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Wait! Don't toss those ratty undies

Old boxers, faded pajamas, worn-out sheets and holey towels can be born again. Here are 16 ways you can repurpose and reuse them.

By Donna_Freedman Aug 17, 2012 2:31PM
Image: Laundry (© Brand X Pictures/Getty Images/Getty Images)Earlier this week I helped my dad deal with a couple of storm-downed trees. He sawed, I hauled. When a bit of chainsaw oil dripped on the pickup's tailgate, he wiped it up with his underwear.

Not the pair he was wearing, but rather some ancient boxers. All his threadbare unmentionables and holey undershirts end up in the garage/workshop. It's their last chance at usefulness before they go to that big haberdashery in the sky.

My dad's thrift is legendary. But he's not the only person I know to use old clothing to death -- and wiping up spills is just one way to use it.

A former co-worker showed me his "new" short-sleeved shirt, which was once his old long-sleeved shirt. The elbows had worn through, so he cut off and hemmed the sleeves. I was so impressed.

How many other ways can old clothes, towels, pajamas and other cloth items be pressed into service one more time? Let's count them.

The basics

1. Cleaning rags. Why pay for shop rags? I use squares of old flannel PJs to wash mirrors, clean the stove and rub oil into a wooden table. When I'm using a scrub brush on the linoleum, raggedy dish cloths and tea towels are especially good for wiping up the water.

2. Work clothes. Wear the beat-up shirt and pants while cleaning out the garage or helping a friend paint his house. And on the subject of paint, there's the…

3. Artist's smock. An adult's worn-out shirt can keep the watercolors off a kindergartner's school clothes. The local elementary school might be glad to take those "smocks" off your hands. (Post continues after video.)

4. Clothing patches. A relative wears jeans until they shred, and saves the less-worn areas to use for patching newer jeans. (Gardening is hard on the knees of her trousers.)

5. Quilt patches. These days I expect most quilters buy new cloth for their fabric art pieces. But it could be fun to use cloth with some history behind it.

The new identity

6. Towels becoming cloths. One MSN Money reader told me that when holes develop in bath towels she cuts up the still-good parts and hems them into washcloths. Again: Impressed.

7. Sheets becoming whatever. The good parts of worn-out sheets can be cut down and hemmed into napkins, table runners, place mats, Halloween costumes, reusable gift wrap, sofa cushions, bandanas, etc.

8. Cut-down couture. Jeans can also become a skirt, gardening apron or a reusable shopping bag. Or, of course, cutoff shorts.

9. Toys, doll clothes. I can do only basic sewing but if I ever got creative it would be fun to turn an old blouse into an apron for a child, or a child's doll.

10. Old yarn into new. Some thrifty knitters unravel old sweaters. (Don't have any? Look for them at yard sales or secondhand stores.)

11. Diaper covers. Or turn old wool sweaters into frugal (and eco-friendly!) diaper covers through a process known as "felting."

The miscellaneous

12. Pet maternity ward. If your dog or cat is ready to pop, give her a nice soft bed of worn-out clothing. She'll appreciate it, and you can toss the cloths afterward if you don't want to wash and re-use. (No pets? Ask a rescue group if old towels et al. are needed.)

13. Fabric "bubble wrap." Use pieces of cloth to protect fragile Christmas-tree ornaments when you put them away.

14. Garden protection. Make a scarecrow. It might keep those birds away and it's a fun family project.

15. Dress-up. Those worn-out skirts and jackets could provide hours of make-believe for kids or grandkids.

16. Button source. Before you tear those beat-up clothes into cleaning rags, salvage the buttons. Somebody's always losing one.

Readers: How do you use old clothing?

More on MSN Money:

Aug 17, 2012 3:44PM
If you were raised, as I was, by parents of the Great Depression, use it up and wear it out is emblazoned on my mind. There is always a way to reuse anything.
Aug 17, 2012 3:00PM
I use my ex's old tee shirts to clear cobwebs.  I take an old corn broom and pull down one of the old tee shirts over it and clip tight using a clothes pin, so then I have a long-handled cobweb remover.  The cobweb remover is more useful than he was - LOL!!! ha ha ha
Aug 17, 2012 4:42PM
Old socks are perfect for dusting, I keep them under the kitchen sink.  Grab one with the Pledge and get to work.  Wash it and put it back, or throw it out!
Aug 17, 2012 3:24PM
we cut up old sweatshirts and make them into really cute tote bags
Aug 17, 2012 5:47PM

I always remove buttons from old clothing.Use old Tshirts for dusting. And for wet scrubbing. Very soft.

Husbands' outgrown shirts go to Salvation Army. They are well received.Old bed sheets go to animal shelters.

Aug 17, 2012 3:14PM
i cut off the legs of old jeans or the arms from fannel shirts, sew them closed at the bottom, hem the top and add a cord for a water bottle carrier and have even given them to parents of new borns for a simple baby bottle carrier. 
Aug 17, 2012 9:04PM
Old cotton briefs (not boxers, different material) are best for cleaning eyeglasses, and gym socks work well for applying and buffing paste shoe polish.
Aug 17, 2012 6:04PM
When jeans wore out,  a friend cut around the pocket, turned the attached seat fabric under and stitched it in place. Then she attached a strip of the double-stitched outside seam as a shoulder strap, and her kids had a little bag for gathering treasures as they played outside. Totally cute!
Aug 20, 2012 9:00AM
I like to use old washcloths and dish towels for cleaning rags.  I donate clothing that is still good, so it can either be reworn or recycled.  Old clothes that still fit me go into an emergency kit.  I have one in the trunk of my car--I use the thick plastic zippered bags that blankets come in and put stuff I might need in them.  In case I get stranded and need extra clothing or a change, it's all right there along with helpful roadside items.  
Aug 20, 2012 12:05PM
My mom still has my cloth diapers ( early 1970's) and are still the best dust/furniture polish rags around. Was kind of surprised to see them in the hall closet when I was visiting and makes me smile to know that she still uses them to chase the dust bunnies :)
Aug 20, 2012 9:06AM
I remember when I was a child, our teachers would request us bring one of dads old dress/work shirts in to school, when your between the ages of 5 and 8  they make a full size craft smock.  It was fun to use your dad's shirt too.
Aug 18, 2012 12:31AM

Most people used to use these money saving tips but got away from them as they became more affluent.  It wasn't cool to be seen as a miser.  I remember my mother going to the used clothing store on a regular basis to get material for quilts.  And the great thing about getting the cloth there, is it doesn't have to be a choice clothing item to make pretty quilt squares, so she rarely paid much for the things she found.

When my eldest daughter was very small and I was VERY poor, I used to get the largest adult clothing I could find at yard sales, take it all apart along the seams, and use the fabric to make all of her clothes. The leftover pieces went into a couple of patchwork quilts and then into doll clothes, cleaning rags, and rag rugs/mats.
Aug 17, 2012 5:49PM
old t-shirts or towels help wash windows inside and out. Pin tight with safety pins or clothes pins around a broom head. Spray windows w/ glass cleaner and use your "re-newed" rag to wash and dry window
Aug 20, 2012 8:16AM

Nothing new, been doing this all my life!! 

Aug 20, 2012 8:24AM
Good tips. We all need to be less wasteful.
Aug 20, 2012 2:15PM
My tween daughter loves to take my old t-shirts and make school book covers with them.  She recently covered her science book with my recently retired 'Einstein' t-shirt.  She does the 'patch thing' too...she uses old, worn clothes (from the family) with 'nice' or 'cute' patterns and cuts 8" x 8" swatches to save for patch jobs.  Useable clothing still goes to Goodwill or Salvation Army.
Aug 18, 2012 11:55AM
I have looms, most of our old clothes are made into rag rugs.  Sheets are occasionally made into dish towels.
Aug 20, 2012 2:37PM

What's wrong with 'ratty' underwear? ... and why subjugate it to the rag pile in the garage? Frankly, I'm not desirous of pity or a handout but having been unemployed for almost three years has me living an austere life. I have not purchased one single article of new clothing for myself in that time, not even a pair of socks. I bought a used pair of dress shoes and a used sports jacket at Goodwill a couple years ago to look presentable for some job interviews and one funeral, but that has been it. Needless to say almost everything that I own now looks like it should be used to dust furniture or wax a car, but I'm still wearing it. When I croak perhaps some kindly relatives will see to it that the funeral director is supplied with some decent threads so that I can go on my way looking a bit more dignified than when I was alive. The point is, if no one knows or can see that your skivvies or T-shirts are 'ratty', it's really not anyone's problem except for that of the owner, and I know that I'm not the only one out there wearing threadbare clothes. Use everything until it is totally and unequivocably unusable. Peace and prosperity to all ....


Aug 21, 2012 4:56PM

old sheets can be used for drop clothes, however they are best to be used if you layer a couple or fold them over to thicken them up.   be wary, they can be slippery on slick surfaces


old sheets can be dust covers over furniture while you are vacation etc or better yet, at your cabin for the 9 months of the year you are not there.


old towels can be donated to animal shelters


if you have a loom and weave, you can cut jeans into strips, loom them into a rug, a man at our farmers market sells small area rugs for over $60 each made from old jeans he finds, is given or use to be his.   These aren''t big rugs, they are kitchen rugs to stand on in front of the sink.  They are colorful because of the thread he worps them with.


jeans, sew a square pocket, shove several cut squars inside of it, use under a hot dish at the table in place of a trivat


most cities will recycle natural fiber clothing, check your cities recycling websites.


our culture is incredibly wasteful on many fronts.


you don't have to be frugal in all aspects of your life, pick one thing to change your behavior on, it will be habit and then open up another world to "cut costs on" or otherwise not WASTE money.


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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.