It took a creative mind to look at the sad, tattered sails on the mast of the tall ship Astrid when it ran aground off the Cork coast last July and imagine a second life for them as a range of luxury handcrafted bags.
But that's exactly what the Kinsale-based Hungarian brothers behind upcycling company Mamukko did and now part of the 95-year-old ship lives on as the Astrid Collection, a range of limited-edition lifestyle bags retailing from €45 to €245 at several outlets around the country and online (www.mamukko.ie).
In these recessionary times, the idea of upcycling is something that has universal appeal. Attila and Levente Magyar, fourth-generation craft-workers from Hungary, turned to the idea when they were out of work two years ago.
They set about making handcrafted bags from sailcloth, PVC tarpaulin and other materials and have gone on to build a successful business, winning a start-up award. "The business is growing dynamically," says Attila. "Upcycling is a nicely ripening fruit -- and it's sweet."
That kind of transformation is at the heart of a new upcycling movement that has inspired a range of Irish businesses to make money by refashioning old, unwanted things into new and improved products.
There's Tom Smith the roofer/crafter from Carlow who turns old scaffolding into furniture (www.slatycraft.com); metal workers The Liffey Forge, which make wine racks, umbrella stands and hanging baskets from old horseshoes (www.liffeyforge.com); Belfast Rain (www.therainskirt.com), the company that turns discarded musical-festival tents into designer skirts that start at €50.
And there are lots of people like Emma Deering, the stay-at-home mum who will turn her hand to anything -- she has made lights from walnut shells, from shot glasses, and even from parts of a washing machine.
"I am absolutely fascinated by the creative and quirky designs that come about from re-thinking and re-purposing unwanted items," says former interior designer Lynn Haughton, who set up the Upcycle Movement in 2012 to showcase the ingenious ideas that are springing up all over the country.
"Just look at that," she says, pointing out a chair that has been made from half of a bath.
It is painted a magnificent purple and the plug hole is still visible, although you'd have to say that it might need some cushions.
It was made by Mismatched Design, a Maynooth-based design company run by full-time mum and NCAD graduate Amanda Vencatasamy and her engineer husband Joe Hayden. "We have a plumber friend and we wanted to make him something," Amanda says, explaining the bath/chair.
People are invited to bring their old furniture to Mismatched Design to have it transformed into brand new pieces. Prices vary but are generally much cheaper than the cost of replacing an item.
Les Corbett runs Quirkistuff with his wife Sue in Bray, Co Wicklow, and their range of upcycled or customised furniture starts at €35 for pendant lights and can go up to €500 for a magnificent pitch-pine table upcycled from a carpenter's work bench.
Les still has a day job, though, as head of health and safety at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin but any time anything is being thrown out, the hospital staff know to phone him first. He rescued old hospital lamps destined for the scrapheap, gave them a makeover with vivid, coloured paint and fabric covering on the flex and now they sell for €35.
"The possibilities really are endless," say Lynn Haughton and fellow upcycler Gwen Jeffares Hourie, who hope to create a platform for new businesses to share ideas and techniques.
They have just organised a market for 33 Irish upcycling businesses and they plan to hold markets all around the country in the new year.
Both women are keen upcylcers themselves and toss out ideas that could well become business ventures in the future. Gwen, a student of theatre costume design, says she is one of those people who drags boxes of stuff around but eventually finds a use for all the hoarded cut-offs and pieces of fabric.
For instance, she made funky handwarmers from scraps of materials and filled them with the sushi rice that had been in the back of the press for years. Pop them in the microwave and they beat gloves any day.
Lynn's parents, Clarice and Ronnie Haughton, have been drawn into the upcycling movement as well and make paper flowers from newspapers, envelopes and paper.
There are jewellers, too, such as the wonderful Crowzeye Jewellery N Sculpture, and clothes designers, like Little Scrap which makes bright and beautiful children's clothes from, well, little scraps, but it would be wrong to think that upcycling is low-tech.
Dubliner Rory Grubb of Boscabosca turns vintage radios into wireless speakers and iPod/iPhone docks and sells his range of products online to clients in the USA, England and Canada.
One of his Bluetooth wireless speakers, repurposed from a vintage bakelite radio, will fetch nearly €400 on Etsy, the e-commerce website for vintage and handmade items.
He also has a remarkable range of cigar boxes transformed into speakers that sell for under €100.
"About two years ago, a friend of mine wanted an internet radio but they were expensive and ugly, so I made one with a smartphone and a winebox. Now I make them to sell," Rory says.
That kind of creativity is only the tip of the iceberg, according to Lynn and Gwen of the Upcycle Movement. They are certain that upcycling is here to stay and hope that more and more people will look at the waste they generate and think of other ways to use it.
"Imagine for a moment that we didn't have the option to throw out waste. It probably wouldn't take too long until our homes were full to the brim of packaging and other household waste," Lynn says.
What would you do? Start thinking about it because you might just stumble on a first-class business idea.
How you can upcycle
- Paint your aluminium tin cans with Annie Sloan Chalk Paint and make funky holders.
- Upcycle a picture frame, a box or a lampshade with decoupage. To learn how, do a half-day workshop (€35) in Bray, Co Wicklow, with Liz and Lewis and Sharon Welsh of Down at the Gate (facebook.com/downatthegate).
- Restyle your old clothes with a little help from textile artist, Anne Jeffares of Stitchesbecrazy.com. She does house calls (Wicklow/Dublin area), €12.50 per person and up to five people per session.
- Make sculpted pieces with all those newspapers cluttering up the house (see pic). Eszter Hatala, a former economist based in Kildare, gives classes in newspaper art and making mosaics from eggshells. (facebook.com/HatalaMosaic79)
- Copy the innovators. Log on to www.theupcyclemovement.com and see how people are making mirrors out of plastic spoons, bookends out of old lamps and turning wooden pallets into bespoke furniture.