Plymouth Arts Centre

Upcycling at Plymouth Arts Centre – creative control of identity (plus recycling)

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Recycling? That’s so last year, darling. Upcycling is where it’s at. Not heard of it? Well, it was first coined by authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and promises a way of improving, instead of simply recycling, an item that has reached the end of its first life.

Upcycling is very popular. In addition to a multitude of shops selling upcycled goods, websites including Instructables and Readymade publish step-by-step instructions for a diverse range of projects from how to fashion a wallet from an inner tube to creating a dog lead from plastic bags. The popularity of Upcycling is due not only to an increased awareness of the environmental costs of a disposable society, but also the financial commonsense of reusing during these economically tough times.

In fashion terms, Upcycling realises the potential of old garments to be reborn as unique, funky items. Attracted by the idea of reinvigorating clothes that might otherwise end up as rags, participants bought a wide range of items to the Plymouth Arts Centre’s Upcycling workshop on Saturday, October 10. There were well-worn favourites, clothes bought for an ‘occasion’ that had languished for too long at the back of the wardrobe and ‘last chance’ garments – pieces bought on impulse that were now on a final warning to shape up or face the charity bag. Someone even bought an old pair of curtains.

The workshop ran alongside the Lucy Orta exhibition, jointly held at Plymouth Arts Centre and Plymouth College of Art. Sustainability and identity are themes that run throughout Orta’s work. Exhibits including a pair of trousers fashioned from second-hand gloves, a skirt made from an abandoned umbrella and a corset constructed from zips are all examples of Orta’s extreme upcycling currently showing at Plymouth Arts Centre. The garments, products of Orta’s collaboration with members of a Paris refuge, are also an exploration of how identity can be created through clothing.

Jenny Ambrose, director of Bath-based company Enamore, who make ‘sustainably gorgeous’ clothing, lingerie and accessories ran the workshop. Sporting a man’s cardigan that had been brilliantly transformed into an open back sweater, Ambrose demonstrated how good re-imagined clothing could look. Although she admitted that her workshops were usually limited to six, she worked the room of 13 well, thinking on her feet to produce interesting Upcycling suggestions.

The workshop members were an enthusiastic bunch and soon scraps of material were overflowing from bags onto the classroom floor as people searched for just the right piece of material. People indulged in the undisputed tactile pleasure of sorting through boxes of pre-loved buttons while sewing machines began to hum.

Some of the Upcycles were relatively subtle, achieved through changing buttons, inserting a panel of contrasting material or gathering sleeves to give a well-fitting-but-boring jacket a new twist. The more daring changed dresses into sleepware, combined satiny vest tops with sleeves taken from woollen jackets or made smock tops from lacy skirts. The curtains transformed into a skirt. One participant realised her love of colour, teaming bright red buttons with a black velvet coat

In addition to watching clothes emerge, refreshed and definitely ten years younger after going under the pinking shears, it was fascinating to see people gradually reclaiming power over what they wore. Garments evolved into clothes that reflected some of the personality of their creators – the variety of unique items produced proving that you don’t have to wear a zip corset to rid yourself of chain store blandness.

Clutching bags of rejuvenated clothing the workshop members left the Plymouth Arts Centre as fully-fledged upcyclers, each with a new determination not to see unwanted clothes, (or curtains), in the same way again.

Review of Upcycling Workshop, Plymouth Arts Centre,
Saturday 10 October 2009

• What’s your Upcycling experience? Send us your snaps, email

Heather Smith

After years in denial, Heather Smith has finally conceded that she is a writer, willing to exchange the products of many hours of blood, sweat and crossing-out for the chance of being published.In addition to PRSD and Art+Culture she has written for Art Cornwall, iwalkdevon and Behind the Spin. She also blogged about her life as a mature student on Later Study. In her spare time she enjoys watching her bantams think up new ways of destroying her veg patch, camera-less photography and making jewellery with found objects. Her ambition is to become a mad old woman and own an alpaca called Gerald.