Indian textile and clothing is a combination of improvisation, philosophy, artisanal skills, and collective commitment to managing with little resources. Recycling and upcycling of handmade clothes are very much part of India’s heritage which in its own way is responsible for reducing Greenhouse gas emissions.

Every state in India has its own variety of textiles with its own unique process, design, and pattern. Traditionally the fabrics were produced using local materials. When they were turned into outfits, they were made in such a way that they could be used by all age groups and sometimes even generations. These outfits were also designed considering local weather. This outfit was recognized for its long life-cycle, which featured reuse and recycling. Even when the outfit outlived its function, it was upcycled into something useful.

This is part of an ongoing series by Ketki from Ecokats an Indian ecologist and sustainable travel blogger sharing lessons we can learn from India’s Sustaianble Traditional Practices. We hope that you can pick up some tips to incorporate into yourlifestyle by harnassing traditions from India. Don’t miss the first in the series, sustinable food practices and stay tuned for the next in the series on sustinable housing practices.


  • Upcycling and recycling clothing and textiles is a large part of Indian heritage
  • Clothing can be designed to last generations
  • Traditional practices embrace the handloom to support artisanal work
  • Many organic materials used have functional purposes

Clothing and Textile Adapted for Climate

Indian clothing was traditionally made from cotton and silk fabrics. Both of these fabrics are considered to be natural and help maintain body temperature due to their cooling effect. Traditionally men wore dhotis, and women wore sarees. The loose-fitting designs and cool materials made the clothing extremely comfortable in hot weather. One of the most striking features of both these garments was that it was unstitched, enabling people of all ages to wear it. 

Indian men wearing traditional clothing dhoti

Sarees are draped differently in every state of India, and while it is one long garment, in some parts, there are two-piece sarees that are worn as a skirt and blouse.

Indian women in traditional sarees

Upcycling Clothing into New Products

Upcycling is a fashion statement in itself—one that refurbishes an old, discarded item, giving it a whole new life. As the familiar phrase goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is taken too seriously in India.

Hand Me Downs

In most Indian homes, there is a tradition of passing on clothes from the older child to the younger child. It is also a tradition to dress a baby in old clothes handed down from an older sibling or cousin during the first few days/weeks as they are softer and milder for the baby’s skin. 

Some grand outfits such as sarees and kurtas are even passed down across generations as heirloom pieces. 

Giving away clothes to the less fortunate is also very common. Clothes are donated (sometimes even new) to festivals such as Diwali through organizations such as U Day Foundation.

Makings Rugs and Quilts

Rugs are made with leftover scraps of cotton trips. The old cotton garment is cut into one to two-inch strips. The strips are then assembled and stitched together with a crochet hook and thread. The output is a colorful rug that can be used as a doormat or floor mat. This is called Chindi Rug.

Another way of making a rug is from old blankets, which are still practiced in the states of Jammu and Kashmir. The nomadic community involved in this work uses acrylic yarn for embroidery on old woolen blankets and converts them into handmade rugs. It is part of the Kashmiri tradition where they preserve old clothes by upcycling them into something useful. The Initiative is a group that upcycles old sarees into other items, including laptop sleeves, quilts, and yoga bags. 

Women turning told sarees into quilts

Indian quilts, also known as Godhadi, are traditional hand-stitched quilts made using patchwork on old sarees and dhotis. They are full-sized quilts used on beds or also used as shawls. The old sari is folded so that the folds create the quilt, and stuffing is not required. The layers are put together with a running stitch. More decorative parts of the saree are used to create a colourful and vibrant border. 

Using Threads for Embroidery

Kantha work from the state of West Bengal and Odisha was traditionally made using threads that are pulled out from sarees and dhotis. ‘Kantha’ refers to the style of running stitch on patchwork cloth from rags. It is one of the oldest forms of embroidery originating from India; its origins can be traced back to the pre-Vedic age (before 1500 BCE).

Kantha does not use hoops or frames like embroidery to keep the cloth tight, which leaves a rippled effect on the cloth. Some intricate designs are signature embroideries which are passed on in families as their specialty.
Kantha embroidery
Dhunkifashion, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kantha’s work is applied on various types of clothes and various products such as sarees, kurta, mats, quilts, bed-covers, etc. The motifs used are inspired from day to day life activities such as birds, animals, folk scenes, and nature. 

Using as a Personal Heat Protector

In modern times, caps and hats form the heat protector for the head from the harsh heat in summers, but traditionally men used turbans. Turbans are a long cloth tied around the head tightly, so it doesn’t fall off and protect the heads of farmers. Old sarees and dhotis were used to convert them into turbans.
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Handmade and Handlooms to Reduce Energy

A weaving loom is a tool that can be manually operated to make different designs and cloth of different sizes. Weaving is a tradition practiced by many communities in all parts of India. People hand-weaved on looms to make fabrics that were made into products such as clothes, towels, home linens. This tool does not require energy from fossil fuels thus having a low carbon footprint.

A women hand weaving a saree on a handloom I

Khadi production by Charkha Spinning 

Mahatma Gandhi used Charkha (spinning wheel) which represented self-sufficiency and being independent. It signified dignity of labour, equality, and unity.

Using Cotton Handtowels to Reduce Waste

Cotton hand towels and specifically the cotton handkerchief is a common component of the dress of Indian men and women. These are reused by washing over a longer time period unlike the use and throw tissue paper. Paper products like tissues are harsh on the environment since they use a lot of timber, thus impacting wildlife habitat. The paper and pulp industry is also a major cause of water and air pollution, often producing dioxins and other cancer-causing chemicals. 

handmade cotton hand-towel

Using a hand towel as opposed to tissue paper is an environmentally friendly way to prevent deforestation and can be considered as a measure to mitigate climate change effects. Using a handkerchief instead of tissue paper increases the life cycle of paper.

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Fashion Industry – Did You Know?

The fashion industry is one of the major polluting industries in the world. It produces a huge amount of carbon emission and also polluting oceans with microplastics. The production and distribution of the crops, fibers, and garments used in fashion all contribute more to air pollution including water, and soil pollution.

handwoven fabrics from India

It is important to be mindful of not buying too much by getting trapped in the fast-moving fashion trends.  Many of these sustainable traditional practices for textile and clothing are still prevalent in large parts of India which helps in energy reduction and waste minimization. It is time to get inspired by these practices and contribute less to the ever-rising pollution.

Read the latest facts and figures about the fashion industry. 

Discuss and Share

While India is a large producer of fast fashion for the western world, many of its traditional practices are still used at home to embrace a more sustainable approach to clothing and textiles. It is time for fast-fashion chains to embrace more sustainable clothing practices and for us, as consumers to embrace slow mindful fashion with concepts adopted from traditional India.

Start a Discussion!

  • Go back through and think of ways you can incorporate some of these sustainable traditional practices from India in your closet. Leave a comment with at least one idea below.
  • Whare are some of your favorite ways to upcycle and recycle clothing – we would love to hear them!
  • What is something you learned from this post that surprised you?
  • Make sure you save this post so you can return to it again and again as you build on your sustainable journey.
sustainable fashion tips from traditional Indian culture