Part 2: Repurpose
In the first installment of this blog series, I emphasized the importance of care and repair to keep your gear and activewear functioning for as long as possible. However, at some point everything wears out, no matter how well you take care of it. The purpose of this post is to get your creative juices flowing with ways to reuse and repurpose items in order to give them a second life.
Many of the repurposing ideas I recommend below don’t require special skills like sewing. The sky really is the limit with what you can do with worn out items. Even “non-creative” people can find ways to repurpose. Just as cultivating the mindset of using something as long as possible without regard to aesthetics is important to increased sustainability, so too is the mindset of “how else can this be used?” Throwing something away should always be a last resort, because there is no “away.”
“The sky really is the limit with what you can do with worn out items. Even “non-creative” people can find ways to repurpose.”
When repurposing, I try to make the most similar item I can from that which I am repurposing. For instance, I generally don’t turn a shirt into rags. Instead, I make it into an intermediate piece. When that wears out, then I make it into something smaller and so on. After a few reincarnations, it ends up as a rag. What I like about this method is the way that it truly uses the components of something to their fullest extent.
At the end of the last post, I mentioned a couple of options for this first step, such as cutting damaged (or stinky polyester) sleeves off of shirts to use them as tank tops. Or, similarly, cutting the damaged lower legs off of pants to make shorts or capris. The fabric removed can then be used for one of the options below, such as rags or patches. Another option before deciding to repurpose badly stained fabric items is to dye the item a dark color. This is my go-to trick for prolonging the life of many faded and/or stained clothing items. Bear in mind that not all fabric will accept dye the same way, so you’ll need to take into account the fabric composition when considering this option.
At the point that a piece of gear or clothing can no longer be used for its intended purpose (or a similar use), I remove zippers, buttons, bungees, shoelaces, cords, clips, etc. These can all be used to make repairs to other items. I recommend keeping these sorted by type, size, and color so that you can easily find what you need for future projects.
Fabrics are the most versatile materials for repurposing. Below are a few of my favorite technical fabric upcycling projects:
- Repurpose an old synthetic puffy jacket into pot cozies or simple mittens. Make sure the fabric won’t melt to a hot pot if you’re planning to use it for a cozy! This requires a bit of basic sewing. A no-sew project is to keep it inside your reusable grocery bag during the summer to insulate cold foods on the drive home.
- Remove the foot portion of crew-length or longer socks and use the cuffs for hand and arm warmers. By adding additional fabric or sewing multiple cuffs together, you can create a longer arm warmer. Alternatively, it can easily be a no-sew project that only involves cutting a hole (or using an existing one) for your thumb. Use Fray Check to keep the fabric from unraveling.
- Most clothing can be cut down to make many things. My favorites are to upcycle them into shoe gaiters, scrunchies, scarves, headbands, or neck gaiters. These involve simple sewing. I have also made headbands and neck gaiters using a no-sew method by measuring and cutting a cylinder from a tubular piece of the fabric (like the leg of tights). Another option is to sew multiple scraps of similar weight and fiber content fabrics together to make a large piece of patchwork fabric. This can then be used to make something bigger like a skirt, shorts, etc.
The next stage for fabrics is the patch and reclamation stage. This is when I take an item that has been used and reused and give it a final purpose before disposal. At this point, the fabric is ready to be made into one of two categories: patches or rags. When preparing fabric to become patches, look for fabric that is still sturdy and has no signs of wear or weakening. Cut these into as large of a piece as is useable. Patches can also be “fussy cut,” meaning you center your cutting around a pattern or image that you want to be visible in your final patch. This is a great technique to reuse logos or images from trucker hats, tee shirts, etc. for visible mending on something else.
Once something can no longer be used even for patches, I demote things to rags. This works best with natural fibers or blends since full synthetics are not typically very absorbent. If you wish to have bigger rags, you can stitch scraps together.
“Once something can no longer be used even for patches, I demote things to rags. This works best with natural fibers or blends since full synthetics are not typically very absorbent.”
Below are a few things you can do with your worn-out synthetic scraps (or with natural fabrics).
- Fabric can be cut into strips and used as cordage for making other things, such as plant hangers. Strips of strong cloth can be used for a lot of purposes where you’d otherwise use string. Along these lines you can also use strips to create a braided rug. This is a minimal sew project that is a great use for scraps that are otherwise stained or unusable for other purposes. This technique can be used to make something as small as a coaster all the way up to a room size rug!
- A no-sew project that you can do with either synthetic or natural fibers is to line the inside of flowerpots so that soil doesn’t come out through the holes at the bottom of the pot.
- The biggest fabric gear item you own is probably your tent. I have turned old tents into any number of other projects, starting with repurposing into a tarp. Aside from this, tent fabric (as well as worn out rain jackets and pants) can be used to make pack covers, rain skirts, oven mitts, stuff sacks, and ponchos. The bug netting can be used to make head nets (or a bug suit if you’re feeling really adventurous) as well as mesh stuff sacks. My project plan for my next worn-out tent is to make it into a shower curtain!
Aside from fabric, many other parts of gear can be repurposed or reused. Below are some of my favorite projects.
- Tent poles and broken trekking poles make great plant stakes.
- Down or synthetic fill can be used for any insulative need. You can add it to another garment, quilt, or sleeping bag to increase warmth. Another option is to stuff pillows, which are incredibly easy to make. There are also no-sew pillow options out there, which you can find with a quick Google or YouTube search.
- If the tube to your water bladder with a wide slide opening has been damaged, the bladder itself can be repurposed as a dry bag. This works especially well if it has the auto lock valve where the tube inserts. Once, I used the tube from a water bladder to repair the windshield wiper fluid line in my truck…but despite its efficacy, I can’t generally recommend automotive repairs with worn out gear!
- Shoes are one of the gear items that are perhaps the hardest to reuse, and we go through a lot of them in our lifetime. The most creative thing I’ve found that can be done with old shoes and boots is to use them as planters. It’s quirky and functional! No matter what you choose to do with the shoe or boot itself, hang on to the laces for use as replacement laces or anything requiring string.
In the end, everything reaches the end of its reusability life. This is when it’s fantastic to have natural fibers. They can simply be composted and returned to the earth. Other items will need to be disposed of by landfill or another commercial disposal (textile recycling, scrap metal, etc.). Hopefully through reuse and careful purchasing, the number of items that make it to this stage are few.
Heather Anderson is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, three-time Triple Crown thru-hiker, and professional speaker whose mission is to inspire others to “Dream Big, Be Courageous.” She is also the author of two hiking memoirs Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home and Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail and a preparatory guide to long-distance hiking Adventure Ready. Find her on Instagram @AnishHikes or her website Anishhikes.wordpress.com.