Happily upcycling in So. Hadley

This small wall hanging is made from yarn scraps woven through the stretchy plastic mesh that covers boxes of clementines.
This small wall hanging is made from yarn scraps woven through the stretchy plastic mesh that covers boxes of clementines.
This greeting card is made on recycled cardboard. The patterned flowers were cut from the crosshatching inside of security old envelopes, and the tag on the flowers is a repurposed bread bag tie.
This greeting card is made on recycled cardboard. The patterned flowers were cut from the crosshatching inside of security old envelopes, and the tag on the flowers is a repurposed bread bag tie.
Uncycler Amber Ladley stands in her South Hadley studio holding a painted feature, which she cut from a page of a discarded library book and glued to a bamboo shoot from her yard. Also in view are a flower she made from surplus wallpaper, a hanging cardholder cut from bamboo and, above the door behind her, a decorative storage system for yarn.
Uncycler Amber Ladley stands in her South Hadley studio holding a painted feature, which she cut from a page of a discarded library book and glued to a bamboo shoot from her yard. Also in view are a flower she made from surplus wallpaper, a hanging cardholder cut from bamboo and, above the door behind her, a decorative storage system for yarn.

Special to Going Green

Amber Ladley’s studio is the kind of place where a casual visitor could misplace an hour just poking around. The space, a sunny workroom in her South Hadley bungalow, is only about 10 feet wide by 15 feet long. But in every direction, there’s something enchantingly upcycled to pick up and ask, “How did you ever think of that?”

“I’ve always been creative,” said Ladley, who grew up in Westfield with a mother who encouraged every kind of crafting from friendship bracelets, to papier mache, to crochet.

“Arts and crafts can be really expensive, though, and I’m also a thrifty person and a problem solver,” Ladley said. “Upcycling is at the intersection of all that.” As a matter of both practicality and personal style, she gave herself challenge: “I try not to create with anything new.”

The fruits of Ladley’s endeavors fill her studio like strawberries in springtime.

Colorful pom-poms of balled yarn crown the doorframe from Ladley’s studio into her house. They’re impaled on pegs, forming both a storage system and playful decor all at once. Ladley looped strings of T-shirt yarn through soda can tabs to make a handy clip rope for craft storage bags. The bags she made by turning Trader Joe’s coffee bags foil-side out, then leaving their bright, printed cuffs folded over for contrast. Across the room, Ladley’s windowsill is lined with clean, glass pickle jars stripped of labels and filled with buttons and supplies.

A texture-y, teal room divider hangs to the left of the door. Ladley made this out of geometric cardboard dividers used to keep glass vials from cracking in the mail (the dividers were a gift from her sister, a scientist and fellow recycler). On the floor stands a 1960s, sky-blue American Tourister round suitcase. Ladley rescued it from South Hadley’s Swap Shop, a space at the town dump where people leave, or take, items that still have value. Ladley cleaned it up, used old jeans to add pockets inside, and affectionately named her new travel companion “Serendipity.”

“I try to only hold on to the things I know I’m going to use, and I do try to keep things organized,” Ladley said, noting the sometimes blurry line between hoarding and creative reuse. Then she laughed, “My husband’s always asking me if it’s OK to throw something away.”

Of course, when Ladley’s son needed a wearable alien head to wear to Comic-Con, this resourceful family was prepared. Rather than swiping through Amazon, they sifted through their garage instead. Together, they ferreted out an old toolbox, a plastic laundry basket they cut up, and a backyard ball. These castoffs became a huge head covered in papier mache. For finishing touches, Ladley said, “We used aluminum cans for the teeth and hot glue for the drool.”

The result was out of this world.

To be fair, Ladley has had more than the average person’s experience making something wonderful out of what others throw away. Aside from being smart and artistic, she’s also a former co-owner of “Knack,” a creative reuse crafting space that was once located in the Eastworks building in Easthampton. She spent five years teaching (and learning from others) the creative art of reinventing things simply by looking at them it in a different way.

More of her ideas

Use the crosshatched inside of security envelopes for pretty, patterned paper.

The stretchy, plastic mesh on top of clementine crates is super for a child’s weaving project.

Cereal box and other food cardboard works well for making embroidered greeting cards.

An old CD disc, snazzily painted and with a marble glued into one side of the hole and a milk carton cap glued to the other, makes a cool spinning top.

Segments cut from backyard plantings such as bamboo are perfect for dowels and flower stems.

A metal jar lid works just as well as a craft store mat when resting a hot glue gun.

Make your own charcoal drawing pencils the next time you have a backyard marshmallow roast.

When not busy with her job as creative director for Speaker Sisterhood, a Holyoke-based startup teaching self-discovery to women through the art of public speaking, Ladley gives two-hour upcycling workshops at public libraries throughout the region. “I like to use materials the libraries are discarding,” she said. So, taking the colorful pages of outdated picture books, she teaches patrons to make three-dimensional pumpkins. She helps them turn old book pages into homey, long-stemmed flowers. She shows them how to cut petal shapes from old jeans and glue them onto discarded CDs for a project she calls “Denim Dahlias.”

These workshops aren’t for kids. “Kids are fun, but kids don’t need help connecting to their creativity,” Ladley said. Adults, on the other hand, tend to be stressed, or locked into a mindset of directions, rules and notions about what they are, and aren’t, good at. “I talk a lot in my workshops about allowing our hands to work and our minds to rest,” Ladley said. Crafting is meditative, and creativity is not only the brain’s version of playfulness, it’s also self-expressive on a level many adults don’t get to experience in their daily lives.

Besides, if all the crafting materials were headed curbside anyway, what has anyone got to lose?

“I like to encourage people to think outside the dumpster. The next time you go to throw something in your recycle bin, think about what else it could be,” she challenged. “And the next time you go to buy a gift, think about making one, instead.”

Author: ANDREA BUGBEE

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