February 7, 2018

Local Company Has Unique Spin On Recycling Beloved Old Clothes

MAKING MEMORIES: Crafted from clothing that might otherwise have been relegated to the attic, this quilt is among the products that won the Princeton company, The Patchwork Bear, a spot on the 2017 Oprah’s Favorite Things list.

By Anne Levin

When a small business becomes one of Oprah’s Favorite Things, life gets complicated — in a good way. Just ask Jennifer Cura, whose company The Patchwork Bear operates out of headquarters above Green Street Consignment on Nassau Street.

Since making the coveted list last November, Cura and her staff have been busier than ever creating bears, quilts, tote bags, duffel bags, and wedding keepsakes out of old clothes that have sentimental value, but might otherwise be stuffed into a box in the attic. So a vintage T-shirt collection could have a second life as a quilt. Baby clothes a parent can’t bear to part with could be crafted into a cuddly bear.

“It’s upcycling,” said Cura, who has been in Princeton since moving the business out of her Hopewell basement in 2015. “Everybody has old clothes they don’t know what to do with, and we turn them into keepsakes. People seem to love the idea, and it has really taken off since we were on the list in Oprah Magazine. It’s been crazy since then, but good crazy.”

Originally an architect, Cura was living in California with her husband and small children when, on maternity leave in 2004, she began making quilts as gifts for friends. Teddy bears made from fabric came next. Friends told friends, and Cura was busy. The family moved east a few years later, which is when a Hollywood stylist happened to see a picture of the bears and tracked Cura down. The handmade bears ended up in the gifting suite of the Golden Globe Awards, giving the fledgling business an unexpected boost.

“I developed a little celebrity following,” Cura said, mentioning Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, Angela Jolie, Brad Pitt, Chad Lowe, and Jennifer Garner among her customers.

As the bear business grew, Cura discovered a new twist. “A customer of mine asked if I could make something out of their clothes. I did that, and it just clicked,” she said. “I was going back and forth between doing a line of bears out of fabric and this new idea, and I decided to go in this direction. Since then, it has been mostly a clothing keepsake company.”

Cura has five people on her staff, and others who do contract sewing. Customers ordering a bear get a kit that comes with instructions on how to proceed. “You can either just send clothes to us, or you can design the bear and pin notes showing where you want everything,” she said. “It’s a process, and it’s highly personalized.”

Quilts are done in the traditional manner, with old-fashioned batting under the top layer made of clothing and items supplied by customers. Cura recalls several fondly, including some made from uniforms of police and first responders, others from scouting badges. The company also makes quilts out of wedding dresses. “So instead of a cardboard tomb, the dress gets another life,” Cura said.

When it comes to the bears, customers’ personal notes and recollections often spark emotions. “The ones that get us crying are the memory ones,” Cura said. “They can be really sad, like when a child has passed. Those are the hardest. It’s the same bear every time, yet it’s different every time.”