Flea Market Shopping With an Eye for Up-Cycling

5 years ago

Up-cyclers live for flea markets, thrift stores and garage sales. What one person might see as a pile of dusty dead people’s stuff a true up-cycler has a keen eye for possibility. You see an old broken TV console, someone else sees a dog bed. A pile of scrap lace and trim might seem more fit for the trash to you, but an up-cycler sees tiaras and tutus. A pile of dusty books might make you sneeze to look at, but someone else sees a vase or shelf waiting to be born. Ah yes, the trained eye of a savvy up-cycler is something indeed to behold, envy and admire. Some people are born with these keen up-cycling instincts, but don’t worry there are a few tips and tricks of the trade that can be learned. I happen to have a few handy pointers about how to see the world through rose colored up-cycling glasses.

Up-cyclers at a flea market are like a lion on the Serengeti looking for a gazelle. When they see something that catches their eye they pounce. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked away from something at a flea market or antique sale telling myself I needed more time to think about it only to discover that someone else bought the treasure in question while I was being indecisive. The best time to buy an antique is when you see it. This almost always holds true unless it is a chair and you have been walking around a hot and dusty flea market for hours on end. In this case any chair, even a really uncomfortable or ugly one, will seem comfortable.

When you are shopping for second hand treasures many items look like they came out of the scratch and dent pile. There is a good chance that those scratches and dents are the very reason someone else decided to part ways with this item. What was an issue to the previous owner may be no big deal to you. Ask yourself is it broken beyond repair? Are the issues the item has only surface level? Could the paint be changed? Could the scratches and dents be filled and sanded? All these questions depend on how much work you want to put into any up-cycling project. I’m a firm believer that a new shiny coat of paint can fix almost anything.

While you are asking yourself if an item is broken also ask yourself do you care? My mother (the queen of all flea markets and my patron saint of up-cycling) recently conveyed a story to me about buying a broken item. She was once shopping at a flea market and came across a beautiful sterling silver tray. The problem was the tray only had 3 legs.  When my mother showed interest in the tray the dealer apologized about the missing leg and offered to lower the price. What the woman didn’t know was that mother had no intention of using the piece as a tray so the missing leg made no difference to her. My mother had immediately envisioned the tray as a table top and had intended to remove the legs from the start so it was just one less leg for her to have to deal with. Again even broken items can be up-cycled into something new and wonderful. Train yourself as an up-cycler to see beyond broken.

This story also reminds me of another important point any good up-cycler should remember: if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. In other words don’t see a wooden pallet as trash see it as dressing room wall or as a canvas for a piece of art. Up-cyclers don’t see labels, titles or believe in things like ‘original intentions’. These people see knitting needles and think starburst clock, globes become pendant lamps in their eyes and abandoned street signs become furniture. Don’t judge a piece of junk by it’s cover.

In my years of up-cycling I have come to realize there are two types out there. First, there are the people like me that teeter on the edge of being hoarders. These are the people that are like crows and can’t seem to leave anything shiny behind. I can’t tell you how many tiny souvenir spoons and vintage colorful permanents curlers I have stashed in my studio to prove it. We are the people that buy (or sometimes find for free during bulk trash week) treasures that we are not sure at the exact moment what we are going to do with them, but we just instinctually know that something wonderful could be born from these items. The other types of up-cyclers are much more organized. They go into a shopping experience prepared. They are thinking I want to make a bird house so they are eyeballing teapots, license plates and Golden Books. It is always a good idea to keep a little list with you at all times of what it is you are looking for. Do a little research before you hit the flea markets to get inspired.

Besides a list of items you want there are a few other key items a good up-cycler always has on hand. A tape measure is something very handy to keep around. If you have a space in your home you are looking to fill, write down those measurements and take them shopping with you. If you are a matchy matchy type of person carry some paint samples and fabric swatches from your home. If you are looking for something fancy like gold or silver to up-cycle take a magnet out shopping with you. A magnet will not stick to real gold or sterling silver. We are thinking green here so be sure to bring your own shopping bag where ever you go.

Also, remember not everything should be made from recycled materials. For instance I love the look of raised beds made from railroad ties, old tires and wooden pallets as much as the next guy. However, I would not grow anything I was going to eat in something treated with that many chemicals that are going to leach. Just remember to up-cycle wisely. I know lot’s of people make a pledge to go a year and not buy themselves any new clothes, I like to think that panties are not included in that. It’s all about common sense.

There is recycling and then there is up-cycling. Saving the planet and stepping away from traditional consumerism is not only easy and fun it is also a great way to give your home and style some flair. What are some of your favorite up-cycling projects? Any tips or tricks for up-cycling that you live by?

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