Breathing new life into old items with upcycling

Mary McKeown, who lives in Adare, Co Limerick, with her daughter, upcycles clothing, paper and more, to make new things. Picture: Kieran Clancy

LUMPY old pillows, empty dog food tins, broken umbrellas — Mary McKeown collects what most people dump.

A stay-at-home, single mum, Mary partly developed her passion for upcycling because of her nine-year-old daughter, Leah — to make something new and useful out of unwanted items.

“We’d go to parties in people’s houses and I’d be struck by the amount of disposable things — toys — that, if something goes in them, they’re gone. I thought ‘wouldn’t it be nice to go back to things that have a life span, a history’,” she says.

Fixing the old cottage in Adare, Co Limerick, in which she and Leah have lived for five years, was a more urgent reason. Its deep, damp windowsills and kitchen cupboards — MDF covered with plastic laminate — screamed ‘revamp’. Today, a rainbow mosaic, made out of old tiles and broken dolls’ tea-sets, adorns the cottage’s external front wall. Hanging from apple trees in the garden, like colourful balloons, are fabric pom-poms. “I made them from shabby bits of fabric. I used tulle (old net curtains) to give them a bit of spring, so they keep their shape,” says Mary. At Halloween, she made a wraparound purple skirt from a broken, fold-up umbrella. “I removed the fabric intact, so I had a big circle of material. I put a dinner plate in the middle, marked out a circle, opened one seam of the umbrella and cut out the circle. The skirt was short and I’m quite hefty, so I added a waistband made out of Hessian. You could use ribbon or elastic for the waistband, depending on the size you want... I closed the skirt with an old kilt pin.”

When she “got too big” for a sequinned brown skirt, “that tragedy was turned into something beautiful” by cutting from the skirt two pieces the shape of a woman’s high-heeled boot. “I sewed the pieces together, put stuffing in the toe and heel, and lined the leg with felt to give it more structure and body. Now, it’s a Christmas stocking — it looks like a piece of art.”

She has made bunting for children’s parties out of old duvets and clothes, embellishing them with the child’s name in sequins, beads and buttons. (Make template by cutting triangular pieces from cardboard cereal box, put two pieces of fabric together, right sides out, attach to ribbon). “I did some for a neighbour’s granddaughter in the UK, for her First Communion. I used a skirt the girl had outgrown. It had three layers of frills, all different patterns,” she says.

Mary’s hair-clip and earring holders were made “as a mum, in an effort to organise myself and my daughter”. The clip holder she created by sewing a narrow ribbon to a wider one placed behind it. Leah slips clips through the narrow ribbon and it hangs in her bedroom. The earring holder is made from re-usable, brown Hessian shopping bags, chosen for the light weave. You cut out a square — size depends on number of earrings. Leah’s is 18 inches by 12. Put bias binding on the edge to make it colourful. Sew felt on the bottom, as a space for a child’s name. Mary put bamboo from her garden along the top, so the holder keeps its shape, and tied ribbon to each side, so it hangs.

She has re-purposed worn fleece jackets as dolls’ clothes. “Fleece is easy to use. It doesn’t fray — put a button hole in and it doesn’t tear. To make the clothes, draw around the doll to get the approximate shape, leaving a bit of space for seams and to get the clothes on and off. Sew the fleece pieces together,” Mary says.

From an unlikely combo of old pillows and picture frames, she made 3D pin cushions. First, remove the glass and back from the frame. Wash and dry the pillow. Pull out the inside wadding (stuffing), and glue this to the back of the frame. Place pretty fabric over stuffing, gluing it to the edges of the frame. Return the back to the glass-free frame. “You’re left with a 3D creation that you can stand on a desk and stick pins and needles in,” says Mary.

She has transformed empty food tins into pretty storage vessels for paintbrushes (“wash tins, cover with fabric, snazzy them up with ribbon and broken pieces of jewellery”), and she has made clear storage tubs for clothes pegs and Lego (cut in half empty, five-litre plastic water bottles and cover the cut edge with fabric. Glue this on). Mary gives classes on upcycling in Limerick. Email

*‘Chair Affair’, an upcycling workshop, is at the Hotel Meyrick, Galway, this Saturday, February 8

Fermoy upcycling shop breathes new life into old favourites

OLD louver doors reclaimed as photo display units, sash windows your grandmother might have had — these are some of the pieces that will take you down memory lane when you walk into Graham and Yvonne Farrar’s ReStore shop in Fermoy.

“People feel a great sense of nostalgia when they walk in. They see pieces they remember from their grandparents’ houses,” says Yvonne.

They opened the shop this August. Graham, with a background in fitting kitchens and floors, as well as in selling furniture, and Yvonne — whose experience is in design and marketing — were unexpectedly unemployed at the start of the summer.

“We decided we’d combine both our skills and the passion we each had for interiors,” says Yvonne. The business (upcycling furniture) is for the most part Graham’s, while she dips in and out, helping with colour and design. In this recession, she says people are making the best of what they have. “There’s great interest in the idea of re-purposing, in the revival of anything that’s vintage or retro.”

Among items they’ve up-cycled are:

* Teak garage door, from their home, transformed into shop counter. “The door was beaten and weathered. It had been outside, under a lean-to, for five years.” Transformation included painting it with chalk paint and distressing it (purposely ageing it by sanding it back).

* 1950s TV cabinet that had seen “a fair amount of use (it had ring marks on top and scratches)” was re-purposed as a retro yellow cabinet, which a customer bought for her bedroom on the day the shop opened. Work involved sanding it to remove wear and tear, priming and under-coating it. “We used spray paint. The original, brass handles were a floral design. We polished them and removed any rust.”

* 1950s dressing table was turned into a sideboard in various blue shades. “We removed the mirror, painted the drawers, which were in good condition, and kept the original knobs and handles.”

* Email


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