From Nothing to Something – Maximize Thrifting by Upcycling

From Nothing to Something – Maximize Thrifting by Upcycling

Oakland, CAWhen you’re a student, you don’t have that much money for expensive shoes and designer clothes, no matter how fly you’re try'na be. I had this issue until I discovered upcycling.

Upcycling involves taking a plain or old piece of clothing and turning it into something unique and new. It takes a combination of skills like customizing, hustling and artistry. But there are pitfalls. Done right, you'll make a profit. Done wrong, you'll just make a mess. Through my own upcycling, I've learned to sew, draw, paint and dye clothing. I've honed my upcycling skills to the point that it's a source of side money for me, as well as a means to express my creativity. And now I'm chasing my fashion dreams in art school.

So if you’re like me and you want to make some cash while flexing your creativity, just follow these seven steps to turn old or boring clothing into something fresh.

1. Go thrifting!

(Photo: Pexels Royalty Free Images)

Secondhand sources like eBay and Goodwill are great places to look for clothing to customize. Because the items are inexpensive, it's no big deal if you mess up. You aren't sacrificing anything. One note of caution, though: when shopping on eBay or any other similar sites, be sure to research the seller to avoid getting scammed.

2. Find an item that you want to customize

Customizable items include any article of clothing that can be painted, sewed or dyed. I suggest checking eBay, local outlets or thrift stores to find the cheapest shoes to customize. Don't be afraid of less popular brands. Remember: people are paying for the art, not the shoe.

Start by finding some cheap or free stuff and practice so you can grow your skills without any risk. My first custom item was a single Puma suede shoe that I bought at Goodwill for $4. I just wanted something to practice on, so it didn’t matter that I only had one shoe!

3. Plan your design

Sketch of a shoe, in advance of custumization. (Photo: Jeremias Arevalo)

My favorite pair of socks has flowers and some paisley on it. So I used that pattern as my inspiration to take a pair of white Adidas from plain to dope. I know it seems extra, but I do recommend sketching and coloring an idea onto paper for reference, even if it might not be the final design.

4. Set customer expectations

(Photo: Pexels Royalty Free Images)

How an item can be customized depends on the type of clothing and material it's made from. For example, painting on suede is a no go since it will ruin the material. Make sure your customer knows what's possible before you start your project so they don't get their hopes up (and come down hard on your design).

5. Set your price

Pricing is tricky. You'll need to factor in time, your level of skill and the difficulty of the job the customer wants. You should ask yourself (reasonably) how much your work is worth. For example, if you’re selling your own original design — which demands a high level of artistic talent — it's not unreasonable to charge more. And don’t let your customer haggle. This is specialized work, and they are choosing to go to you for YOUR services.

6. Set an appropriate timeline

A shoe customization job in progress. (Photo: Jeremias Arevalo.)

I’m a procrastinator. When I first started customizing clothes, I wasn’t aware of how much time and attention to detail it would take. As a result, I’d stay up late scrambling to get things done at the last minute. Not only did I lose sleep, but the quality of the work suffered.

So if you're doing a custom upcycling job, be sure to pace yourself. It’s important to have patience and put work into your detailing in order to achieve your look. If you give yourself enough time, the process is actually fun. Remember to take breaks if your hands are shaky, and to schedule work when you have the energy. Your effort will show in the final product.

7. Take A LOT of pictures from different angles and with good lighting.

(Photo: Jeremias Arevalo)

This may sound obvious to my fellow Gen Z-ers, who've documented everything since the day they were born, but for the rest of y'all, take note: you want take glamour shots of your masterpiece. Do your work justice with good lighting and a thoughtful display.

8. Promote yourself

Finished Koi Creepers. (Photo: Jeremias Arevalo)

Even when you're done with your upcycling work, you have one more step to do. Make sure to promote yourself on social media or a website to show potential customers your dope talents. Before and after pics are a must.


(Photo: Pexels Royalty Free Images)

My favorite step for sure: Go to your customer and get paid!

Some warnings:

  • When you make a mistake on the item, try your best to fix it in advance. But if the mistake can't be covered up, contact the customer to let them know in advance. You might consider lowering your price depending on the error.
  • If you don't know your customer very well, or you don’t trust them, make sure to ask for a certain amount of the cost in advance, because otherwise, you might get stiffed. Early on, I made a pair of shoes for a friend at school. When I brought them to him, he decided that he didn’t want to pay me. So, to this day, I’m stuck with these shoes.


Are you ready to get started upcycling? Here are some of my favorite sources for cheap customizing supplies:

Leather paint kit (for shoes, wallets etc.)

Amazon Sewing Kit

This story was originally published on January 7, 2019

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