What are recycled materials in clothing and where do they come from?

What are recycled materials in clothing?

Did you know that the label "RECYCLED" means that the garment contains recycled fiber, so it may not be made entirely from recycled material?

In addition to the fact that the proportion of recycled materials in clothing varies greatly, the uses of the materials also vary depending on whether it is industrial manufacturing, small-scale production or artisanal work.

In the industry, it is essential that a large amount of homogeneous material is available that can be used like a new material. Therefore, the industry most often uses recycled materials that have been returned to the fiber level and made into new yarn, often mixed with other materials.

Artesan work, on the other hand, most often seeks to utilize the material as finished as possible, using, for example, waste pieces, surplus or finished textiles.

Industrial materials bottles with cotton

When you see the brand “RECYCLED” in a chain store, you’re probably dealing with some of the most common fibers in the world, polyester or cotton.


Polyester is basically plastic and when recycled it probably comes from recycled plastic bottles. Yes, plastic bottles as a raw material are currently better utilized in the clothing industry than used polyester clothing. Plastic waste collected from the sea, for example, can also be recycled into polyester fiber.

In either case, the plastic is industrially processed into a new fiber from which a new yarn is made. This is how the production of the garment starts from the beginning.


Recycled cotton the origin is most likely in the clothing industry’s own processes. When the yarn is spun and parts of the garment are cut from the fabric, a small shred is left over, which as such is too small to use. This side stream is about 15% of the raw material.

The cotton chips are torn back to the fiber level and spun into new yarn. In the process, however, the length of the cotton fiber can be shortened and is no longer as durable as the new fiber. Therefore, for durability, it may be necessary to mix a new material into the yarn as well.

Good and bad

The good thing about this is that the need for virgin material is reduced. The huge scale of clothing production involves tons and tons of raw material. At the same time, the amount of waste is reduced when the raw material that otherwise becomes waste is used. And they are a big plus!

The new yarn can also be used to produce a wide variety of fabrics and thus different types of clothing. The possibilities for use are almost limitless.

The weaker side is that these recycled fibers still have a long way to go to become a new garment. The manufacture of clothing with its many stages of work begins from the beginning. It is not an “eco-process” automatically, but the manufacturer matters just as it does when making clothes from new raw materials.

The recycled material returns close to the starting box and the journey to a new garment is long. If ecology is also not taken into account in the manufacturing process, there is a possibility that the end result will not be as ecological as the "RECYCLED" label suggests.


Small production on terms of materials

When recycled materials are used in small-scale production, the material can be utilized in different ways than in industry. The determining factor in small-scale production is not stable and high availability, but small companies can operate more on terms of materials.

The garbage of one is the material of the other

Small businesses and larger companies can also complement each other. When fabrics are left over from industrial production, they can be used by small operators for their own products. In this way, the materials already produced can be used efficiently. 

So the surplus is not automatically a more ecological material of origin, but it has one big advantage: it is ready. By using finished fabrics, the garment is created with significantly lighter resources when raw material production, yarn spinning and fabric weaving are not required.

At the same time, we work strictly on the terms of existing materials: only what is available can be used and the quality of the materials determines what can be made from it. Here, of course, lies the charm of the recycled!

In small-scale production, finished material can be used, making it possible to manufacture a new garment with fewer resources.

Finished textile for clothing

Textiles can be used elsewhere than in clothes and by inventively using them, for example, curtains, sheets or tablecloths can be reused. However, the collection of such textiles is demanding and, without a separately built collection concept, these are usually sufficient quantities for individual pieces or very small series.

TAUKO Design has developed an award-winning recycling concept.


What about used clothes?

When we think of recycled materials in clothing, we may assume that they come from used clothing. It often comes as a surprise that only a negligible proportion of used clothing can be reused as clothing.

Why on earth?

Artesan work

When you want to use the fabrics of used clothes as is, you are at the forefront of very demanding artisan work. The quality of the fabrics obtained from the garments, the size and shape of the pieces place constraints on the new garment. However, creative professionals who dominate this difficult sport can also be found. Then it is a matter of small-scale production or the production of completely unique clothes.

Used jeans are a much-used recycled material, as they are easy to sort separately from other used clothing, the material is fairly uniform, and there is plenty of jeans in recycling. Picture: Piece of Jeans

Industrial clothing recycling at birth

The recycling of clothing used for industrial use is surprisingly complicated. Our used clothes are a very mixed selection of different materials and blends of materials. In principle, materials can be recycled into new fibers, but the industrial-scale process for collection, material identification, sorting and further processing is only just beginning to take shape. At present, the recycled textile raw material most often ends up, for example, as different insulation or padding than as new clothes.

At the moment, the world-class challenge is to get used clothes collected and recycled on an industrial scale. Finland is at the forefront of this, as a waste textile processing plant is being completed in Paimio, which will handle all Finnish waste textiles. The plant is in the pilot phase in summer 2021 and its progress can be monitored here.

Separate collection of textiles will become mandatory in the EU in 2025. Finland aims to be a pioneer in the textile circular economy with the aim of starting collection as early as 2023.


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