Bottle House

The Value of Upcycling in our Handmade Community

Our Artizan Shops are vetted in based on the quality of their products along with their professional presentation. But, we also have a great interest in promoting products that have sustainability at the core of their creation. I have always felt somewhat of a disconnect between what I do and what I believe in. Basically, I think that we should live with a lot less stuff. I am somewhat of a hoarder, as most artists tend to be. Supplies piled up for that obscure day when they will be made into something new….

When I moved from Chicago to Kentucky, I had a goal of reducing everything by 50% and I did it! I haven’t missed one thing that I left behind and now, 17 years later, everything has more than doubled. I rarely buy anything, but when people threaten to throw “supplies” away, they come home with me… Then, I have things that have great significance to me because they remind me of a time of my life that had meaning or because they are beautifully made. I have a small collection of handmade dolls from around the world, another of saints and religious objects, a corner dedicated to transportation (a clay airplane from Peru, a wire car from South Africa, another plane made out of soda cans, and so on…). I love my stuff! But, there is that tension of having too much stuff….

Click on the images to visit the sites!

SILKARTdesedamas mini art quilt - Spain
SILKARTdesedamas mini art quilt – Spain

Desedamas upcycles silk to create their art quilts in Spain.


Meanwhile, my life is pretty much dedicated to promoting stuff. I want people to buy the stuff that my people sell. I’ve come to some peace about this by embracing this need that we have as social groups to personalize our spaces and our dress. “Stuff” is probably hardwired into our DNA somehow, like the magpie looking for glitter for her nest. But, not all stuff is good stuff. In fact, most stuff is junk and we need to put a stop to this insane production of worthless products. My pet peeve is especially directed at things that are built to break. Some are cheap, but others are not. One example is of a cheap rake I bought at Home Depot for $15. It broke immediately. Why make it? I should have known better than to buy it, but still….. it should have lasted at least five rakings, no?


Gone Rustic botanical dyes
Gone Rustic botanical dyes

Gone Rustic upcycles thrift store finds in Australia into garments, art and supplies.


Other stuff is less obvious, more ominous: planned obsolescence. This is the intentional production of stuff that is meant to break down in a couple of years, forcing consumers to purchase new products to replace the broken ones. My cell phones have started going bad almost two years to the date from when I bought them, matching the carrier’s renewal plan. They want you to commit to another two years, so they build the phones to last two years. New phone, new contract. Vacuum cleaners, computers, washing machine and dryers, refrigerators….  all built with planned obsolescence in the design. It’s toxic waste and should be considered a criminal act! What happened to our pride in manufacturing quality goods that last a lifetime?

Have you seen the Story of Stuff?

This is a great video that shows the steps between production, consumption and waste. It’s a good tool to show kids and others who don’t really “get” what a problem we have in our culture worldwide. Recycling is one way that we can move towards a solution.

What is the value of upcycling in our handmade community?

There are a few things to consider:

Less landfills

Every bit of stuff that we find a use for keeps it from getting buried in a landfill or from becoming part of toxic waste. The handmade and indie communities have contributed greatly to doing some of this clean-up, making new things out of what was discarded.

Grass, wood, wool, cotton, clay and other plant, mineral and animal materials have been the materials humans have used since they figured out how to hold a tool. But, now, stuff and junk and garbage should be our raw materials. We need to look around us with new eyes and think about what we can do with what we throw away. I have been dreaming of milk jugs lately…. what can I make out of that plastic?  José Lopez of Calaveras Arts makes wonderful paper machie monsters, silver jewelry and surrealistic paintings. He also modifies toys with plastic clay. This was a blond girl with a pink dress and her puppy…


Girl with Jackalope - Calaveras Arts
Girl with Jackalope – Calaveras Arts

Calaveras Arts from Austin, Texas, upcycles with paper and transforms toys into something else….

Reduced cost of supplies

A big factor in how much a product costs lies in the cost of materials. By using garbage, we are left with mostly time and talent. For example, a quilter who uses new fabrics in her quilts may spend between $5-$15 US per yard for the fabric. If she goes to a thrift store and buys skirts or other garments that don’t have a lot of seams, that fabric can be purchased for much less. Wool sweaters transformed into felt, tin cans into lighting fixtures, reclaimed wood into beautiful furniture…  There is usually more labor involved in cleaning and making garbage ready for production, but isn’t it worth it? And, the dings and wear and tear add their stories to the charm.

Debra Dorgan of AllThingsPretty transforms her finds in Australia into garments, accessories, jewelry and décor items. She is OUR magpie and we love her dearly!

Debra Dorgan of AllThingsPretty upcycled cuff.
Debra Dorgan of AllThingsPretty upcycled cuff – Australia.


Debra Dorgan creates garments, jewelry, pillows, bags and much more from her upcycled materials.

Uniqueness of product

When using found materials as the supplies, most makers will only be able to make a limited number of products from that source. There are, of course, some materials that lend themselves to reproduction, like making furniture out of tire inner tubes. Most inner tubes are similar enough to create a supply of chairs that all look similar to one another. Those of us who appreciate one-of-a-kind objects and clothing, feel elation at finding that one, unique thing that calls out to our souls. However, an added cost for the seller lies in having to photograph and list each thing separately which is time consuming. This has to be figured into the cost of a product as well.

Eileen Doughty of Doughty Designs enjoys playing with surprising materials and has incorporated obsolete tech like pieces of CDs in her jewelry. With “Ocean”, she is making a blatant statement of what plastic is doing to our marine life. So, an artist can be subtle in their repurposing or draw attention to the waste.  Eileen is using our cart to sell her products but has much more to see on her website.


Ocean by Doughty Designs
“Ocean” by Doughty Designs

Eileen Doughty looks for how art can use what is discarded and devalued.

Upcycling? What does that mean?

I get confused, too, so had to check before writing about this.  Basically, upcycling is a form of recycling that adds value to junk. There is also “downcycling”, which I had forgotten about. There are many industrial programs now that will take garbage and make it into something new. When the new product has less value than the original garbage did when it was in its pristine form, it’s been downcycled. An example is the yucky, rough toilet paper or egg shell cartons made out of recycled paper. We don’t recycle glass where I live because supposedly it is cheaper to make it than to reuse it. Technology has improved the products offered on the market a great deal, but there are plenty of examples of how the recycling process makes something basic out of waste.

When something is upcycled, on the other hand, the original materials become more valuable. Handmade paper is worth more than computer paper. Our handmade garments most certainly cost more than their original bits and pieces. By bringing in the creative vision, our labor adds value to those old sweaters, pipes and pallets of wood. The commission I had from Sidney Levy involved making a lifetime of his old ties into something new. He paid me much more than the value of the combined ties, so this is an excellent example of adding value to “stuff”.


Sidney’s Ties by Rachel Biel

I upcycled a lifetime of ties for Sidney Levy when I lived in Chicago.


How vintage plays into the scene

Antiquing or collecting old things is a form of recycling in the sense that it places value on an object that might otherwise have been discarded. Dealers who work with used and old goods provide an immense service by keeping that product relevant to our social interests. However, this can sometimes be a nasty business where cultures are stripped of their historical treasures without knowledge or permission. We have seen many museums return precious objects back to their countries of origin due to increased sensibilities and a desire to make wrongs from the past made right. But, sometimes, the cultures themselves devalue what they have and don’t want it anymore.

When I had a gallery in Chicago with Abdul Wardak (Afghan Tribal Arts), a Berber woman came in with her son-in-law. She was meek and submissive and had spent two years making a beautiful blanket for her new grandson. The son-in-law, all dressed in leather, sunglasses and shiny black shoes, had no interest or use for her work. They wanted us to sell it on consignment. You can see it on the wall in the image below.


Abdul of Afghan Tribal Arts in front of Moroccan Rug
Abdul of Afghan Tribal Arts in front of Moroccan Rug


Many countries go through this as they industrialize. They see their traditional handicrafts and art as backwards as they hunger for technology and modernity. Throw some war in the mix, a famine or a natural disaster and it’s all up for grabs. When people want food, medicine and relief, their carpets, textiles and jewelry get sold for almost nothing. Most of us have seen this in our own family histories as our ancestors knew how to make and fix things while our children have no idea where milk comes from. We get stressed, take an art or dance class and all of a sudden there is an epiphany, a rejection of the modern world and we’re out to spin some wool or make goat cheese.


Itsa Studio Pakistani pillow made from vintage textile scraps.
Itsa Studio Pakistani pillow made from vintage textile scraps.

Pakistani pillows in Itsa Studio’s shop on Etsy use upcycled textiles.


Thankfully, many cultural institutions around the world are working hard at preserving both the old work as well as the knowledge that went into creating it. Old dye recipes are being recorded, techniques videotaped, museums erected…  the old informs and inspires the new. Just be wary of grave diggers and cultural heritage thieves!

Oftentimes, bits and pieces of worn garments or broken objects no longer have much value unless they are incorporated into something new. Handwork is still cheap labor in many countries, and as they modernize, the young might prefer a stable factory job that brings in a regular paycheck than laboring for a month on a handwoven textile that someone may or may not buy. If sold, the price is often a pittance for the work involved. So, much of the availability of fine work is being lost and can only be seen abundantly in the older work. If damaged, that can be incorporated into a new table top or garment or decorative work.

Are we against new stuff?


No! Many of our Artizan shops make new work and we love that, too. There is a place for both new and old, but even within the handmade community there is a ton of junk being made that will end up quickly discarded and in thrift shops or landfills. Not everything that is handmade SHOULD be made. I think that part of the problem is that many makers experience lower end goods selling faster because they are cheap. This is an educational process for all of us. We need to think about what we really love to make and where that contribution will end up in the larger balance of a world filled with stuff. And, as consumers,  if price is an issue, then we need to think about saving up for one beautifully made handwoven scarf than having five factory made or sweatshop made ones. Quality over quantity!

The reality for most of us is that having the luxury to shop online allows us choices that we didn’t even have ten years ago. I am able to live in a small town because if I really need anything that I can’t get locally, I can always order it through the web. Many of the Mom and Pop shops that were around twenty years ago are gone. The craft industry continues to thrive, but only because people have access to the materials and tools they need by shopping online.

What about shipping?


This is another crisis of conscience issue for me. I think of my friend Abdul and his textile remnants. They have been driven all over the country to bead shows and festivals, finally ending up photographed for sale on the web and will probably get shipped to Australia or some other distant place. One hand recycles and the other one contributes to an insane way of product distribution. It’s not effective nor sustainable to ship things one by one all over the world. And, yet, that is how we make our living and how we have access to the stuff we love… Having a global economy connects us in amazing ways, but also contributes to massive pollution and waste. My hope is that technology will meet our needs and find solutions that helps the planet breathe. Meanwhile, we can use recycled packing materials and encourage people to shop for multiple items over piece by piece.


It's Cactus Haitian Metal Art Tree of Life
It’s Cactus Haitian Metal Art Tree of Life


It’s Cactus has been working with Haitian metal artists for over 20 years, upcycling steel drums into beautiful works of art!


Stuff matters

Overall, I believe that the value of upcycling in our handmade community has been priceless. All of the individual efforts of picking through our stuff amounts to a massive clean-up effort. A blogger recently complained about how hard it was getting to find wool sweaters in thrift stores. She figured that too many people are now felting them for their projects! That would be a successful story of the discarded becoming a valued commodity.

The world is full of junk and of beautiful objects. It can be overwhelming to sort through it all to try to find those beauties that are worth bringing home. But, we believe that the most important part of this whole equation lies in the people and the stories that come with the “stuff”. Artizan Made helps relieve some of the stress by presenting work that is backed by great people. They have names, families, communities and they love what they do. As we grow, Artizan Made will continue to develop long term relationships with its shops so that this can be a safe haven for our buyers and supporters. When you shop Artizan Made, you will know that it matters!


How about you? Do you make things out of garbage?

Feel free to share what you do in the comments! 


Shop Upcyled on Artizan Made!

The products below are from our Upcyled Category in our Artizan Market. Most link to our member shops on Etsy or to their Indie Sites. Explore and find gorgeous treasures!

Here are some random products that are pulled from that category. They change every time the page loads! Click on the ones that capture your attention and go visit our member sites!  And, don’t forget to take a shopping bag with you the next time you go shopping. We really need to stop using plastic….

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