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How to Give Old Things New Life by Upcycling and Repurposing

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RedElf (Elle Fredine) is a photographer and published author who enjoys crafting and finding unique gifts.

Learn how to repurpose the items of around your home.

Learn how to repurpose the items of around your home.

DIY Projects

Keep your old stuff out of the landfill. Don't throw it out— there are so many ways to upcycle, repurpose and refurbish household items.

In this article, I'll be going over various ways to reuse and repurpose all sorts of things from around the house.

DIY Home Decor Topics

  1. Upcycle Old Clothes
  2. Compost for the Garden
  3. Repurpose Fabric
  4. Recover a Footstool: No-Sew Project
  5. Refresh Your Decor
  6. Nobody Has Time to Recycle?
  7. Repurpose Extra "Stuff"
  8. Too Much Plastic

1. Upcycle Old Clothing

In some ways, my grandparent's personalities were like chalk and cheese or oil and water. Most of the time they got on pretty well, but some days having them in one room was a bit like storing the flint and steel in the same drawer. It made for lots of sparks. But one thing they both agreed on was the slogan from WWII urging everyone to "use it up, wear it out, make it do."

Granny recycled old dresses into aprons. She turned remnants of worn-out clothing into amazing crazy quilts. They were warm, too. And fascinating, with the odd bit of fancy fabric woven into the mix. We would ask grandma where this bit or that bit had come from.

The soft, brown velvet was a scrap from the collar of Grandpa's new overcoat, purchased when he was demobbed after the Great War, in which he'd served with distinction as a cavalry scout.

The pink satin bit—two of them—were from a bridesmaid dress. Real, slipper-satin before the era of polyester. The tough-wearing, grey tweed pieces had once been one of Grandpa's suits, first cut down for Uncle Bud, now gracing our beds.

Each fragment had a story—where it came from, what it had been, who had worn it. Each held a little part of our family history.

We're slowly landfilling ourselves out of a home.

The Rag-Bag

The rag-bag used to be a staple of many households. Pieces of still-usable cloth were salvaged, cut out, reclaimed, and reused as part of a quilted tea cozy or a patchwork table runner, perhaps.

In our affluence, we have become careless. We no longer need to keep items that are worn or out of style. It's easier to just throw it out and buy a new one.

We treat everything as disposable and easily replaceable, from our electronic gadgets to our clothing and furniture. I like shiny new things as well as the next girl, but we are slowly land-filling ourselves out of a planet.

Compost can help some beautiful flowers grow in your garden.

Compost can help some beautiful flowers grow in your garden.

2. Compost for the Garden

Both my grandfathers were avid gardeners. My dad's father hybridized gladioli. My mom's father, aside from his forty acres of potatoes (he really loved his spuds), was a master composter.

Grandpa would lovingly tend the pile, checking and feeding it every day, turning it regularly and fussing over it the way some men fussed over their cars. One year, unfortunately, he located his compost pile too near the back deck. All summer, he reminded us, every time he turned it, that was the smell of money being saved.

To us kids, it was just stinky. But grandpa diligently recycled every possible scrap of kitchen waste into his compost pile (except meat and dairy of course, which, as you know, will quickly create a pile of maggots). Along with the lawn clippings—no weeds though, thanks. Those were consigned to the burn barrel.

But that stinky compost helped fertilize one of the lushest garden plots in the neighborhood. His pea-vines were legendary, and nothing will ever beat the taste of a freshly-washed carrot, straight from Grandpa's garden.

Repurpose your extra pillows to lengthen your duvet.

Repurpose your extra pillows to lengthen your duvet.

3. Repurpose Fabric

This colorful duvet cover was almost a foot too short for its queen-sized duvet. The set included two pillow shams, but we'd already been given two lovely, hand-embroidered pillows that complemented the new cover. We didn't need extra pillow covers, but we did need a longer duvet. And the king-size cover was just way too big.


The new duvet cover was basically a rectangular bag, sewn shut on three sides, with a button-hole closure across the bottom. The easiest way to adjust the duvet's length was to add more fabric to the top. Here are the steps:

How to Lengthen a Too-Short Duvet Cover

  1. Unpick the top seam of the cover.
  2. Unpick the two pillow shams and iron-flat, giving four strips of fabric. The whole "unpicking " process took about fifteen minutes.
  3. Sew the short ends of the pillow sham pieces together to make two long strips.
  4. Pin the strips, one onto each side of the duvet top, and sew the sides of the cover back together.
  5. Sew the newly-lengthened top back together.

This whole process took about an hour and a half altogether. There was even enough fabric left to whip up a square matching pillow. The filling for this new pillow was also repurposed from somewhere else.

Add new covers to your existing furniture to help bring a new look to your home.

Add new covers to your existing furniture to help bring a new look to your home.

4. Recover Furniture

This is another great way to reuse or repurpose extra stuff, with no sewing required.

It's really tempting sometimes to just chuck things out. We feel like we're surrounded by stuff—trapped by our own things. Our stuff owns us instead of us deciding what we need and want to keep.

But before you send your unwanted article to the Put 'n' Take, or the nearest garage sale, try to figure out if there's another way you can use it.

Don't mistake me. Our local Put 'n' Take is awesome. It's like a Gently Used Clothing store for "stuff," only it's free. Somebody puts something there they no longer want, and someone else comes along and says, "Hey, that's exactly what we were looking for."

Love that place. Cleaned out a pile of stuff for them.

Don't Throw It Out. Find Another Use for It!

When my new sofa arrived, it came with two throw pillows. Well, that's a bit like coals to Newcastle. If there's one thing this house doesn't need, it's another throw pillow, let alone two. But they gave me an idea about my two, mismatched footstools—an awesome, no-sew project. Here's what happened to the extra sofa pillow:

How to Recover a Footstool

  1. Unpick all the pillow seams using a seam ripper.
  2. Remove the remaining loose threads and iron the pillow top if necessary. Set the zipper and backing fabric for use in another project
  3. Remove stuffing and use for the new bedroom pillow (see the previous section).
  4. Using a screwdriver, remove the leg assembly and base from the footstool.
  5. If the padding needs to be replaced, remove the fabric cover and the padding, and cut a piece of padding to fit the base. Otherwise, simply fit the new fabric over the original.
  6. Measure from the base across the top of the stool to find the length and width, adding one inch all around to wrap underneath.
  7. Staple the fabric to the underside of the base. My trusty staple gun is just an ordinary stapler from the hardware store, but it does the job.
  8. Put in two or three staples on the first side. Then rotate the footstool base and put in two or three staples on the opposite side, pulling the fabric nice and taut. Don't stretch it out of shape in your enthusiasm to get it taut—instant do-over! (I learned the hard way how important it is to work all the sides at the same time. If you finish one side completely and then move to the next, you'll end up taking out the staples and redoing it because the fabric will stretch unevenly, wrinkle, and pull.)
  9. Then go to the third side and repeat the process, finishing on the fourth side. Rotate and repeat. Keep rotating the stool, working on one side and then the opposite, then each of the other sides until you're done.
  10. Reuse the original fabric from the bottom, stapling it over the base to cover the unfinished edges. Or you can cut a new piece of black fabric to the same size and staple it in place.
  11. Screw the base and leg assembly back on and voila! Your footstool coordinates with your decor.
Put new fabric on your furniture to create a new look.

Put new fabric on your furniture to create a new look.

5. Refresh Your Decor With Repurposed Pillow Fabric

We recently replaced the old love seat with a new, full-sized sofa. And about time, too! No more curling up to watch TV—now we can stretch out. But, what to do with the love seat? It was too good to take to the dump. It was a bit worn in spots, but it still had some good years left in it.

Luckily, when a friend heard, she confided they needed a couch downstairs. Problem solved. Except she didn't want the large, coordinating throw pillows. The fabric was still good, but the binding and trim were worn.

Hmm, that other footstool needs work, but this might require a bit of sewing.

  1. The seams of the throw pillows were unpicked, and the filling and trim discarded. Once opened up, the pillow fabric was washed and ironed (top left photo).
  2. A single piece of pillow fabric wasn't quite wide enough to span the top of the footstool so, one was cut in half and a strip of pillow fabric was added, sewn between the two cut edges.
  3. The pieced fabric was then fitted inside-out on the top of the stool.
  4. Two more pieces of pillow fabric were cut in half and three of those halves were pinned inside-out around the top, to make a skirt covering the sides of the footstool.
  5. The pinned cover was carefully removed and sewn together.
  6. It took a bit of trial and error, sewing and fitting the pieces without a pattern, but once the new cover fit snugly, the footstool was turned upside down, and the cover, right-side out, was stapled in place underneath using the method described in the previous section.
  7. All that remained was to replace the old bottom with a piece of new black fabric (as above).

The chair (bottom left of the photo) will take a bit longer. At the time of this writing, the pieces have been rough-fit to make sure there's enough fabric. The process will be recorded in another article.

6. Nobody Has Time to Recycle?

Let's face it. We all lead busy lives. We all have places to go, people to see, things to do. Whether it's driving the kids to soccer or hockey practice, music lessons, or picking them up after band practice and trying to squeeze in time for a family dinner before dishes and homework.

But the more we make recycling part of our everyday routine, the more mindful we become of what we buy and where it will eventually end up, the better chance we have of actually having a planet left to hand down to our children's children - and not just a giant land-fill site.

Why Reuse or Repurpose? It's Just Stuff.

This didn't start out to be a rant on saving the planet. It was supposed to be a nice little article about how to turn some throw pillows into a slipcover. Then I started to examine the mindset behind the current interest in how-to reuse, and in recycling.

Yes, the projects here are great ways to save money. Just compare the cost of reupholstering a chair to the negligible cost of reusing something that was going to be thrown out, and the savings are pretty clear.

The average cost to reupholster: The fabric will run you about $80 to $140 a meter, then add the labor and the cost of having the chair picked up and delivered back to you. It can add up to over fifteen hundred dollars for one chair.

But it's more than that. It's about how we look at the world. Do we look at something and say, "Well, that's past its prime time for a new one." Or do we say, "Hmm, if I take the top off that, I could use the sides to. . ."

Anything around your house can be upcycled or repurposed if you use your imagination.

Anything around your house can be upcycled or repurposed if you use your imagination.

7. How to Repurpose Spare or Extra Stuff

This is my island in the sun—Harry Belafonte, eat your heart out. It's called my island in the sun, because of the sunshine streaming through my kitchen window most days.

My new home desperately needed some extra storage space in the kitchen, but the additional $800 to $1,500 quoted by the builder was out of reach of the budget.

This island was put together by an awesome friend who took my idea and quickly-sketched plan, along with the two small cabinets, a micro-wave stand, and a long, skinny pine table with excessively ugly metal folding legs. They'd all been destined for the Put 'n' Take.

She combined them with two sets of stacking drawers, and added a base with heavy-duty casters. The drawers were purchased from the local hardware store for less than $100. The stain and varathane were another $60, including all the tools.

A movable multi-purpose island in the sun. As you can see, it holds among other things, baking sheets and cutting boards, table linens, and dishcloths, has a cupboard for the recycle bin, and it serves as extra food-prep space, a project station, and an eating area.

How's that for putting excess items to good use? And saving a pile of money in the process.

8. Plastic Products and Recycling

We try to avoid single-use plastics as much as possible. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Use metal drinking bottles for juice or water. We have reusable go-cups for coffee and our parents used thermoses in their lunch kits.
  • Decline plastic bags at the checkout—use your own fabric bags. Many are made from recycled materials
  • Replace single-serve coffee pods with reusable single-cup filters. I love my single-serve coffee maker. No more burnt pots or stale grounds. No more last cup looking like dregs from a tailing pond. Don't love the mainly plastic, single-use cups of my favorite blends. So we switched to a single-serve reusable filter. Honestly, it is a pain at first. But once you get into the habit, it's fast and simple.
  • Reduce the amount of plastic wrapping on your food by avoiding processed foods—buy fresh wherever possible.
  • Bulk buying of staples and re-using your own containers also helps cut down on unnecessary packaging.

I'm sure anyone stopping by to read will have some great tips and tricks to offer. Please feel free to leave them in your comments.

And, remember, next time you're tempted to chuck it, think first. Get your kids involved—kids are great at coming up with ideas. You'll be amazed what you all might come up with.

Happy upcycling!

© 2018 RedElf


Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on January 27, 2019:

Love this as I'm a full-time recycler! As I read through your section on "Plastic Products and Recycling", I'm happy to report that I follow each of these important suggestions. We all need to do our part to help save our planet and repurposing is both fun and useful.

Linda Chechar from Arizona on September 20, 2018:

RedElf, I love your upcycle, recycle and repurposing solutions. Here are two of mine: I reuse my old throw pillows to stuff newly made pillow covers. I print artwork from online images and reframe them in existing frames. Saves tons on $$ on new wall art. Can't wait to use a few of your nifty ideas.

RedElf (author) from Canada on August 26, 2018:

Thanks so much, Natalie. And I'd love to try your marble idea. WIll keep an eye out for that one :)

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on August 24, 2018:

What great ideas even those of us who aren't so handy can accomplish. You are very talented! I've used some of those new paints to "distress" an older, worn table which came out pretty well.

Not exactly in the same category as what you have discussed I've also taken a batch of old marbles and "crackled" in the oven then made jewelry from them. That was a lot of fun! Thanks for a useful and interesting article.

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on June 26, 2018:

Timely and so important, this article is a keeper, and should be re-cycled too!

RedElf (author) from Canada on June 26, 2018:

:) Lovely to see everyone

RedElf (author) from Canada on June 21, 2018:

Hi Gals! Lovely to see you again. Thank you so very much for stopping by to comment. I've been e-purposing forever - turning what I had, or could afford, into what I really wanted :) And, bonus, it's a great way to be green :)

Susan Hazelton from Northern New York on June 21, 2018:

Outstanding upcycling ideas. Love them all but especially the duvet cover idea. It sounds like something I would do.

RedElf (author) from Canada on June 14, 2018:

Thanks you, Eileen. Me too - I just hate to see useful items end up in the trash if there's any way to turn them into something useful. And I love "re-doing" LOL

@Bill. Another "up-cycler" Yay! You hit it right on the head. It is very satisfying in so many ways. And saves overloading the land-fill.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 14, 2018:

Great suggestions my friend. I love making new things out of old....saving the original character of a piece, but giving it a new life. Very satisfying.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on June 13, 2018:

Wow wow wow. Just so many ideas. As I have the upcycling bug thanks RedElf

RedElf (author) from Canada on June 09, 2018:

So right, Peggy. One of the things that really brought this home was finding out one of the city recycle centers was refusing to take lawn clippings or yard waste. They said they were full up, and an underground fire had been burning there for over two years (compressed grass and baled hay will sponstaneously combust). That was a real eye-opener, and quite a wake-up call. Some of the things our parents and grandparents did to save money just make good sense.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 09, 2018:

This is so important to recycle and reuse as much as possible to help save our planet as well as the people and animals living on it. We have a compost pile, recycle as much as possible and reuse things as often as possible. Thanks for spreading the word in this article of yours as to the importance of doing this.