Skip to Content

What Is Upcycling What You Need To Know

As Pillarboxblue is full of a wonderful range of upcycling tutorials and there is a comprehensive A to Z list of clever upcycling ideas here.  I thought it would be useful to add a post that explains what upcycling is and the benefits of upcycling.

What Is Upcycling pin

What is Upcycling and The Benefits of Upcycling

Being the creator of a successful upcycling blog I get asked loads of times the question “what is upcycling?”.  From magazines, other bloggers, brands, friends and even relatives.  I think alot of them already know what upcycling is or have good idea, but they want to hear my take on it. 

Upcycling is a relatively new word that has only been around since the late ’90s.  The spell checker on my computer doesn’t even recognize the word. 

The increasing popularity of upcycling is finally being recognized. The Cambridge Dictionary voted upcycling as the word of the year 2019.

The Cambridge Dictionary definition of upcycling is, ” the activity of making new furniture, objects, etc. out of old or used things or waste material

upcyling word of the year

My definition is very similar “revamping the unloved and mundane into something much more useful or beautiful and creative“.  

Upcycling is a great way of personalizing and making unique things to brighten and add interest to your home.   Often, we have things in our home that have sentimental value but are a bit tired and dated, they no longer fit in with our decor.  

A great way to revamp these objects so that they can be loved once again, is by upcycling them.  This may involve painting an old piece of furniture or decoupage it with paper or fabric.   Upcycling with wallpaper is one of the easiest ways to transform furniture, from tables to old mirrors.

I have written a whole post on how you can upcycle fabrics for your home. These include fabrics from denim, cotton clothing and bedding, sweaters to old leather handbags. You can even make many cool things from fabric scraps.

The best chalk paint cupboard upcycle with Annie Sloan Red Emperors Silk, decoupaged vintage graphics (Cavallini's insect gift wrap) and printable window decals. Full tutorial.

Sometimes upcycling is referred to as revamping, transforming and repurposing.  Technically recycling is about converting waste and rubbish into reusable material.  However, if that new material is considered to be better than the original, then you could call it upcycling.

What Are The Benefits Of Upcycling?

Upcycling brings with it tons of benefits, but they generally fall into four main areas.

  • Environmental
  • Economical
  • Uniqueness
  • Psychological

Environmental & Economical Benefits Of Upcycling

It’s not just about transforming the old into something uniquely fresh and exciting. Upcycling is also about thrift.  I love working with what others consider rubbish and repurposing it into something beautiful and useful once again. 

This thrifting also has positive environmental benefits of repurposing and reusing items, reducing waste in landfills and the unnecessary manufacture of new goods.

Surely, it is much better to upcycle something that already exists than to buy new.  Not only is it more affordable, but it’s environmentally sound. 

By upcycling you stop one more thing from going to landfill. Think of the environmental footprint you have saved from the cost of manufacturing packaging and transporting something new.

In the case of upcycling ”  “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is true.

Plastic Bottle Succulents in upcycled glass terrariums.

Mini faux succulent terrariums from plastic bottle

Far too much secondhand (and unsold) clothing ends up in a landfill. It could be repurposed and upcycled into something more useful. “The value of unused clothing in wardrobes has been estimated at around £30 billion. It is also estimated that £140 million worth of clothing goes into landfills each year.

One of my favourite things to craft with is old worn-out denim jeans. I’ve even upholstered furniture with it. There is even a fun A to Z list of denim tutorials on the site.

Pile of jeans for handmade chevron rug

When money is tight, instead of buying new, why don’t you look at what you already have and see if you can transform and revamp it to fit in with your current interior look?

A nice home is important to me, so are holidays.  I don’t want to spend all my money on my house, I want to save some for travels abroad.  

By recycling and upcycling, I can cut the cost of decorating my home and still get the look I want.

Felt rug for the home, made from recycled sweaters

Creating Something Unique With Upcycling

Upcycled pieces tend to be one-off. It is a brilliant way to make your stamp in your home by creating something unique that no one else has. 

Rather than buy something mass-produced.  Upcycling a piece of furniture enables you to create pieces that reflect your tastes and personality. 

That is why I love to use maps in my crafts and upcycling.  Maps are a great way to personalize something and add meaning to it.  

 I was born and brought up in Hong Kong and my husband’s family is from Norway. I have added maps of these places on some of my upcycles.  For example, a couple of wooden chairs in the dining room are decoupaged, one with a Norwegian map and the other with a city map of Hong Kong.

Personalized map chairs one with a Norwegian map and the other with a London tube map.

Map chairs pillarboxblue.com

With upcycling, we can indulge our love of nostalgia.  How many times do people walk around trendy furniture stores that sell upcycled and retro furniture saying my nan or my mum had one of those. Look at the trend for 70’s sideboards, many of them have been upcycled, with just a splash of paint or a wallpapered panel.

The Psychological Benefits of Upcycling

Not many people know this, but I trained as a psychologist (Aviation Psychologist). So I often see the world from a psychologist’s perspective and can recognize several psychological and well-being benefits of upcycling.

As modern lives become more and more automated and digitalized, there is a need to balance this by being creative with our hands.  Whether this is through craft, baking, art, DIY or upcycling, we like to make things.

The rewards of upcycling, aren’t just about producing unique pieces of furniture and accessories for your home. There are also the therapeutic benefits of the actual crafting process.  It’s very relaxing to use the right side of your brain for a change by indulging in a creative task such as painting an old piece of furniture

I find upcycling very relaxing and almost meditative. I can get lost in my crafting and DIY forgetting about my other worries for a while, whilst emersed in the upcycling task to hand.

Slowing down and taking the time to revamp and upcycle something can very relaxing, also a confidence booster to boot.  Just saying “I made that” can make you feel really good and that you have created something new from something old.

Upcycled drawers into a bathroom cabinet.

Upcycled drawers into a handy wall storage unit. A step by step tutorial.

The sense of achievement when you create a brilliant upcycled piece is very uplifting.  I have pieces of furniture in my home that I transformed years ago.

When they catch my eye, they still make me smile with pride.  I’m more attached to the upcycled furniture in my home than the stuff I’ve bought. 

These pieces are like part of the family as they have my personality (not to mention sweat and tears in some cases) in them. I feel pride in having created them.

The Creative Process of Upcycling

The challenge of upcycling stimulates imagination and creativity. It flows two ways, with the waste to be upcycled and the desired end product.

Firstly, with an old piece of furniture, the challenge will be with how I can upcycle it into a unique and desirable piece that will fit in with my home.

When upcycling, you are the designer, so you can create the piece to fit your interior décor style. 

If you live in a minimalist setting, you can strip back old more ornate furniture to its bare components to make it in keeping with a minimalist look. 

Whereas if you’re more a maximalist, you can add colour, knobs hooks, etc to make a piece to fit your need and home.

One of my favourite ways to revamp old furniture is with wallpaper.

Craft cupboard transformation - Pillarboxblue.com

Secondly, creativity can be driven by the end product. For example, every year I challenge myself to make a Christmas tree for my home using only waste materials.

With this project, I’m looking for the materials to upcycle rather than using the material as my starting point.

Upcycled wooden Christmas tree with knobs on.

Upcycled flat Christmas tree made from reclaimed wood and cabinet knobs and hooks.

Upcycled lampshades into a rustic Christmas tree.

repurposed lamp wire rustic Christmas tree

What To Upcycle

Furniture

Old furniture, whether it’s updating a piece you already have or buying or picking up something secondhand from Freecycle, an auction, junk or charity shop. Old pieces of furniture are often sturdier and made to a higher standard than the mass-produced pieces today.

Often, I see old sofas on my local auction site, that when they are stripped back, their skeleton is made of solid wood and good strong springs.

Whereas modern mass-produced sofas, when stripped back, are made of poorer materials such as cardboard.

Chalk paint, decoupage, and reupholstery are great ways to transform old pieces of furniture.

Upcycled bench with Marimekko decoupage

DIY Marimekko Bench

Clothing

Nothing makes me smile more than when a visiting relative brings a pile of their old jeans and sweaters (forget the bottle of wine) to upcycle. Denim is such a robust material and comes in lovely shades of indigo. It’s such fun to repurpose.

Whether it’s to upcycle an old worn chair by reupholstering it in denim, make new pillows, planters or even cute dog toys,  no part of a pair of jeans is safe. The seams, hems, pockets and scraps get crafted with.

There are over 40 tutorials of both stitched and non-sewing denim upcycles on Pillarboxblue. I even have a post explaining how to dissect one pair of old jeans for crafting.

Ideas for upcycling and repurposing denim for the home.

40 plus denim upcycling projects

If you felt wool sweaters by shrinking them on a hot wash in the washing machine, you can cut and craft with them, they won’t fray. I’ve made cozy throw blankets, soft knot pillows and even Scandinavian decorations out of old sweaters.

Don’t worry if you are not a confident seamstress, there are plenty of things that you can still make from old clothes that are no-sew. You can make them without having to use a single stitch.

Old clothing is a great resource for crafting materials, no need to go to the craft store for fabric for your projects. Use your old clothes instead, I’ve made upcycled denim Christmas decorations from both old jeans and old sweaters. There are many upcycled Christmas ornament ideas here.

Super cute upcycled Christmas ornaments. Made with old sweaters and cookie cutter shapes. Make for a lovely Christmas wall decoration.

Don’t limit yourself to one material at a time. Many of my upcycles combine several different waste materials. Leather, wool and denim look great together.

Upcycled felt succulent garden using old sweaters and jeans.

Repurposed sweater felt faux succulent garden

Scrap Wood and Pallets

Walking past a skip (dumpster) and not having a good look in, is not an option for me. I can’t help myself. Often I will find lovely bits of old wood in a skip.

Pieces with character and age that you can’t easily buy elsewhere. I’ve made benches out of old scaffolding boards and broken chairs rescued from a skip.

Repurposed scaffolding board bench, using broken chair legs.

Easy DIY scaffolding board furniture. Combine the legs of an old dining chair with a scaffolding board for a unique upcycled wooden bench.

Sometimes these upcycles can be as simple as giving old chairs a coat of paint to give them a fresh new look.

Where there is a skip, often there are pallets too. I always ask but have yet been refused a pallet from a builder.

They more than happy for someone else to cart them away. Pinterest and Facebook are full of thousands of ideas for upcycling pallets.

I turned a plain old pallet into a fabulous colourful Moroccan wall planter to brighten up my garden.

A happy hour cocktail window and window herb planter brighten up my backyard. Both were upcycled sash windows rescued from a local skip. There is an awesome collection of garden upcycles here.

Upcycled window herb planter - free tutorial and template Pillarboxblue.com

Tin Cans & Plastics

It’s amazing what you can upcycle an old tin can into, or plastic bottles and cartons. Most of the planters in my home and garden are upcycled tin cans, whether decoupaged, painted or covered in fabric.

Tin cans upcycled into oriental style DIY flower pots.

DIY flower pots

Cardboard & Maps

One side effect of online shopping is the amount of cardboard packaging we acquire. Instead of putting all of it into the recycling bin, I keep some aside for crafts and upcycling. Like with these wonderful cardboard Christmas craft ideas.

Some of the things I’ve made include decorative birdhouses, Christmas decorations, picture frames and quirky upcycled storage boxes.

Old road maps have to be one of my favourite things to upcycle. Red roads, blue waterways and green spaces all on vintage paper add to the lovely look of old maps. The right colours to upcycle into map Christmas crackers.

Add extra interest and that personal element to an upcycle by using a road map of somewhere special. Decoupage with them, make map lampshades or even decorative ornaments.

Upcycled map floor lamp with denim trim and stand.

Upcycled floor lamp with roadmaps and denim

Glass and China

Wine bottles, gin bottles, glass jars, old tiles, broken crockery and cups can all be repurposed into an array of fabulous things.

Don't throw away your beautiful broken plates and bowls why not upcycle them into a gorgeous mosaic wall planter. Lovely in the garden with bedding plants or in the kitchen with herbs

Other bits and pieces

So many other things can be upcycled, from old toys, sports equipment, suitcases, old radios, crates, sails, etc.

The list is endless, the BBC TV program “Money For Nothing” always amazes me with its upcycling creativity from other people’s rubbish.

Upcycled vintage suitcases with maps for a more updated look.

Tutorial for a vintage map suitcase

Repurposed denim and crate into a rolling storage ottoman.

Make a nifty DIY ottoman with storage from a pair of jeans and an IKea Crate

How To Start Upcycling

Our imagination is the best tool for upcycling, it helps to be able to envisage the transformation. If you are not sure where to start, then a bit of browsing on Pinterest is bound to get those creative juices flowing.

On Facebook, individuals get to show off their amazing creations in specialist upcycling groups.

Two of my favorites are Upcycle Sharin’ and Upcycled Cloth Collective. Almost every day I come across a post in one of these groups that inspire me and gets those upcycling creative juices flowing.

People say creativity can’t be learned. I disagree, I think that creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised. The more you use that muscle, the bigger and stronger it will get.

When I have a bit of creative block (which happens from time to time), I start by making something small. The act of making seems to trigger neurons in my brain, the creative ideas flow once more.

Besides all the benefits of upcycling, I listed, in the beginning, that one of the best things about it is that there is no right or wrong way.

Very rarely have I made a hash of an upcycle when it hasn’t gone to plan. But as I tend to use waste materials, it doesn’t matter.

Most of the interior touches in my home are my upcycled creations. They are unique, personal, often a bit quirky and best of all, I love them because I made them.

I can’t wait to start my next upcycling project!

You might want to check out these ideas for crafting from waste materials to get you started.

Sim

Sunday 15th of May 2022

Thanks for your article. Was looking for inspiration, I'm about to open a shop for upcycled material and furniture. Your article is exactly what I needed. Thanks

Claire Armstrong

Sunday 15th of May 2022

That's good to hear, thank you. Good luck with your shop.

Susan Fordyce

Friday 7th of May 2021

How fun is this!!!!!! Thank you for sharing such wonderful ideas. Your personal world must be amazingly delightful. Joyful!

Claire Armstrong

Friday 7th of May 2021

Thank you so much, it is 😊

Peter DIYPD

Tuesday 8th of September 2020

Very inspiring article Claire! I love the London tube chair and the denim crafts!

Claire Armstrong

Wednesday 9th of September 2020

Thank you so much. Denim is one of my favorite materials to work with.

Ramkumar

Friday 6th of March 2020

Liked the article and will try to make some of the objects shown.

Claire Armstrong

Friday 6th of March 2020

Thank you so much and good luck with them.

Valmik Soni

Sunday 23rd of February 2020

Good morning Claire,

Very interesting and useful article. Thank you. Valmik Soni. Namibia

Claire Armstrong

Sunday 23rd of February 2020

Thank you, I'm pleased that you found it useful.