van Herpen or a Stella McCartney spider-silk gown.

If I cannot create circularity within my own system, I can at least try to prolong the lifespan of everything I wear. Which brings us back to the upcycling workshop.

Agy, co-founder of local sustainable retail concept The Green Collective, holds her workshops for people with clothes they no longer wear - because they are unflattering, the wrong size, or simply, now boring - but are loathe to toss out.

There are a number of ways you can upcycle your clothes, she explains. You can embellish them, adjust their silhouettes or break them down into components. Often, it is a simple matter of changing their lengths or repairing a rent.

She shows us photos from previous workshops, in which participants have turned old trousers into yoga mat bags or T-shirts into cushion covers.

I am no seamstress; the last time I touched a sewing machine was in secondary school home economics class, and I need a refresher.

I have taken along my sweeping floor-length white silk organza gown, which I bought for $42.50 in a sale from United States-based Etsy store Simplicity Is Bliss.

The Sunday Times writer Olivia Ho in her white silk organza gown, which she bought for $42.50 in a sale from United States-based Etsy store Simplicity Is Bliss. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

The seller dated it to the 1930s; whether or not this is the case, it arrived in a bad state - no front buttons, holes in the sleeves and yellow stains - and has already been through one round of repairs.

Decades ago, it might have been worn down the aisle by some blushing bride - now, probably someone's grandmother, if she is still alive. She must have been quite a bit taller than me, though. I have stepped on the hem multiple times - causing it to rip at the waistline - and once got it caught between the doors of a lift.

At this rate, I might never wear it again.

My fellow aspiring upcyclers coo over the dress. Somebody remarks that it looks like Taylor Swift's dress in the music video for Safe And Sound, her 2011 song with The Civil Wars. I wonder if Swift ever has to worry about falling down the stairs because she inherited a vintage trip hazard.

I decide to trim 15cms off the dress, so that it will fall to above my ankle. Under Agy's supervision, I painstakingly chalk around the wide circle of its skirt and then, wincing, take a pair of scissors to it.

To my surprise, I manage not to botch this too much. To create an approximation of the original hem, Agy shows me how to roll the material in on itself in tiny increments, press it with an iron to set the folds, then stitch it down with the sewing machine.

Agy and I contemplate the long swathe of leftover organza. "Perhaps you could hem the edges, make a scarf," she suggests. More ironing and stitching. I sigh.

Upcycling fashion, I discover, is not as hard as it looks, but it is time-consuming. It takes me four hours to fix my dress.

In this time, one of my classmates cuts up a skirt with a buckle detail that was too short for her liking and refashions it into a corset belt. Another unpicks an unflattering neckline and turns it into a V-neck. A third spices up a plain denim skirt with colourful print logos cut from another participant's spare fabric.

For the time-strapped, less-ambitious upcycler, there are craft projects such as the ones I pick up at social enterprise Terra SG's public workshop at the inaugural Swapathon by clothing exchange organiser Swapaholic.

At a Terra SG upcycling workshop at Swapaholic's inaugural Swapathon at the Marina Barrage, Olivia Ho learns to sew upholstery scraps into cup-holders. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

It is a sweltering afternoon on the Marina Barrage, but the crafting proves a fun distraction from the heat as I sew upholstery scraps into cup-holders.

Because of the stretchy nature of cotton T-shirt material, it can be cut into thin metre-long ribbons and knotted macrame-style to form a flexible multipurpose holder. Braid it and coil it flat on a cardboard base cut from a milk carton to make a nifty coaster.

Each of these takes less than 15 minutes to complete - a better fate for all those T-shirts mass-printed for company events or packed into goodie bags, only to end up mouldering at the back of a drawer.

Upcycling takes effort. It is the choice between the ease of throwing away or donating a piece of clothing and taking the time to really look at it again, to consider what else you could do with it.

But that was what people did in the time of our grandmothers, before fast fashion and sweatshops and five-dollar tees worn just once.

They made their own clothes or they knew the people who made them. They knew that clothing was effort. They made it to last.

Upcycling reminds you of that effort, just a taste. The next time you toss out a piece of clothing, may it give you pause.


  • WHAT: A family-centric upcycling event by Terra SG
  • WHERE: Marina Barrage, 8 Marina Gardens Drive
  • WHEN: Saturday, 10am to 3pm
  • ADMISSION: Free, register at



  • WHAT: A 4½-hour introductory upcycling workshop
  • WHERE: Fashion Makerspace, 258A South Bridge Road
  • WHEN: Feb 22, 1 to 5.30pm
  • ADMISSION: $95, register at A minimum of three student sign-ups is required for the class to proceed.
  • Fashionopolis: The Price Of Fast Fashion And The Future Of Clothes by Dana Thomas ($33.17) is available at Books Kinokuniya. Upcycling takes effort. It is the choice between the ease of throwing away or donating a piece of clothing and taking the time to really look at it again, to consider what else you could do with it.


This article is in partnership with ST Life.