Today, I spent a happy hour talking upcycling with an engaging bunch of seniors. Bearing in mind that many of them remember ‘make do and mend’ from before I was born, they had as much to teach me as I did them. But that was kind of the point. I wanted them to see that that mentality had regained currency. I wanted to remind them of the fun challenge of making something out of something else.
When you raise the topic of upcycling, some people will inevitably roll their eyes. Some time back, one guy flat out told me that upcycling was the process of ‘turning junk into painted junk’.
And that is certainly one possible approach. You could indeed take some piece of cheap furniture, slap a coat of paint on it, and make it fit for another go ’round. Why not? When money is tight, it works. The nursery which served both my sons through their babyhood was very much an example of that. A second hand cot, which I painted. Curtains which I shortened, using the off cut to make cushions for the pine rocking chair (bought new by Mr Namasi). An antique yellow wood wardrobe, passed down through the family, into which I inserted shelves for the tiny clothes. A piece of net curtain which served as a mosquito net, and a deterrent for the cat (so many horror stories about babies being suffocated by cats… to this day, I have no idea if any of them were true!) A tatty desk, which I painted and topped with a padded changing mat, and above which I hung an wall-mounted shelf for all the nappy change/bath time necessities. I had one friend who was absolutely adamant that she would have nothing secondhand for her new baby. But the joy it brought me to paint the walls and furniture in that little room remains with me to this day.
So: yes, much of it was painted junk. And it was wonderful.
But there’s more to it than that.
Some of the ladies at today’s presentation remembered their mothers cutting down their fathers’ army military trousers and jackets to make trousers and skirts for the children. Some of them even that themselves. They remembered the challenge of turning military dress shirts into miniature shirts for sons and blouses for daughters. Women who had served made over their own uniforms to wear afterward. One lady had fond memories of using smocking to turn anything and everything into something pretty. These days, smocking is enjoying something of a revival, but more commonly in connection with soft furnishings than clothing.
One lady remembered her father working in a ribbon factory, and bringing home the pieces that couldn’t be used. She would use these to make baby blankets, earning what she called ‘bobbin money’ (new expression to me).
We talked about furniture: restoring beautiful pieces built to last; reusing the drawer handles, feet and hinges on pieces which had finally given up the ghost. We talked about repairing cars by using spare parts from scrap yards. Before cars had on-board computers, replacing a faulty carburettor with a new one was something one just did.
I showed them some smaller examples of my own work: my Madonna and child; my sock dolls; a few Christmas decorations, ornaments made from the rings out of lampshades, light bulbs, corks, old blankets, pallet ends (see picture); little boxes I had decorated to use for trinkets, etc.
I took a deep breath and showed them some of my failures, too. Not that anything is ever a complete failure: at worst, it serves as a learning experience, but sometimes I find that if I set a thing aside for a little while, I’ll come back to it with fresh ideas or a new direction.
Sometimes, a coat of paint is enough. Sometimes more is needed.
I have a beautiful pair of old bi-fold doors that I want to use as the starting point for a sideboard, and a few beautiful arm chairs that I’m planning to re-upholster. These items deserve better than a trip to landfill. And – I believe – that the young men who once occupied a room full of my upcycled pieces that served as their nursery, deserve to live in a world not overrun by landfill sites.