Giving the past a sustainable future: upholstery and upcycling at Magdalene College
Nestled in Cambridge’s equivalent of Aladdin’s cave, Ruth Eckstein, the College Seamstress at Magdalene, spends her days upholstering chairs, sofas and anything else she can get her hands on. A job that started as an advert in the paper eight years ago has seen Ruth play fairy godmother at balls, sewing sobbing girls back into their torn dresses, as well as more everyday tasks such as turning old College curtains into cushions.
Ruth laughingly remarks that when she tells people her old-fashioned job title, she’s generally met with a fair amount of confusion. Ruth’s unassuming title covers a whole host of incredible upcycling projects however, and saving items from the skip is just part and parcel of her day. A self-confessed "bit of a hoarder”, Ruth shows me piles of used College curtains from the ‘80s which have been washed and are ready for reuse. The curtains that once hung in the hushed rooms of the Pepys Library for example, now cover well-loved cushions in the MCR. Rolls of Liberty print speak of a more luxurious past and a battered sofa waits patiently on rusty springs to be given a new lease of life. Thanks to Ruth and Dawn Collins, Head Housekeeper at Magdalene, who had her eye on this pre-loved sofa in the College, it will be recovered and used instead of an expensive, new alternative. Dawn happily acknowledges that Magdalene is “lucky to have a College Seamstress as skilled as Ruth with her additional knowledge and experience of the upholstery trade” which make these alternatives viable.
Dawn herself has worked in a few of the Cambridge Colleges over the last 20 years and, like Ruth, has always tried to save what furniture she can from landfill. In the past, Dawn has been known to offer furniture that can no longer be used in the College to staff, Fellows and local charities. Old chairs have been re-homed at local village colleges for their adult education upholstery courses and anything that Dawn can keep, she squirrels away until a need can be found for it.
Ruth and Dawn have recently worked together to reuse some of the furniture in a graduate staircase, Mallory C, showcasing their work to demonstrate what upcycling can achieve. Graduate students were keen to keep the character of the area, so Dawn cleaned the wood furniture pieces that were still in reasonable condition and gave a fresh lick of paint to the tables, desks and sideboards that needed it. Pride of place in Mallory C sits a bit of a showstopper - a beautiful sofa reupholstered by Ruth using old curtains from around the College. Dawn had been holding on to the settee for a couple of years, “knowing it had good bones", and wanting to re-home it somewhere in the College. Although some new pieces of furniture did have to be purchased for the rooms in Mallory C, the old and new work well together and the graduate students who took up residence in the rooms appreciate Dawn and Ruth’s efforts. A local furniture restorer has also repaired over 20 chairs and two wingback armchairs in the Senior Combination room.
Dawn acknowledges that “it’s not possible for everyone to spend the time to upcycle” and although she can’t save every piece from landfill, she hopes that “by doing a little bit where I can, I hope that it does make a difference.” Having witnessed first-hand what has been achieved already at Magdalene, it’s inspiring to see what tangible, environmental differences can be made by just a few individuals. It’s also evident that Dawn and Ruth are unwittingly demonstrating the holy grail of sustainability – pro-environmental behaviour embedded naturally in their day-to-day lives.
Upcycling is so routine to Ruth that it isn’t until our conversation is coming to a close that she remembers another little project that she’s done… the cushions on C. S. Lewis’ chairs. Yes, you read that right, C. S. Lewis’ chairs! Unwilling to let Ruth’s modesty get the better of the situation I steer us towards the Chaplain’s room where the chairs now sit. Keith, one of the College porters, kindly lets us in with a smile and there, nestled around a fireplace ready with kindling, are two beautiful, comfy but quality armchairs. The chairs were reupholstered externally in William Morris fabric as the majority of the material was too degraded to use again, but Ruth managed to salvage two squares of fabric just big enough for a pair of small cushions. It’s the first time Ruth has seen her work in situ and you can sense her quiet pride as I run my hands over the cushions’ woven fabric. Upcycling is definitely in vogue at the moment and the environmental benefits of reuse are indisputable. In addition to its utility and necessity in a rapidly changing world however, upcycling brings with it something intangible: a sense of history in the current age, a connection to the past which seems so appropriate to Cambridge’s Colleges.
Remember that even if you don’t have the skills needed to upholster furniture, you can put unwanted items on WarpIt, the University’s online reuse platform which all staff can use for free.
Written by Jess Haskell, Environmental Engagement Coordinator.
This article first appeared on the University of Cambridge Environment and Energy website and has been shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence.