By Alison Baenen for Green Goes Simple
It’s easy to forget that the components of the classic sustainability slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” are actually listed in order of importance. Recycling is undeniably significant, but reducing and reusing — using less and using something again — have a greater impact. Enter “upcycling.” It may sound like a tortuous spin class maneuver, but upcycling is nothing more than reusing with a twist.
The process of upcycling involves taking something old or unused and turning it into something usable — and often beautiful. The online arts and craft community Etsy.com has a seemingly endless amount of upcycled goods: Discarded fabric scraps morph into adorable dresses; buttons become earrings; and fallen timber is used as a canvas for cozy, chic wall hangings.
Want to give upcycling a shot? Read on for some tips and inspiration:
Start the upcycling process by finding something worthy of a second life. Meg Allan Cole, DIY expert and host of ThreadBanger’s (Threadbanger.com) Decor It Yourself web series, recommends shopping for used goods at thrift stores as well as Craigslist and stoop sales. And don’t forget your own closets: Cole turns garments handed down from her grandmother into beautiful upcycled clothing and accessories.
You can also look to nature for inspiration and materials. Home stylist guru Tim Neve’s beautiful driftwood lamps is a great project to do with the kids (find instructions at TimNeve.com). But of course, not all upcycling equipment can be found in nature. Cole recommends stocking up on a few basics: protective gloves, a glue gun, a staple gun, galvanized wire and a sewing machine. She’s found all of the above on Craigslist and at yard sales, making her projects even greener.
Cole says the first step to a successful upcycling endeavor is changing your vision. “I’ve learned that you have to retrain how you see solutions,” she told us. “Instead of just buying something to solve a problem quickly, look at the resources you have and see how you can breathe new life into them.” For example, in honor of Earth Day, Cole turned a collection of old spoons — some of which she scooped up for cheap at thrift stores — into a gorgeous pendant lamp.
Upcycled projects can go from the simple (think DIY with your toddler) to the glamorous. Natalie Chanin, who heads the Vogue-vetted fashion label Alabama Chanin, makes her romantic, full-skirted dresses and exquisitely detailed outerwear from a combination of vintage, repurposed and organic fabrics hand-stitched by local artisans in or around her home base of Florence, Ala.
For Cole and plenty of other crafty types, materials may be cheap — or better yet, free — but inspiration is usually rich. Cole’s design idols range from Coco Chanel to Grey Gardens’ Edie Beale, not to mention a soft spot for the TV classic “Dallas.” First-time upcyclers should dream big, says Cole. “Keep your eyes open to what you’re drawn to, to where you find beauty,” she says. “Even if you don’t have a place for it now, you will.”
Alison Baenen is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her writing has appeared in Style.com, ContributingEditor.com, Epicurious.com and Concierge.com. In addition to editorial work, Alison is a copywriter for Theory, Gilt Groupe and PRPS.