Claire Armstrong loves to upcycle. She enjoys the buzz of transforming the old into something fresh and exciting – or working with what others consider “rubbish” and repurposing it into something beautiful again.
The 52-year-old, who lives in Bedford, but was born and raised in Hong Kong, says the environmental benefits are a bonus, reducing waste to landfills and avoiding the unnecessary manufacturing of new goods. “Surely, it’s much better to upcycle something that already exists than to buy new?” she says.
Her favourite item to upcycle is denimc. “I love all the different shades of indigo,” she tells me. “It’s a robust fabric that can be stitched, glued, woven and, in some cases, crocheted.” It’s not just the material, though – there are loads of interesting elements to a pair of jeans that can add something to a craft and project, she says – such as the seams, pockets and waistbands.
Jeans legs can be opened up to gain a large swatch of denim to work with; the seams and waistbands cut and used as a decorative element or woven into mats, rugs, and woven pillows; and the pockets are handy for creating unique storage items for the home, she adds.
Armstrong has turned jeans into wall decorations, dog toys, rugs, frames, cushions, Christmas decorations and bags, just for starters. “I have a ready supply of denim, my family practically lives in jeans,” Armstrong jokes.
“All my family and friends pass on their old jeans for me to upcycle!”
Her first upcycle was in 2000; she had a pair of jeans that she loved with an unusual design on the pocket, but they’d become too worn to wear anymore and ripped in an awkward place. She made them into a bag.
“I lined it with a really cool sarong I’d picked up from my travels,” she says. “The handle was made from the waistband, and I used the seat of the jeans as the main body, so I got to use the pockets I loved.”
After that, Armstrong didn’t craft anything else for a while – “I was too busy looking after my three young boys” – but as her kids got older and grew out of their own jeans, she ended up with a load more fabric. It was then, in 2015, she made one of her favourite creations: a denim pocket organiser with her son’s and husband’s old jeans. It still hangs in her son’s bedroom now.
“Not only does it look fantastic but it is really handy, too,” she says. “My son even recognises some of the pockets from his old jeans.”
The organiser was one of the first things she posted on her upcycling blog, Pillar Box Blue, where she shares crafting ideas and tutorials. “I haven’t stopped upcycling denim since,” she says. “Rather than just making the most obvious creations, I try to show denim crafts that are a bit out of the norm such as a woven lampshade from the seams.”
Denim feathers – pictured below – are another one of her favourites, and the most popular tutorial on her blog. “Making feathers is so easy to do and doesn’t require much concentration,” she says. “I sit pulling the threads out of denim while watching Netflix in the evening. It’s very relaxing!”
Denim roses are fun and easy to make as well, says Armstrong. “I have a bunch on my mantle and love them, they always look good and never wilt. Again you’ll only need a few scraps of denim!”
It’s very meditative, crafting, she says. Armstrong gets lost in it, forgetting about her other worries for a little while. Slowing down and taking the time to revamp and upcycle something can also be a confidence booster, she adds.
“Just saying ‘I made that’ can make you feel really good,” says Armstrong. “It’s a passion of mine, denim, and I’m always looking for new ideas.”