How to Make Your Clothes Last Years: Sustainable Care Tips

September 7, 2021

Me wearing a thrifted mustard Adidas tshirt and thrifted navy paper bag shorts with a teal fanny pack as a side body bag, standing in front of large flowers
Wearing a thrifted top and shorts, both in my closet since 2017

My favorite clothing items range in age from a small child to a prepubescent teen (I keep them around long if I like them!). As a slow fashion blogger, I talk a lot about making your clothes last and loving what you have, as it’s really the very best way to approach sustainable fashion on an individual level.

In this post, I’ll share the ways I care for my clothes to make them last years. Taking care of clothing is only one angle of making clothing last though, so let’s also talk about finding your personal style, what to do if you change sizes, and how to spot quality pieces.

This post contains affiliate links, meaning that I earn a small commission on any purchases, at no extra cost to you.

Sustainable Clothing Care Tips

1. Don’t listen to companies

People will say that you need to replace things like underwear and bras every 6-12 months. While there are some studies around this, they’re funded by clothing companies themselves, so of course they want us to replace our pieces more.

There’s really no set “expiration date” for any clothing, including underwear, and doctors and professors agree on this. I have underwear and sports bras still in good shape that are over 8 years old. Some people might find it gross, but it works fine for me.

Of course, if your clothing starts to sag, get massive holes, or isn’t supportive, you should replace it. But don’t feel like you have to get rid of something because of these arbitrary rules.

2. Wash less often

Washing cycles can be hard on your clothes, and you don’t need to wash most pieces after each wear, other than underwear and sweaty workout clothes.

For example, I typically wash winter base layers after 2-4 wears, my pajamas every week, and sweaters every month. I also wash denim very rarely. There is this urban myth about freezing your denim to kill bacteria instead of washing, but it actually doesn’t do anything, so maybe wash your denim every now and then.

I do wash summer pieces more often since I can get really sweaty, but even then I try to go a couple wears before washing. Basically, I wash if something is visibly dirty (probably from spilling food on myself) or when it starts to smell. If you get really sweaty armpits like me, you can also consider handwashing the armpits and air drying to go longer between actual washes. Handwashing is also great for delicates and bathing suits.

To keep my clothes separate, I typically keep my “too clean to be washed, but too dirty to go back in the closet” on a chair in my room.

When you actually do wash, try to pick the shortest cycle possible and wash full (but not overflowing loads).

3. Wash on cold

Changing the washing machine temperature to cool

To save energy and your clothing, consider using a cold water cycle. In fact, heating the water consumes 90% of the energy needed to run a washer. Warmer water is harsher on fabrics and can lead to shrinkage, fading, and more microfiber loss.

You used to need warm water to activate detergents, but modern detergents generally work equally well with cold water. Cold water is actually better for delicates, colorful fabrics, and certain stains

4. Skip the fabric softener

Fabric softener can actually trap odors, especially on synthetics/athletic gear. They’re also known to contain harmful chemicals and skin irritants. The Environmental Working Group suggests using a half a cup of distilled white vinegar as an alternative, or skipping it altogether (I’ve personally never used it).

5. Use a microplastic filter

Guppyfriend washing bag with the box for the bag on top

Synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic shed microplastics each time they’re washed. (Most activewear and fast fashion pieces are made out of synthetics.) To prevent microplastic pollution, consider using a Guppyfriend washing bag. The bag will capture 90-95% of microfibers, and it protects your clothing like a delicates bag would, extending the life of your pieces.

I got my Guppyfriend bag from Organic Basics (use my code LILYOBX for 10% off), but you can also find it at REI and Patagonia, which may be easier for my American friends. I’ve used my bag for several washes now, and I can see visible fibers gathering in the corners of the bag after each wash. See my full review of the Guppyfriend bag to learn more about it.

There are also filters you can add to your washing machine to catch microfibers, but they’re not as easy to maintain. There’s an ongoing movement in the UK to get filters added to new domestic and commercial machines, and you can sign the petition to show your support if you’re a UK resident. I don’t know of any current movements in the US or elsewhere, but let me know if there are others and I’ll add them in!

If you’d like to protect clothing made of natural materials, like delicates, you can also wash them in a pillow case.

6. Air dry

Air drying your clothes helps you save money and electricity, and it’s pretty common outside of the US and UK. The drying cycle can be pretty harsh with the high temperatures, and it can contribute to shrinkage or pilling.

You can get a collapsible clothes rack for $10-20, or check your local Buy Nothing group to see if anyone is giving one away. (These are groups where people give away and get things for free within their communities.) If you have space outside, you can also use a clothesline.

Your clothing will feel stiffer at first if you air dry them, but once you wear them, it’ll “break in” quickly.

white clothing air drying on a line against a clear blue sky
Photo by Olga Lioncat on Pexels

7. Learn to revive your clothes

Over time, certain parts of your clothing will break down, and that’s where learning to mend can make a big difference. I usually get holes in the armpits and crotch or thigh area, and it’s quick to patch those up since it doesn’t have to look pretty. There are lots of free sewing tutorials on YouTube, and you can also ask a friend or family member to teach you.

If you don’t have the time to sew, see if there are tailors near you. This is a great tip from my friend Nina of the vegan and responsible travel blog Lemons and Luggage. Tailors aren’t as easy to access in the US, but they’re more common in Europe, and the businesses are often owned by immigrant women.

Pilling is another common concern for older clothes, but you can fix this with a fabric shaver or blunt razor. To prevent pilling in the first place, avoid blended fabrics with synthetic and natural materials (like polyester and cotton), and wash your clothes inside out.

8. Store clothes properly

Sweaters can get stretched out if you hang them up, so try to fold yours. It can also help to have sturdier wooden hangers for heavier items like jackets.

If you need moth repellent, cedarwood and dried peppermint leaves are said to work well.

Make sure to find a dry storage space as well, as you don’t want your clothes to get moldy.

Other Reasons You Might Need to Replace Clothing

Clothing care is just one component of making your clothes last. There are a few other reasons you might need to replace your clothes, so let’s talk about those.

1. Your clothes are “out of style”

In today’s fast fashion world, a lot of people don’t get rid of clothing because it’s in bad condition. They get rid of it because they don’t like it anymore, often because it’s no longer trendy.

To avoid cycling through trends quickly, you’ll need to find your personal style. Personal style is kind of a nebulous term, but basically you want to figure out what you actually like vs. what’s currently popular.

If you buy a lot of trends, I’d recommend slowing down or even doing a no buy period of a few months. Figure out what you naturally gravitate towards in your closet. Then, start building mood boards on Pinterest or saved Instagram collections to try to pin down common threads in your preferences. Determine your “signature” pieces and build outfits around those. For example, my signature pieces are vintage silk scarves, turtlenecks and mocknecks, and funky earrings.

wearing a vintage outfit with a suede jacket, cream turtleneck, wide tan pants, and silk scarf in a vintage store

When you’re ready to bring something into your closet, ask yourself:

  • Do I have something similar that could work?
  • Could I get at least 30 wears out of it? Will I keep it for years?
  • Does it go with things I already own?
  • Will I still want it if it’s not trendy anymore?

These steps will help you avoid buying clothing you don’t truly love.

2. You changed sizes

I’ve had the privilege (or curse) of not really changing sizes since middle/high school (puberty didn’t really hit I guess). It’s totally normal for your body to change though, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you can no longer fit into your old clothes. You deserve clothes that fit and make you feel confident.

If your body changes, you can still extend the useful life of your clothing by passing it on to someone who can use it. I recommend giving your clothes away directly to people you know or using your Buy Nothing group, but I have a whole post about getting rid of cIothes responsibly if you need more options. If your weight tends to fluctuate, you can also consider keeping your clothing so you don’t have to keep buying and replacing pieces.

To make your wardrobe as flexible as possible, you might also try things like a pants extender. Stretchy fabrics, flowy silhouettes, and adjustable pieces like wrap dresses or paper bag pants can also work for changing bodies. 

I know that for kids, parents often actually buy larger sizes so they can “grow into” the clothes.

3. Your clothing is bad quality

If you’re taking care of your clothing and it’s still falling apart quickly, the problem may actually be the clothing quality.

A higher price doesn’t always mean higher quality or even more ethical and sustainable practices. Some fast fashion can certainly last a long time if you take care of it; I have fast fashion basics that are over 8 years old.

That said, fast fashion is not made to last since those companies want us to consume more. I also have fast fashion tops that are fraying after only a handful of wears. This is no fault of the garment workers; they’re skilled workers but they’re just given cheap materials and forced to sew quickly. 

To spot quality clothing, look for things like:

  • Neat and secure seams. They should be straight without any loose threads, and the pattern should match up at the seams.
  • Extra buttons. Some button-ups and cardigans will come with extra buttons, which can indicate that they’re made to last and be repaired. You should also check if the buttons are sewn on securely
  • Sturdy fabric. Some clothing is meant to have lighter fabrics, but you should avoid anything that seems super thin, as it probably won’t hold up. This is especially the case for base layers like leggings and plain shirts.
  • Natural materials. Synthetics can last a long time, but I try to avoid them unless I’m buying recycled synthetic activewear or getting used clothing. This is not only because of microplastics, but also because synthetics are cheaper materials and sometimes mean the product isn’t as quality or comfortable. Like I mentioned, blended clothing like polyester and cotton can also pill easily. Natural fabrics to look out for include organic cotton, hemp, and linen. There are also some more sustainable semi-synthetics like TENCEL, Lyocell, and EcoVero.

If you’re looking for specific brands, slow fashion brands tend to be better quality since they usually have more thoughtful production and quality materials. You can check out my ethical and sustainable brand directory for some options.

Final Thoughts

Let me know if you have more tips for making your clothes last, and please also share with me your most loved piece of clothing! Mine is probably a 12-year-old pair of running shorts from middle school that I still wear to this day. 

tweet that reads: why does no one tell you that when you pick out a pair of athletic shorts from tj maxx at fourteen yrs old, you are in fact making a decision that will last longer than any of your adult relationships.

My friend shared this really funny tweet she saw where someone said: “why does no one tell you that when you pick out a pair of athletic shorts from tj maxx at fourteen yrs old, you are in fact making a decision that will last longer than any of your adult relationships.” I totally feel this one, and it’ll be interesting to see how long I can make these shorts last.

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Pinterest pin that reads 'how to make your clothes last years' against a photo of white fabrics hanging out to dry on a clear day

4 Comments

  • Nina | Lemons and Luggage September 8, 2021 at 1:38 am

    Aww, thanks for the shoutout! 🙂

    I never actually considered that about the extra buttons. I mean, I knew they were there in case you lose one, but I never thought about how that probably only happens after a really long time so it means they hope the items will last longer!

    • Lily September 9, 2021 at 10:13 am

      Hehe thanks for the tip! And yeah, I didn’t think about it until recently as well!

  • Anna October 26, 2021 at 6:52 am

    I love ALL this. I also have become a bit of a ~connoisseur~ of stain removal techniques? Learning the different ways to get blood/food/car grease out can really extend the lifespan of your clothes! I once rescued about 20 of my husband’s shirts by scrubbing the underarms with peroxide and baking soda.

    • Lily October 26, 2021 at 9:45 am

      Wow, that’s amazing! I’m going to have to remember that tip for myself 🙂 Baking soda always does wonders, it seems!

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    About Me

    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
    Here is where I document my (mis)adventures and try to offer some helpful advice. Feel free to join me for the ride. Read More

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