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Everything You Need to Know About Upcycling

9th August 2018

All it takes is a keen eye and a little imagination – we take a closer look at the crafty trend gathering serious momentum…

What is upcycling?

Upcycling is the process of reusing objects or materials that may otherwise be overlooked or discarded with the intention of restoring their former beauty or creating something of higher value than the original. 

Upcycling has grown in popularity over the last few years, no doubt fuelled by an increased awareness of environmental issues – it’s estimated that in the UK we throw out over 1.5 million tonnes of household waste every year – as well as a recent shift in consumer preferences away from mass-produced homogenous products and towards unique handcrafted items made by independent sellers. 

Upcycling projects collage

Chest of drawers papered in Dandelion Clocks by Studio 27 based in Essex | Triangular shelf image by Kara Mitchell via unsplash | White chest of drawers with artwork front by decor8 holly licensed under CC BY 2.0 | Painted stool image by Benjamin Voros via unsplash.

Far from being an extensive restoration project, upcycling can be something as small as sewing a quirky patch into a ripped jacket, however, but it’s within home furnishings that this craft has experienced a particular boom, as sites such as Pinterest and TV programmes including Money for Nothing have done a good job of showing us just how valuable our cast-offs can be. This, coupled with an increased demand for creative workshops has led experts to claim that we are experiencing an ‘Arts & Crafts Revival’ mirroring the original 19th century movement, pioneered by designers such as Augustus Pugin and William Morris. 

Upcycling entrepreneurs

Many people have gone beyond upcycling their personal items and have turned this creative process into a fully-fledged business. alijoedesigns is one such thriving brand, transforming vintage china plates into unique and witty works of art. We sat down with founder Debbie to discuss her creative journey.

How did you first get into upcycling?

I was exploring ideas for a creative outlet and did a course on applying decals to ceramics. Having always loved quirky imagery and art that makes me smile, I thought about the idea of juxtaposing unexpected imagery onto discarded vintage plates (one offs in charity shops, damaged ones that nobody wants etc). The upcycling side of things was not the driving force – I love the plates and the frames that they provide and I knew that the pieces I wanted to work with, nobody else would be seeking for their intended use. However, it has become a wonderful benefit of my work. 

Have you always had a knack for creating things?

It has always been in me – as a child, I would spend more time on decorating my exercise books than on the important content inside – but never had the confidence to take it anywhere in my adult life. Until now, when I was looking for something very different to do when leaving my corporate career.


Tell us about your creative process – do you pick the design to match the plate or vice versa?

It actually works both ways – sometimes I will seek out plates that I know concepts will work on and other times, I will see a plate that will spark an idea. That said, some of my best laid plans evolve as I start working with the plate – the design/concept can end being completely different to the initial idea.


Which piece are you most proud of?

Tricky one – there are many as each time I come up with a new concept, that tends to be the ‘favourite’.  ‘A LOT On My Plate’ (below, right) was one of those concepts that came to me a couple of years ago and plates made with the imagery and words fly off the shelves. The fact that it is now the title of my first exhibition, running until 25th September at The Exhibition Hotel, this image of the piece I made especially for the show is probably the one I am most proud of.

You can get a close-up of alijoedesigns' plates in a special display at The Exhibitionist Hotel on until Tuesday 25th September 2018. Click here for details.

Tuck in plate

'Tuck in' plate

Penny for your thoughts plate

'Penny for your thoughts' plate

 lot on my plate design

'A LOT On My Plate' set

Upcycling tips for beginners

If you’re hoping to try your hand at upcycling, take a look at our top tips for achieving a piece you can be proud of…

Beginner tips to achieving upcycling success

Start with what you already have

If you’re unsure where to start, look at the items you already have. Do you own a number of half-full tins of paint in your garage or bags of old fabric gathering dust in your attic? Using materials you already have instead of buying new ones to upcycle your piece will further reduce your waste - which after all, is what upcycling is all about. 

Practise being a magpie

If you’re in search of a second-hand piece to upcycle, get into the habit of looking for items when you’re out and about. Car boot sales, charity shops, vintage boutiques and flea markets are all great places to spot a bargain. 

Upcycling tools and equipment

Take your time

The best advice when undertaking any upcycling project is to invest in good quality tools and take your time. That means paying a little more for good quality paint brushes that won’t shed their bristles, as well as working on your piece for short periods of time, regularly standing back to assess your progress.

Be sympathetic to the era

While more modern items can often be styled to suit all periods, items with a history may require a little more thought. Often the most striking upcycled projects are those which complement the era of the item while giving it a fresh look that makes it suitable for more contemporary interiors. Pay particular attention to decorative moulding and fixtures such as hinges or handles when planning to ensure maximum results. 

Consider function as well as form

If you’re about to throw something away – first think about why you no longer want it. Is it just that you don’t like the look of it, or does it no longer serve it’s desired purpose? Upcycling isn’t just about prettifying objects – it can also be about making them more useful than they were before. If your desk has wasted drawer space, consider inserting a shelf instead, or move it to the kitchen and turn the drawers into a hand wine rack!


“Upcycling isn’t just about prettifying objects – it can also be about making them more useful than they were before.”

Join an upcycling community

Finding a local or online upcycling community has a whole host of benefits; not only will you get to meet all sorts of like-minded creators, share advice and gather inspiration, you may also be the first to hear about exciting upcycling events happening in your area. 

Upcycling courses and workshops

Upcycling courses and workshops

Sussex & the South East




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