Country Living speaks to Jay Blades, upcycler and presenter of BBC's The Repair Shop, to ask why 'make do and mend' is the way forward, what furniture to look out for in a charity shop and what he wants for Christmas.
Have you always been Mr Fix It?
I grew up on a council estate in east London. My family couldn’t afford anything new, so we had to be resourceful: turning milk-bottle crates into record holders or table legs. I never thought of it as sustainable, though – it was just cheap.
How did it become your living?
I was running a charity for troubled teenagers called Out of the Dark about 10 years ago. When funding dried up, I had to find a way to create revenue. Retired craftspeople taught us how to revamp old chairs, tables and desks, which we would sell. After a piece in the press, I was approached by a television company. I started presenting the BBC’s Money for Nothing in 2015, followed by The Repair Shop in 2017.
Why is The Repair Shop such a hit?
In each episode, people bring us family heirlooms – jukeboxes, clocks or teddies – for repair by our experts. It’s not about their financial worth but their sentimental value. It’s a show about love, community, craftsmanship and teamwork. We’re restoring memories as well as furniture. It’s a really special show.
What's the big message?
Fifty years ago, there would be a repair shop on every high street and if your toaster broke, you’d take it there. Now we just buy a new one. The Repair Shop shows how easy and enjoyable it is to give something a new lease of life. Attitudes are changing and there’s a definite shift towards make do and mend*. Update chairs and sideboards with paint or polish and, in the long run, they’ll cost you less than poorly made cheaper ones.
*almost 40% of people turned to DIY during lockdown, according to Aldermore Bank.
So you're not a flatpack fan?
I wouldn’t buy something cheap and expect it to be a family heirloom. Real timber should last a long time. Trends come and go but timeless pieces – like Ercol chairs – last forever. If a piece of furniture is heavy, it’s a good indication that it’s well made. I love buying furniture in charity shops because you’re supporting a good cause and getting something yourself.
What do you look for in charity shops?
Robin Day chairs or Parker Knoll sofas from the Fifties. I also keep an eye out for Utility Furniture: desks and cabinets in beech or oak made by British designers like Gordon Russell after the Second World War. They can be easily updated with a lick of paint or a good old sand-down.
Do you enjoy the process?
I’m dyslexic and at school was told I wouldn’t achieve much. Creating something with your hands improves your self-worth and mutes the voices of people who didn’t believe in you. Giving a battered piece of furniture a new lease of life is so rewarding. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I step back and admire my work.
What's on your Christmas list?
I’ve got into a healthy regime this year, so I’m hoping for a juicer. I have no problem with gadgets as long as they’re well cared for. But when it comes to gifting, I like to craft wooden ornaments for each recipient. I love the idea that each piece is unique – and that it might even be passed down through the generations.
What you can do
Buy the book: The Repair Shop: Stories from the Workshop of Dreams. And watch the show: search for The Repair Shop on BBC iPlayer.
Give an upcycled gift. Jay recommends an Ercol Windsor chair (there are lots on eBay). Their simple design makes them easy to fix.
Instead of heading to the Boxing Day sales, visit your local charity shop and pick up an older piece to refresh. Upcycler Lynne Lambourne offers furniture upcycling workshops, as well as plenty of advice, at lynnelambourne.com.
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