Upcycling: Turn Your Worn-Out Sweater Into Treasure

3 ways to bring new life to old belongings

Old sweaters, orphaned buttons, mounds of paper and that chair from your aunt that doesn’t quite go with anything else in your house. You’d never dream of dumping them in a landfill, but there’s another alternative to donating or recycling them: upcycling.

From the eco-chic woman at the grocery store whose reusable tote is made from plastic bags to the empty coffee tins your grandmother uses for flower pots, examples of upcycling are everywhere.

So what is upcycling? Diana Durkes, a freelance writer and salvage artist in Chicago, Ill., defines upcycling as taking something that would otherwise be thrown out (or donated, or recycled) and revamping it to make something better. On her blog, Fine Diving, Durkes spotlights before and after shots of her upcycled thrift store, yard sale and Dumpster finds, as well as her own worn out household items that have been given new life via upcycling.

“You just need to look at what you were going to throw away with a new perspective,” Durkes says. “Ask yourself how you can put it back into your household with a new purpose.” For instance, the most popular project on Durkes’ site is a jacket that she deconstructed and used to make a dog coat. “I published the pattern on the site and got a lot of notes saying ‘Thank you so much for the coat pattern – My dog loves her new coat!’” Durkes says.

Why upcycle?

But why take the trouble to upcycle something when you can simply toss it in the recycling bin? While the process of recycling — or “downcycling,” as some people refer to it — breaks down high-grade materials into lower-grade ones (such as computer paper into newspaper), upcyclers take worn out materials and re-craft or repurpose them into items of equal or greater value.

Durkes also points out that upcycling has an advantage over recycling or donating because both of those activities require energy. “When you donate an old sweater, it’s trucked to a distribution center, tagged, then trucked again to a storefront,” Durkes explains. “Anything that requires that much transportation can potentially use up more fuel energy than it might be worth.”

Upcycling can also be a money saver — or even a money maker. “I started out making purses from my old jeans. Then I started making skirts and tops and other clothing items to avoid mall shopping and mall prices,” says Melissa Blakeslee, an upcycler from Colorado who now has her own shop called Salvaged Threads on Etsy.com where she sells her upcycled creations (the owl pillow pictured above is hers, upcycled from salvaged men's coats, women's skirts, upholstery and corduroy).

Environmental and financial considerations aside, upcycling may also be good for the soul: “Upcycling is a form of self-expression, and it can be very social,” Durkes says. “There are crafting groups all over the place or swap meets where you can exchange materials and ideas. So it’s not only an environmental action but a creative and social one as well.”

3 ways to upcycle

1. Do it yourself

“Notebooks are a really easy project to start with,” Durkes says. Just take office paper that was destined for the recycling bin, punch holes in it, put rings through it, and you’ve got a new scratch pad that didn’t cost you anything. Add a cover made out of cardboard and covered with pretty craft paper or decorated with stray postcards or photos.

Itching to repurpose that pile of clothes? “I find you can make purses out of almost anything,” Blakeslee says. “Pant legs work well, especially if you’re just starting out, and you can use old neckties for the straps.”

The Internet is a great source of inspiration. Durkes recommends sites like instructables.com, readymade.com and craftzine.com for ideas and patterns, some requiring lots of skill and others almost none.

But the most important step is picking a project and getting started. “Just do it!” Blakeslee says. “Don't think about it too much or you might feel overwhelmed. Just get started one step at a time and it will come together. Your seam ripper will become your best friend and arch enemy.”

2. Outsource it

Companies are popping up all over the Internet that allow you to ship off your used items and get back a new, upcycled creation.

TeddyLux: Mail in your gently worn cashmere sweater and TeddyLux will upcycle it into a stuffed bear, bunny or elephant (for an additional fee). Or simply donate your cashmere to the company and they’ll reimburse you for the shipping cost. You can also buy the cuddly cashmere critters directly from the site.

Reknit: Send your sweater to website designer Haik Avanian’s mom and she’ll re-knit it into a new item of clothing or an accessory. Last month she knitted scarves; this month it’s cut-off gloves. You can also vote on what she should knit next: socks, hats, sweatbands or iPod cases? Each month is limited to the first 30 orders because, as Avanian points out, he only has one mom!

TerraCycle: This innovative company creates bags, bows, flower pots and even kites from, well, trash. TerraCycle will pay you to mail in empty drink pouches, potato chip bags, energy bar wrappers and other packaging waste for them to upcycle into brightly colored products that definitely won’t end up in a landfill anytime soon.

3. Buy it

For the truly un-crafty among us, it’s easy to find upcycled items that don’t require any work beyond grabbing your credit card. Fair trade stores and the Internet are great places to look for upcycled clothing, accessories, decorative items and even furniture. Here are a few favorites.

reMade USA: Shannon South crafts gorgeous leather bags from vintage leather jackets.

Salvaged Threads: Check out Melissa Blakeslee’s Esty.com site, where she sells upcycled clothing, purses, jewelry and pillows. Search for “upcycled” on Etsy.com and find hundreds of other sellers who specialize in upcycled crafts.

Gaiam: Browse Gaiam’s e-commerce site for products made from recycled materials, including chairs made from recycled wine barrels and Turkish floor mats made from spent soda bottles


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Vintage Revised
Vintage Revised's picture
User offline. Last seen 4 years 41 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 11/11/2011

Great Post. I love seeing other creative and earth concious minds at work!!!
I also am an avid upcycler. Can`t wait to try the Owl project! Thanks!

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