Rhinestones on the soles of her shoes

Before
After

Hoo-wee! After hours and hours scratching away at my Wacom tablet, the illustrations are now finished and ready to teach whole cohorts of babies in Berlin. I can leave the desk and the hours of having Cookery School on in the background to keep me sane (it’s a new discovery, a brilliant cooking programme containing all my favourite things: absolutely droolworthy recipes, idiot people getting their cooking wrong, the girl-we-all-love-to-hate Gizzi Erskine and a professional chef who sounds exactly like Dylan Moran, meaning that when I’m not looking at the video I can pretend I’m listening to Bernard from Black Books yelling about coulis). Now that this is all over, I can begin the part of my holiday I have been dearly looking forward to: proper crafting. These grimy, stained grey shoes are terrible and I was going to have to throw them away because it would have been antisocial to wear them in public any more. But good god, are they comfy. And they match everything and make my feet look not enormous, which they in fact are. So I decided to ‘upcycle’ them and give them a new lease of life, using nice densely pigmented acrylics mixed with a fabric medium to make a varied grey leaf pattern on the canvas upper and painting over the now-brown once-white binding trimming the top. Scrubbed the soles with a bit of Jif to whiten them up a little and call me crazy, but I suspect they might just be wearable now. What could be better and more fun than rescuing an old possession and at the same time getting something new and different out of it? 

Upcycling is recycling something to make it better or more useful than it was when you started out. It can be as fancy as reupholstering a vintage piece of furniture you found in a charming junkyard tucked away beside the A329, or it can be something simple like stitching along an old sock just before the kink, cutting off the foot section just under the sewn line and using the little pocket you’ve made as a natty iPod cover. It is brilliant. So much stuff you might throw away suddenly starts to take on a new appearance, as you start to look at it with a view to how you could use it again or what you could make it into. There is even a fantastic organisation in our very own Bracknell that collects people’s old junk they don’t want and repairs it or passes it on so it can all be re-released into the world as something far better than just junk (and I’m going there this week to see what bits of treasure I can scavenge myself, har har)!

  
One of the most fun and rewarding types of upcycling I love is bag fusing. The other day I finally waxed lyrical about my Amazon Kindle enough that my mother bought one on a mad impulse. Covers for the Kindle, however, are so expensive you’d be forgiven for thinking that they are delicately sewn together out of Bengal tiger skin. We decided we’d make her a cover for it, and fused plastic is the perfect material for it; it’s water resistant, strong and most importantly it is very, very groovy. 

All you need is a mountain of old carrier bags. I almost regretted asking my mum for this as she then scurried into the garage and returned with enormous clods of plastic bags in every colour imaginable billowing around her like a rainbow foam; it took three trips to and from the garage to finally assemble the colossal mound of plastic bags that my family have collected over the years (and that didn’t even include the entire van-full of orange Sainbury’s bags that we excavated from behind the fridge in my brother’s student flat in Manchester). Shame and embarrassment aside, this is a good thing as it gives an enormous variety of design options for when you are fusing your plastic sheet, as you can mix and layer up colours and motifs to get something glorious and mad-looking. There are only a few rules to stick to:
1. 6 layers of plastic is the rough minimum needed to get a decent, thick sheet you can sew and fashion into things like bags or anoraks (yes, it can be done).
2. All printing must be inside the layers, otherwise it melts in the heat and you end up with smeary plastic ink glooping all over your iron, hands, ironing board, cat…if you want to keep printed designs as part of the pattern, just make sure the top layer of plastic is a clear bag.
3. Iron the layers together with a two-dot-hot (low to medium heat) iron with a greaseproof paper layer on top and underneath the plastic OR ELSE! Forget the greaseproof paper and all is lost. Well, not all, but your iron. And you will have an armful of melting plastic and hot appliance to deal with. All it takes is a few seconds (8-10, keeping the iron slowly moving) of pressure on the iron on the plastic to melt it together.
After all this, you create a sheet of fantastic pliable soft plastic which can be sewn on the sewing machine, glued, riveted, stapled, deep-fried…

This might all sound a bit Blue Peter, but give me a minute to convince you to give it a try. As I’ve written before, there is nothing more satisfying than making something usable yourself, but upcycling is even better because you can also bask in the warm glow of having saved the whole environment single-handedly by repurposing something that would otherwise have gone into landfill. Beyond that, though, is the simple fact that it is excellent fun – even if you suspect you might not be the kind of person who would enjoy this sort of thing. My mother is an occupational health physician with practically the entire alphabet’s worth of letters after her name and an hour of bag fusing turned her into a giggling, hand-clapping kid. We drank Gew├╝rztraminer and listened to the Tron soundtrack and rearranged the letters cut from bags to make funny words; there was nothing worthy or twee or eco-activist about it, just excellent fun. And that rare kind of fun you can have without a screen in front of you, something to savour on those days where I realise that I have spent vast stretches of time just moving from one LCD display panel to another. It doesn’t cost you anything. Kids love to do it. It is limitless. And if you have something you don’t know what to do with, post it in a comment and I promise I’ll come up with something rad that can be made with it. Go on, I dare ya.

The Noble Art of Chucking Things Away

Sadly, not everything can simply be got rid of in the recycling.

What’s the first thing I did on the first day of 24 hours of freedom? I threw things away. And it was glorious.

A wad of flashcards as thick as an Oxford dictionary, endless rain-softened folders, reams of posters of declensions and gender rules and plural endings, collected up, divested of blutack and chucked into a crate. Arbitrarily symbolical, now dead flowers mouldering in the bin. Entire notebooks tossed with lascivious joy into the recycling pile. Replaced with strings of flowers, posters of shapes and colours, or sheer empty space in which I can now start keeping things that are useful to me rather than detrimental to my mental stability. And as a souvenir of this monolith of work, now completely behind me, I have kept a single poster: a hand-drawn picture of a nude man with his various body parts labelled and coloured in blue, green or purple according to gender (his hair is orange – plural). 

This may sound heartless but let’s face it, it wasn’t a part of my life I feel a huge deal of affection or nostalgia for. Of course university has been a huge catalogue of memories I adore and relish, but they aren’t the memories that will be rekindled by an accidental glance at ‘Shakesp. Practice qu.’ It’s not like old schoolwork either – I can’t imagine myself reading back through an Inchbald essay and thinking “D’awwww, gosh I used to be precious.” It’s dull, dull, dull and too often a reminder of times I was simply stupid; not a patch on things I have kept from primary school which include a long and fascinating story about a flea who lives in a mouse hole and becomes infuriated when someone puts a cactus right in front of his ‘front door’. No – throwing it all away was simply the most fantastic few hours of cathartic life-purgation. Colonic irrigation for the soul.

   Hundreds of people hate to throw anything from the past away, though. It all contains too much emotional value, too many memories. This makes a lot of sense; it’s not an easy thought to consider lightly tossing hours and hours of your dedicated work into a bin already full of crushed cereal boxes and empty jars. Harder still are the ‘souvenirs’ and keepsakes you accumulate through life, millions of tiny fragments of things that contain meaning: the lollipop from that German bop where people thought you were Princess Leia (no, that’s how Bavarians wear their hair), the tiny plastic hippo you found in the covered market inexplicably abandoned on a windowsill, the hideous old-fashioned mirror with a handle you bought as a prop for the play you had to furnish on a budget of about forty pence. Isn’t it brilliant how we infuse everything with meaning? I honestly think it’s one of the redeeming features of western humanity that we invest each object with the moment and the sense of the moment in which it was needed and used, until we end up surrounded by the living we’ve already done. 

YET. Throwing things away is also one of the most brilliant, fun and mind-clearing things you can do, and if you are one of those who treasures everything too much, I beg you to try it. For a start, when does something stop being a perfect symbol of a memory and simply become a knick-knack? I finally threw away a huge selection of volcanic rocks from my trip to the Grecian islands when it occurred to me that these rocks don’t give a particularly good summary of the power of the volcanic landscape and taken out of context are just ugly grey lumps simply good for the dry feet on the bottom of your skin. I find myself in the middle of a swirling accumulation of …just stuff…that is now part of my space in the world without ever being used or touched apart from when it is being moved aside so I can get to something I really need. And I think this is why it is so glorious to throw things away and free yourself up; you can get all that clutter-cholesterol out of your bunged-up system and feel more…clean.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a cold-hearted destroyer of all your treasured keepsakes, though. It simply means being critical and aware of yourself: I like to ask myself questions like “Is the memory this thing is related to really so special that I won’t remember it without this thing?” Generally the answer is yes, and then giving the thing to Oxfam doesn’t hurt at all because you realise that the best memories you have don’t need a chunk of plastic as a monument. It also means being practical; size is important, as you can keep a plastic hippo, say, with a lot less annoyance than a huge scented candle an old squeeze of yours once gave you. Chuck things away, I say! Remove the drifts of bits and scraps from your life! Occasionally it can be as enlightening as a religious realisation, like when I came to see that I could avoid the irritation of sweeping all my knick-knacks onto the floor every time I closed the curtains if I simply swept them all into the garbage instead. There is so much fun to be had in looking through your clothes and realising that you always felt blobby in that top anyway and you can only wear it with one specific cardigan so it will look much better soaring through the air towards the bin-bag full of charity-shop offerings. It is so relieving to stop yourself constantly accidentally treading on the sharp thing if you realise the sharp thing is just a floating bit of sentimental paraphernalia. And it is tremendous to hurl away huge rafts of degree work visualising the sheer cubic-metreage of space that is now becoming available to you to move in, redecorate and not stub your toe on. 

And let’s face it, a worrying majority of domestic misfortunes happen because trinkets get in the most annoying places. The Bauhaus is a German design movement which revolutionised product design by suggesting that something ought to be designed to work and be useful before the prettiness and knick-knack-quality was considered. Without them Ikea simply wouldn’t exist, and their fundamental propaganda video is a hilarious silent staging of the contemporary household beset by things and bits and stuff. The wife comes to make the breakfast but can’t get anything together with ease because every object is breakable and has fancy handles or spouts which look nice but ultimately spout the milk onto her lap. She tries to do the laundry but it tumbles everywhere and sweeps stupid hanging ducks and ceramic flowers off the wall on her way down the stairs. The boss comes over for coffee, but the coffee-pot’s pretty lid falls off, he receives scalding coffee in his crotch and knocks a porcelain cherub onto his head in his agonised frenzy. The Bauhaus knew the hell of too many knick-knacks. Each scene is interspersed with a black screen and a sardonic bit of commentary: “Unlucky again, Herr Schroeder! It’s a shame the chair is so easily stained, too!”

The best things are things you can keep and at the same time reuse or repurpose so they’ll be there with you forever: favourite mugs broken and converted into jewellery holders, old theme-park pressed pennies drilled and made into a chain, beach rocks gathered into an old glass vase to keep the flowers upright. You don’t have to keep the whole T-shirt if you can just cut out the motif and sew it onto a canvas bag, a pillow or even a new T-shirt that actually fits. And my favourite thing of all is my ‘special box’. It’s a dark wooden box that for whatever reason is broken enough to require a special 36-degree upwards-eastwards pushing-pulling motion to open it, and it contains all the priceless stuff that you couldn’t make me chuck for love nor money. It has the plastic tiara my friends crowned me with on my last night in Berlin and my wristband from my first ever May Ball, and a lot of other tiny and private things. That’s why it’s so fantastic to throw things away: because then you get the pleasure of picking the few tiny and precious bits that make it into the box.