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Examples of upcycling: Rifò's experience

Bags made from pieces of denim pants, beds, and sofas made from wooden pallets, bookcases from stacked fruit crates, a swing made from an old car tire…

Do these images speak to you?

They are examples of upcycling, which means transforming an object that was born and designed to fulfill one purpose into something else, and in doing so making its perceived value higher than its starting value.

We decided to talk here about our experience of upcycling jeans collected in the Levi's® store in Via Orefici in Milan. In doing so, we will tell you what it means to bring a process that usually concerns the world of creative handicraft inside a brand, with the aim of creating a product that is unique for its material composition, but at the same time replicable on various scales: our bucket hat made through the patchwork technique.

Il bucket hat realizzato con i jeans raccolti nello store Levi's® | Bucket hat upcycled Rifò

What does upcycling a garment mean?

First, let's go to the definition of the word. There is no Italian word to translate the concept of upcycling. Its etymology puts the prefix up in front of the word cycle, to emphasize how this process is meant to increase the value of the new creation.

Upcycling is in fact often contrasted with the idea of downcycling. The latter refers to a recycling process that leads to the creation of objects whose value is lower than their starting value. Old clothes ending up in urban dumpsters destined for the creation of materials for industrial use is an example of downcycling.

Typically in the clothing business, upcycling implies taking a garment and transforming it into something new. Some of its parts are taken, cut up and re-assembled, often through the patchwork technique.

What does recycling mean?

Unlike upcycling, in textile recycling or regeneration old garments and textile waste lose their form as an object and return to an original state, the fiber. The idea behind textile regeneration is that the new material retains in principle the same value as the original material.

With this new regenerated material we can then proceed to create products just as if we were working with a virgin material.


An example of regenerated material is the cashmere we use at Rifò, which is made from 95 % regenerated cashmere and 5 % regenerated wool. In this case, the ability to isolate and select by type and color the upstream material is exactly what makes it possible not to take away value from the recycled product.

How to make an upcycling project replicable

The creative process behind an upcycling project is very challenging and merges with the limitations given by the starting material and garments.

If working with regenerated yarns is like starting from a blank canvas, upcycling means starting from a painted canvas, from which you subtract and add something to further enrich it.

In fact, upcycling means reusing what is available, which has a definite shape and then being able to see other shapes and other possibilities in it.

Once the creative process has begun, the next step is to figure out how to optimize the available material.

To go more concrete, here is a real example of upcycling:

For the creation of Rifò's bucket hats, we involved the cooperative Flo Concept. Starting from old pairs of jeans, Flo Concept identified the parts from which the most substantial parts of fabric could be cut out.

Then they cut from the legs all the strips and parts necessary to make these hats through the patchwork technique: the smaller pieces for the visor, while for the crown that hugs the head, the legs of the pants in their full width.

To make an upcycling process replicable therefore it is necessary:

1. To establish creative priorities. In this case, combining as many colors and varieties of denim as possible in a hat.

2. To figure out the material required for making a single upcycled garment. In this case, how many pairs of jeans are needed to make a single hat, following what we have set as our creative priority.

Specifically for this upcycled accessory, with the help of Flo Concept tailoring, we realized that with one pair of jeans it was possible to make a whole hat and half of a second hat.

But the challenge of upcycling can also be about dealing with fabrics that are different from each other; when assembled and sewn together this can lead to problematic reactions linked to the solidity of the final product. For example, fabrics containing elastic and synthetic fibers, when combined with pure compositions, can be weak. In this case Flo Concept sought a compromise, favoring jeans with the most interesting and compact fabrics in order to avoid creating too much waste.

We must remember that upcycling was born as a handicraft and creativity and uniqueness is what characterizes it. Therefore, in practice making an upcycling project replicable is a complicated task, but in our opinion, it is a task of great value.

Is upcycling more ecological than recycling?

We saw how to make an upcycling project replicable but now the question that arises is: What impact does upcycling have when compared to creating (new) recycled products?

Generally in the textile and tailoring industry, upcycling involves the use of garments that would otherwise be thrown away. The raw material already exists, and reprocessing and transforming it does not require much energy expenditure.

Thus, we can say that in the case of upcycling, the energy and resources used only concern the production. Textile recycling instead implies energy consumption (although much reduced compared to the same virgin material) for the creation of raw material and, subsequently, for the production of the garment.

Pros and Cons of upcycling versus recycling

Let’s summarize the Pros and Cons of upcycling a garment:

Pros of upcycling:

- Virtually zero CO2 and energy consumption

- Inspiring creative process exploiting the characteristics of the starting materials

- Creation of a unique finished garment, even if produced at scale

Cons of upcycling:

- Possible limitations and heterogeneity due to the starting material(s)

- Difficulty in industrializing and scaling up the project

- More work required during the design of the production process

- Possible waste of materials

Would you like to see up close how an upcycled garment is made?

With Flo Concept and Levi's® we organized a live workshop to show you the different stages in the creation of one of our upcycled buckets, from cutting to sewing the new product.

Saturday November 19th, from 4 pm we will be glad to welcome you at the pop up store in via Capelli 1 in Milan.

Find out more here!

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