Credit: GG Deputy Photography and Illustrations Manager Dorota Dziki (@drawing_dorota)

The value of upcycling

By Rebecca Richard

Rejuvenating and repurposing items for your living space.

When the first lockdown was announced last March, I, like so many others, panicked at the thought of having so much free time and impulsively bought 150 embroidery threads spanning the entire colour spectrum. Upcycling is the conversion of old belongings into something new and repurposing them to be of greater value. I thought that embroidering some forgotten items might encourage me to use more and buy less. I’d never embroidered in my life, I had no real plan, but it seemed like a good way to use up some time. I’m a bit of a hoarder, and it dawned on me that I could spice up so many of my old things while feeling like I’d got something new. 

My first target was a powder blue Primark blanket that was years old, thrown over the end of my bed and never looked at. With a trusty Pinterest board by my side, I spent hours binging Netflix while stitching the edges with little bees, flowers, leaves and ladybirds – the whole crafty cliche. This was by no means an artistic breakthrough, but the poor abandoned blanket soon became a feature of my bed, as I wanted to show off my handiwork. An old childhood tote bag from the Sea Life Centre was next in line for a makeover. I stitched some raindrops across the handles and called it a day, but the bag looks far more aesthetically pleasing for its weekly outing to the supermarket than it did before. 

The point is, upcycling doesn’t have to be sewing an entire outfit from an old shirt, although if you have the craftsmanship to pull that off I salute you. It is the sprucing up of everyday things that I think brings the most satisfaction, as well as easing boredom and giving you something to show for it afterwards – ideal for this lockdown period. 

Aside from the satisfaction of creating something new from old things, it is environmentally friendly. According to National Geographic, the fashion industry is the second most polluting in the world, with the manufacturing of a single pair of jeans requiring around 7,500 litres of water. The fashion industry currently emits more greenhouse gases than the international marine and aviation services together at a total of 1.2bn tonnes per year. Aside from shopping at ethical clothing producers or thrifting, the most sustainable thing you can wear are the clothes already in your wardrobe. With the vast increase in influencers’ platforms on social media, it seems trends disappear as quickly as they can emerge and it’s impossible to keep up. But the beauty of clothes is they can be remodelled with just a few stitches, cuts or dye. Of course, upcycling is not just limited to clothes. Furniture or other miscellaneous objects can also be repurposed. The countless mason jars I bought for my smoothie phase bring more joy with fairy lights in them than they did gathering dust in the cupboard. If jars of fairy lights are a little too cringeworthy for you, mason jars also make for rustic plant pots. The key idea of upcycling is turning waste into a resource.

Something lovely about upcycling is how personal it is. You can have something that nobody else has because it is a product of your used pieces, your own creative flair is poured into it which bulk-produced factory items can never recreate. 

It is also great for stimulating creativity, and producing something “new” is a good break from looking at screens all day. I found embroidering to be the most manageable method of upcycling, with little preparation and clean up needed, and it also produced the most satisfying results. There are a plethora of ways to get crafty with your belongings whether it be painting an old dresser, switching out drawer handles or sewing different buttons onto a cardigan. 

Upcycling can seem a little daunting, especially if you haven’t explored your creative side before, and it can be hard to know where to start. There are countless tutorials online about switching-up tired pieces on YouTube, Pinterest, or even TikTok: online platforms provide a wide scope of possibilities for your upcycling needs. The simplest creations are usually any kind of bottle – I’m sure many student flats have the odd gin bottle kicking about. Paint and fill these with lights and you can’t go wrong. Tin cans can also be a rustic storage addition, covered with buttons, wrapped with rope or painted, with holes punched into them for tealight holders – they are a versatile piece of junk. 

Essentially, you do not need to be a seamstress or DIY expert to make upcycling work for you. I find when I’m inundated with deadlines, stress, and general life responsibilities, messing around with my old things is a light-hearted hobby without the pressure of high expectations. You can relax and paint some clouds onto a tin simply because you can. If it’s a bit shit, it doesn’t matter. Enjoy the process of doing something a little different from the monotonous routines I’m sure many of us have found ourselves in lately, and take pride in whatever creation you produce. Whether it’s an artistic masterpiece or not quite what you’d envisioned, whatever you create will be entirely yours. I think that’s pretty special. 


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Lizanne Drummond

I can so relate to this ! The addition of a single button, ribbon or pom pom makes something as simple as a tote bag or scarf an expression of YOU rather than an expression of Primark/m&s/Topshop (delete as applicable).