Upcycling: A Walk Through History


Coined in 1994, the term 'upcycling' is relatively new. However, the practice it embodies – breathing new life into old items – dates back centuries. Long before the buzzword emerged, although unnamed, upcycling was a part of daily life. Goods were frequently reused or repurposed to ensure nothing was wasted. From the ancient Romans to war-time households, the innovative art of reusing has been timeless.


The practice of upcycling, while popularised in recent years, has deep historical roots stretching back to ancient times. A noteworthy example is 'Spolia', an ancient practice common in the Roman Empire. Its origins can be traced as early as the 5th century BCE, in regions such as Greece, Rome, and Byzantium (now known as Istanbul).

'Spolia' originates from the Latin term 'spolium', metaphorically referring to spoils. In architectural context, it signifies the practice of reusing materials from older buildings in new constructions.


Spolia involved repurposing building stones and other architectural elements from older structures into new edifices. This innovative approach not only conserved resources but also breathed new life into discarded materials. The practice of spolia stands as a remarkable testament to upcycling, highlighting that the principles of resource conservation and reuse have existed for thousands of years prior to the term's inception.


During wartime, resource shortages led to a surge in upcycling as a matter of necessity. Materials like cloth, paper, and sacks were repurposed with innovation and necessity driving reuse. In the face of scarcity, nothing was considered waste and every item held potential for a second life. This period witnessed upcycling not just as a survival strategy but a widespread societal practice, underlining the adaptability and resilience ingrained in human nature.


During World War II, the British Ministry of Information initiated the "Make Do and Mend" campaign in 1943 as a response to resource scarcity and clothing rationing. This early initiative embraced the essence of upcycling before it gained its name, encouraging citizens to repair and repurpose worn-out items. The campaign nurtured a culture of resourcefulness and frugality, showcasing how creativity can thrive even in challenging times.



The concept of the National Liberation Skirts, or "Nationale Feestrok", originated from Mies Boissevain-van Lennep, a Dutch resistance fighter during WWII. During her imprisonment, she received a patchwork scarf made of fabric pieces from relatives, friends, and acquaintances, each piece signifying cherished memories.

Following the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945, Mies inspired by her scarf and serving on a post-war women's committee, encouraged Dutch women to create patchwork skirts from fabric scraps.


These skirts were symbols of unity, diversity, and resilience, embodying the principles of "new from old" and "building from the broken". Adhering to certain rules, these Liberation Skirts were designed with plain triangles and prominently featured the embroidered date "May 5, 1945". This story reinforces how upcycling can transform materials and experiences into poignant symbols of resilience and solidarity.

Upcycling, the practice of transforming waste into valuable resources, has transcended diverse time periods, showcasing human creativity during periods of resource scarcity. From ancient civilisations to wartime periods, its widespread adoption underscores its pivotal role in promoting sustainability and conserving resources.

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