Selecting Materials to Upcycle

Leather CoatsI have to admit – I did not start to upcycle leather coats in an effort to save the world, or to rid the environment of problematic waste, or for some other higher cause or greater social good.  It was a straightforward situation: I was broke.  I wanted a new bag, and I could no longer afford to just go buy one at the store.

Selecting Materials
Searching our closets for durable materials to upcycle

Heck, I could not even afford to buy new fabrics or materials to make one! And so, in a story like that of so many others, I had to look around the house and get resourceful if I wanted something new.  I was forced to utilize what I already had on hand.  And believe me, we seemed to have plenty of old stuff on hand! Don’t we all?  Drawers and closets full of old clothing and textiles.  Things we no longer used but didn’t necessarily want to part with – filling our house uselessly.  That seemed pointless too.  What were we ever going to do with all that stuff?

Recalling this situation brings me back to some of my core thoughts about reusing and recycling materials: the importance of meeting a real need (function) while also solving a real problem (utilizing valuable materials taking up space that are no longer used for their original purpose but are not necessarily “trash”).

I started with function.  I had a need.  I wanted a bag, and that bag needed to be a certain size and strong enough to do certain things for me.  Yes, I was concerned about color and texture as well as the look and feel, but honestly if that bag did not do its job I would end up not using it either!  And it would join the other sad things sitting in the back of my closet collecting dust.

Vintage LinensAnd then I tackled the other side of upcycling: solving a real problem.  I considered the (unused or surplus) materials in abundance already on hand – trying to solve a different but equally important problem in our household. What should we do with the stacks of all these old garments and textiles sitting in our closets?

And so, I set off to source the perfect material(s) to create my new bag – right from within my house.  Sure, sure, I had plenty of lovely vintage linens and beautiful silks and colorful delicate fabrics from the days when I traveled extensively and had the ability to purchase whatever caught my eye, but honestly – would they do the job for me and my new bag?  Nope.  I needed durability and strength. That was my top priority.  Stacks of old denim jeansAnd when my husband presented me with a pile of his old jeans (one from every size and era of his life), we knew we found our solution.  And so my very first bag was actually made from sturdy denim, not leather!   It took a few more trial bags and closet-digging sessions (and confidence) before I was able to tackle and properly utilize an old leather coat for a bag (we had one of those in our closet too), but I eventually got there.

Vintage Black Leather Coat - Ready for upcyclingFast forward to the projects I complete today, and I realize I still use the same logic when initiating and conceptualizing each job.  I either start the design process by considering the basic function I am trying to address (what does the client want and/or what need am I trying to meet – such as a market tote or a computer bag), or I consider the pros and cons of the material itself.  I check to see if the old coat that still has useful and durable elements to offer in another form somehow.  Problems usually arise when I force a design onto a material or when I force a material onto a design.

So when considering a new upcycling project, I suggest avoiding impulsive temptation or following “helpful” suggestions of others.  Stick to your gut (and your best design-sense) and select one of two clear approaches to ensure that you end up with a useful and beloved end-product:

1. Start with the MATERIAL and solve a problem
(“What can I do with this old coat?”)

Military Jumper Bag
Salvaging unique elements

If I start with the coat/garment itself – as I need to do with custom orders when clients submit their own old materials. I let the coat speak to me before committing to any particular design request.  Is it thick?  Can it withstand some more wear and tear?  Is it soft?  It there a lot of it?  Does it have any cool-looking features that need to live on and continue to see the light of day?  Strong leathers typically get transformed into sturdy  hauling totes or weekender bags, and smooth thin leathers often become pillows or maybe small pouches.  It is from the perspective of the old original material that I design a new product that takes advantage of that coat’s salvageable qualities.

Tobacco Suede Coat
Vintage Virginia Slims Tobacco Suede

Take, for instance, this character-filled old “Virginia Slims” caramel tobacco suede jacket.  Oh my – I cannot WAIT to get my hands on this and make something useful again (it has a few soil marks and needs to be reworked somehow).  But in all honesty, although I WANT a bag that is that color and has that slouchy caramel character (as I have made before with thick and luscious suede – note the tote below), this suede is entirely too thin to live up to that challenge or purpose. It is lovely, but simply too thin and delicate.

Thick Suede Tote

So, my options are limited and I am resisting all temptation to force a pre-determined design onto this material and force a bag out of it.  It reminds me of a similar suede shirt I redesigned years ago.  I REALLY wanted a bag out of this suede too, but it was also too thin and actually really screamed “pillow” to me.  And since I let the features of the material guide my design (and not my heart), I ended up with something useful that I’m really happy with!  So get ready, old coat! I’m afraid you are about to become a matching pillow for my couch.

2. Start with the NEED and address the function
(“Can you make a sturdy work bag for me?”)

Custom Upcycled Leather Tote by Uptown RedesignsNow if I start with the functional request or concept (and I often do), I search for the appropriate leather (or other material) that can live up to the task or job I have in mind.  When a client asks me to make a sturdy work bag that can handle the daily hauling of a computer and withstand a lot of wear and tear, I dig for that perfect big old thick leather jacket I sourced weeks ago from an estate sale that will work perfectly for that job!   Sometimes I just happen to have that perfect material, and other times I just don’t and unfortunately those projects are set aside until the “right” coat surfaces.  I’ve been tempted to utilize newer (and still usable) coats to meet client needs more efficiently, but that breaks my heart a little when I realize I’m really forcing the whole project and taking away a completely usable coat (in its current form) to transform into a bag, just to give it the label of “upcycled.”  I think that sort of misses the point!

And let’s be honest – if you start with this approach, you definitely run the risk of potentially NOT utilizing and upcycling old materials because it is much easier to just go and purchase the new perfectly-suited material to address the need quickly and efficiently!  It takes a deeper dive, a bit more artistic commitment and creativity, and definitely more effort to source the correct material to match the job.  And the results with this strategy are not always successful (because the client typically has a pre-determined visualization that is not necessarily what is sitting in the back of your closet!).  This is also where a basic business model, premise, or intention can go astray – because now you are LOOKING for materials and you are no longer just solving an existing problem and utilizing things that already exist and need a new purpose in life.

Although most upcycling or repurposing projects are generally considered “good” and help reduce unnecessary consumption and waste, when planning to create something new, useful, durable, and timeless, my advice is to try and match the old materials with the newly desired functions to solve an existing problem instead of creating a new one.

Happy upcycling!

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