Upcycle Your Old Jeans

By Julie Yen Yu Chu
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
Photos by and courtesy of Julie Yen Yu Chu and Goo Yee

The textile and fashion industry is the second largest polluter on the planet, after the oil industry. A Tzu Chi volunteer is transforming old jeans and other used clothing into bags to reduce waste and help the environment.

A few years ago, a friend brought Goo Yee (吳玉), a Tzu Chi volunteer in Melaka, Malaysia, a pair of jeans she couldn’t find the heart to discard. She explained to Goo her idea of making them into something new. Bringing her own creativity into play, Goo came up with a design and refashioned the jeans into a tote bag. Her friend loved what she had conjured up out of something that could have ended up as garbage. This experience launched Goo on a path of transforming used clothing and other kinds of items into fashionable bags.

Where does Goo, age 74, get the jeans and other materials to refashion? She is a dedicated recycling volunteer—so dedicated that she even set up a recycling station at her home eight years ago. She often pushes a wheelbarrow around her community, collecting reusable garbage from local residents. Because of her recycling work for Tzu Chi, she often has access to discarded clothes and other items, including jeans or all kinds of bags. When she sees items that still look good and are reusable, she takes them and remakes them into “new” bags of various sizes and purposes: totes, handbags, clutches, shoulder bags, change purses, you name it. She even removes buttons, zippers, straps, and so on from old clothes or other items and puts them to use in her creations. Thus, her one-of-a-kind bags are made completely from recycled materials.

She is happy every time she finishes a new bag. Even though she is no longer young and sewing is hard on her eyes and demands a lot of energy, she greatly enjoys the creative work. Denim fabrics, often used to make jeans and with which she often works, are usually thick and tough. A run-of-the-mill sewing machine cannot handle such tough fabrics. To facilitate her work, she purchased a second-hand specialty sewing machine to work on such fabrics more easily. She is now on her second specialty sewing machine.

Before she repurposes a pair of jeans, she gives them a good wash. Then she works out a design based on the original design of the jeans before cutting them up, sewing the cut pieces, and decorating. The entire process can be complicated and involve a lot of work, but everything pays off when she sees her bags snatched up by others and sell out in no time. This greatly motivates her to continue doing her creative, eco-friendly work. She donates the money she earns from selling her bags to Tzu Chi. So her work not only enables her to extend the life of older garments and other articles but also allows her to help the needy.

“I came from a poor family,” she said. “Such a background helped me cultivate a habit of cherishing everything I had. If a used piece of fabric or zipper was still serviceable, I saved them to be reused.” Growing up with such a mindset, it’s no wonder she embarked on this path of making new things out of old. It has been more than three years since she began, but she’s as passionate about her creative work as when she first began.

Everyone or every family has jeans or other clothes they no longer wear. It might be because the garments no longer fit or are out of fashion, but they still hold on to such items because they feel it’s a waste to throw them away. Maybe we can learn from Goo, use some creativity, and try to transform the clothing into bags or other useful items. You might be surprised by your creativity and come up with something that comes in handy and is stylish at the same time. It might be a good chance to help the environment and produce a one-of-a-kind piece.

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