Jennifer Cura, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, never set out to turn her love of sewing into a real job. Yet when she was looking for a way to work and be flexible for her family, the former architect realized that she could fill a niche she had never seen—upcycle time-loved clothing into a keepsake bear, blanket, or bag. And that’s what led her to create The Patchwork Bear, a company that gives a baby’s coming home outfit, college t-shirts, grandma’s favorite robe, wedding dresses, and other clothing we cherish new life. What started in her basement has grown to a studio in Princeton with a team of moms who work with her to create these personal heirlooms that tell a story of happy memories (and one of Oprah’s Favorite Things). We chatted with this Hopewell mom of three to talk about her business “aha” moment, how she used the downtime during the pandemic to shift her focus, and the beautiful historic Princeton spot her family heads to for a hike.
Tell us about your family and career background.
My husband, Rick, and I live in Hopewell and have three children. I was an architect for 13 years, and my focus was on Master Planning. I was working on college and university buildings, something I enjoyed because you’re thinking about your building’s impact on the entire campus as a whole. When my kids were young, my husband and I worked full-time, demanding jobs. I left my job and chose to stay home because my busy work schedule made quantity and quality family time next to impossible.
How did you get started in your business?
My business started as a hobby when I was home with the children. I started making coordinated quilts and teddy bears from fabrics I purchased for this purpose, and I sold them at local craft fairs. While my children were young, I had no intention of jumping into something big that would take too much time away from them again. Because of that, I intentionally kept the business small for ten years while also taking some business-minded seminars and workshops. Then, in 2015 the timing felt right, and I was ready to focus on growing it.
What was your “aha” moment that this could be a viable business, and what were the steps you took to make your business happen?
A previous customer asked if I could make her something from some special pieces of clothing she had. After, I knew I needed to shift the business to this niche service. Rather than just selling a product, I’d be doing something that ticks several boxes and is purposeful. Everyone has clothing they save for whatever reasons—The Patchwork Bear allows you to keep those memories with a physical product and let go of some of your clutter in the process. Once I was ready to dig a little deeper into the business, I moved it out of my home basement and into a sewing studio in Princeton. I approached some of my friends to see if they were interested in a part-time gig. As a working mom myself, it was important that I create an environment that was flexible enough for those I hired to take care of their parenting demands, too.
Is there anything you’ve made for someone that touched your heart in a particular way?
By far, the memory bears are our bestseller, and Oprah even chose them as one of her Favorite Things in 2017. The clothing items people hold on to tell a story, so nearly everything I make touches my heart and is a big part of why I love what I do. I adore making things from baby clothes—they always smell so good. The generational items also feel extra special to me. I made a beautiful quilt for a recent bride where we used three generations of wedding gowns, and I made a baby blanket for a newborn where everyone in the family contributed a piece of clothing.
How does your family support you being a mompreneur?
From the get-go, my husband has encouraged me to take it as far as I can. He’s generous in offering his support, patience, and advice. My son, Luke, helps out at least once a week and in the summer when he has free time. My daughter, Bella, answers all questions I have regarding marketing analytics and graphics. And my other daughter, Mia, helps with office work and spreadsheets, both year-end and quarterly.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
Early on, when non-essential businesses had to shut down, we started making masks and isolation gowns for hospitals. It helped them as much as it helped me because it provided a sense of purpose in such an uncertain time. I also took advantage of the downtime to take some online classes and learn how to market my business better. Learning the ins and outs of social media has been a game-changer for The Patchwork Bear and is helping me to take it to another level. We also started getting many more orders than usual since people were stuck in their homes and ready to tackle and repurpose those sentimental items they’d been saving forever.
What are some of your local go-to businesses?
Supporting small is very important to me and will always be my choice, which is what all of my go-to’s have in common. Good coffee is my “thing,” and Small World Coffee is where I go to get it. Their lattes are the absolute best. I go to Hinkson’s for business supplies, a small mom-and-pop office supply shop that’s been around for over 100 years. I’d much rather give them my business than one of the larger chains.
Tell us about your favorite family spots in NJ.
Holland Ridge Farms is a family favorite and top of mind since we just went there to see the millions of tulips you can pick for $1 each. We also love visiting in the fall when you can pick sunflowers. We enjoy taking our dog for long walks along the Delaware and Raritan State Park path. We also love the Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve, which used to be where the Princeton Ice Company harvested ice and then would deliver the ice blocks to the area before refrigeration. There are 9 miles of trails, and you can’t beat the beautiful lake and gorgeous scenery.
What’s the best piece of advice you can share with another mompreneur just starting?
I’m all for just going ahead and doing it. It’s okay to start part-time and build your business slowly, but don’t hesitate. I also recommend taking advantage of free and inexpensive business classes—the workshop Score was an indispensable resource for me and is geared towards helping small businesses thrive.