Altering vs. Embellishing

One of my online friends, Sharon Robb-Chism, blogged recently about the difference she perceives among things that are altered, embellished, and upcycled. What does each term mean, and what’s the difference from one to another? Shortly after reading her post, here, I came across other posts and comments on the topic–you know how it is: you buy red shoes, and suddenly you find red shoes everywhere. You’re sitting in the dental chair and look down and there, on your hygienist’s feet, are a pair of spiffy red high-tops.


It got me thinking about these terms because they’re used so much, and I realized it would be nice if we could agree on the differences between things that are altered and things that are embellished. As it is, the two are used interchangeably, and, in many cases, that’s OK: something that is embellished is, indeed, altered, or changed. But “embellish” comes from the Latin, bellus, meaning “beautiful”–to embellish something means to make it beautiful, most often by adding decorative details. So while you alter, or change, something by embellishing it, you don’t necessarily embellish something by altering it. You might alter it with the single idea of making it grungy or funky, rather than beautiful (and we are *not* getting into the whole beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder thing because we’d be here forEVER).


All of this is of no consequence until you get into things like workshop descriptions and the descriptions of things you offer for sale, maybe in your Etsy shop. When you use the two interchangeably, some people may be misled, expecting one thing and getting another. For instance: if I buy a garment and change it and offer it for sale, I would need to let people know what I’d done to it. If I cut off part of the hem and sleeves or added gussets or a new collar, then it would be altered. If, on the other hand, I didn’t change the basic garment but, instead, sewed on beads and maybe some lace, then it would be embellished. I could argue that it was altered because I’d changed the basic garment, but for accuracy, it would really useful if we agreed on some basic definitions, at least in the use of these two terms. Think about this: say you signed up for a workshop on altered art books, and you were thinking you were going to learn how to take apart an old book and remake it into a usable journal. You begin the workshop and find that what you’re doing, instead, is taking a blank book and adding a collage to the front of it. In both cases, you’re technically altering the book, but there’s a vast difference in what you would learn in the workshop.


As Sharon said in her post, this is just one person’s opinion–in this case, mine, and I’m no arbiter of definitions. But I think agreeing on the use of terms like this in our mixed media community makes it much easier for all of us to understand more exactly what someone else is talking about. It helps us decide what work to buy, what workshops to take, where to spend our time and money.


So that’s Sharon’s opinion, and this is mine, and now we’d like to hear yours. Do you think agreeing on definitions within a specific community is a good thing, useful to everyone involved? Or not?


And if this isn’t enough, come back next week when I grumble about the use of “vintage.” Oy.

Z0758AlteredCuriosities_sm If you’d like to play around with ALTERING items, try the Altered Curiosities eBook by Jane Ann Wynn.





Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


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2 Responses to Altering vs. Embellishing

  1. CarolineA says:

    Totally agree! You alter patterns, clothing, a book, something that is already made. It implies making changes to the structure of a finished item so that it is structurally altered, like adding a collar, taking up a hem, or repurposing an old book so that it is no longer the original item. To embellish is to add things to it, to decorate, collage, paint, bead or add ribbons and lace, or even dye it. It makes no difference to the underlying structure of whatever it is you are embellishing and is the process that is added to a finished item, even a blank journal.
    Old books fall rather in the middle, but if you are glueing pages together, using gesso, adding paint, reserving some text and or pictures for a new work, you are repurposing it for another use; the original item is altered to make the new. However a new blank journal has no other purpose than to be filled and embellished with art and craft; its what is was made for, and I would be unhappy if the altered books class I paid for turned out to be collage!
    Unfortunately the spell checkers on our computers do not include automatic dictionary meanings. Its hard enough getting them to speak English, lol!

  2. chuyi says:

    I love knowing that embellishing means making beautiful. I’m just getting my feet wet in the world of mixed media and need to understand definitions of words and terms that are the life blood of this art. Why don’t you write a MM dictionary!!