Upcycling to Clean Out Your Clutter and Help the Environment

Posted on Sep 30 2010 - 11:47pm by Winnie Hsiu

Got an old sweater that is too stretched out to wear? Make it into a sofa pillow, or use the arms to make child-size leggings, and the body to make a child-size winter skirt. Several old Gore-Tex jackets? Sew them together to make a beautiful and mold-resistant shower curtain. How about some plain white china plates? Paint or draw on them and sell the resulting work at a craft fair.

While many people are focused on finding ways to reuse or recycle things they can no longer use, others are finding creative ways to reuse stuff (clothing, dishes, you name it) by making something new out of something old — turning storage problems into craft projects. While the practice is really just a new way to reuse or recycle things, it has generated its own word: upcycling. If your closets, kitchen cupboards, garage, basement, attic, or self storage unit is crammed to the gills or overstuffed with…stuff, then upcycling is the new green alternative to throwing things out.

Upcycling isn’t really a new idea. It’s what our grandmothers were doing when they made quilts out of old clothes, washed out old jars and reclaimed them to hold spices, and even when they preserved extra fruit the family could not eat right away as jam. (Of course, they weren’t making cell phone cozies out of old mittens, or iPod cozies out of old socks…but they probably would have approved of the idea.)

Upcycling advocate Wendy Russell, who also hosts HGTV’s She’s Crafty, says that she learned to upcycle by watching her grandmother struggle to raise two children as a single parent. At YourHome.ca yesterday, Russell recounted her memory of how when she wanted a Barbie dollhouse, her grandmother made her one. “We weren’t allowed to go out and buy fancy things,” she says. Anyone can upcycle, Russell says, noting that it’s easy to make a three-tiered cake stand using glue, epoxy, plates and candlesticks.

While some people are crafting new things out of old simply as a way of using up clutter and cleaning things out of storage, a few artists are doing it as part of the way they earn a living. United Kingdom-based artist Esther Coombs, for example, buys vintage china and reworks it by adding line drawings.

“My aim is to transform lost gems into new, desirable items,” Coombs said in The Telegraph yesterday. “Each teacup and plate I find at a boot sale or charity shop is an object that already has its own narrative. When I draw on that object, my illustrations join the old story with a new one.”

Not all upcycled objects are small. Some artists are reupholstering old furniture (again, only the designs are new) or reclaiming wood from homes that are being demolished or remodeled.

“If you are considering getting rid of something because you’re tired of it,” exhorts Russell (again at YourHome.ca), “look at it with a different set of eyes, see if there’s another use you can make of it….Creativity, it’s in there, people. I know you have it! Let it out!”

Sources used:

Burroughs, Katrina and Lonsdale, Sarah. “Interiors and homewares: join the recycling revolution.” The Telegraph (UK). Sept. 29, 2010.

Napolitano, Wenona. “10 crafty things to do with old sweaters.” Crafting a Green World. Aug. 6, 2010.

“Upcycling to create art.” FOX News. Sept. 20, 2010.

Wadler, Joyce. “Green, but still feeling guilty.” The New York Times. Sept. 29, 2010.

Wilson, Jennifer. “Creativity is in you, just let it out, Wendy Russell says.” YourHome.ca. Sept. 29, 2010.