Denim on Etsy: A Community of ‘Upcyclers’ Make the Old New Again

Levi Strauss & Co.
May 27, 2014

Out with the new and in with the old.

Etsy, a marketplace for handmade goods and vintage items,  provides a platform for a community of creatives to showcase and sell their upcycled works of art—pieces that are both beautiful and earth-friendly, constructed from materials that might have otherwise wound up in a landfill.

It comes as no surprise to us here at LS&Co. that denim— for its iconic nature, inherent beauty and extreme durability—is the perfect starting point for many artists who repurpose vintage materials.

“A pair of jeans never ceases to be the foundation and blank canvas for creative tweaking, haute accessorizing, and straight-up mind-bending transformations,” said Emily Bidwell, Etsy’s Senior Merchandising Specialist and resident Style Expert.

We asked four artists on Etsy to tell us more about how they upcycle our beloved blues.


Darlene Hatchett of Hatchett Designs

From: Asheville, North Carolina

Makes: Maps, Flags


UNZIPPED: Why is upcycling important to you?

DARLENE HATCHETT: We are such a throw away society now. It is important to me that every piece I do is at least 85% upcycled.

il_570xN.254617840Why did you start working with denim?

My work with denim came about because my son was purging his closet and he had a stack of jeans that he was going to take to Goodwill. I noticed all the different shades next to each other.

I had a vintage book of maps, with maps of all the United States and each state was in the same scale, so I used that to make my first pattern.

I started doing the flags because after doing my maps I would have the waistbands and seams left over. I needed something to do with those pieces, and it just kind of went from there. I use every part of the denim.

Where do you get the denim that you use?

Now, people give me their old jeans. I also go to tag sales and Goodwill. There are hundreds of different shades and textures of denim and it is all about getting that perfect shade that you are looking for.

And most of what I use is Levi’s. They are usually the most worn because people have held onto them longer—but I like that, because I like to see the worn parts, the rips and the wear and tear.  


Chris Riggs of ChrisRiggsArtGallery

From: New York and Miami

Makes: Conceptual Art


UNZIPPED: Tell me about the Levi’s pieces you have on Etsy and where the idea for the pieces came about?

CHRIS RIGGS: I used to sell vintage Levi’s. I still have a massive vintage Levi’s collection. I’ve always loved jeans. I used to il_570xN.312201442sew things onto them and spray paint or drip paint onto them.

I made some frames, and I was going to put canvas on them, but then I decided to sew some jeans onto the frames instead. I was going to paint them originally. I put the jeans over the canvas and intertwined them. And then I was like, you know what? I don’t need to paint them—it just looks so cool like that!

People loved them. A big collector in Italy bought a bunch of them.

How do you attach the jeans to the canvas?

I nail them into the wooden frame—sometimes the denim gets really thick.

But painting is your main art? 

Yes. I do a lot for gallery shows in Miami and New York.

Next, I want to make some more pieces with Levi’s where I paint them.

I’m definitely going to be making more Levi’s art!


Laura Bellel of Milkweed Quilts

From: Chicago, Illinois

Makes: Pillows, quilts, Indigo-dyed pieces


UNZIPPED: Why did you begin upcycling denim?

il_570xN.598718261_kt77LAURA BELLEL: I have ten children, so I had mountains of jeans that they outgrew, or that had holes in the knees. But I am not going to waste such beautiful material! That’s really where it came from.

Why is upcycling so important to you?

Why make more trash? And denim is really good material.

What is your process for deciding which shades of denim to put next to each other?

It is hard to pinpoint. I just look at them and “audition” them next to each other. If it works, it works. It takes a lot of time. Sometimes things don’t sit right with each other. There are a lot of things that I’ve taken apart over the years.

I saw that you have a passion for indigo dyes as well.

Yes, in fact, my hands are blue at the moment!

Does this passion relate to your use of denim?

Blue is kind of my thing. I love all colors, but somehow I always end up with blue. It’s almost a joke around here, that everything is blue in this house.

Your quilts are beautiful!

Well, the material is so beautiful. The waistbands are difficult to take apart but they are really the coolest material. There is a patterning and a color-variation that comes from wear. The effect that you get with indigo dying occurs naturally with denim, in the way that it fades.

How long have you been doing this? 

Probably 25 years. I can’t stop making stuff. That’s my burden and my joy.


Susan Shortt of Daring Miss Lassiter

From: St. Louis, Missouri

Makes: Jewelry


UNZIPPED: How did you get started?

il_570xN.372476857_s10iSUSAN SHORTT: I have two boys and they went through a lot of Levi’s. So I began thinking of how to repurpose the material.

I love the color and texture, particularly of frayed denim, so I started cutting shapes out and layering them, and then washing it so it frayed along the edges. Pretty soon, I was making earrings and necklaces.

Your pieces have a nice juxtaposition between the frayed denim and the intricate beading.

I like to use old jewelry and vintage rhinestones. I try to use mostly recycled items—stuff I find at thrift stores and flea markets.

How long have you been doing this?

I made my first pair of earrings about 8-10 years ago. I originally started making them for myself. Then people started asking me about them.

I am also a college professor—this is not my fulltime gig. But it is a great second job!

il_570xN.252018680The beading must be quite time-consuming.

I do everything by hand. The denim earrings I do several layers all hand-stitched together. I don’t do anything on a machine, so it takes a lot of time. Certain times of the year I can make more than during others. I am headed into my summer now and I have all kinds of ideas!