Working alone is great. No-one whingeing-on about their workmates; no-one to notice you’re late back from the pub at lunchtime, no-one to get fed up listening to the loud ugly music you love so much. But there is also no-one to learn from, no-one to show you quicker or better ways to do things. And before you know it you are set in your ways. You are marooned on an island of your own methods. You are not progressive.
After three years of full time working alone I decided I’d better get some new influence and determined that every year I must either go to college or work with another upholsterer (and not just Dave up the road). So with the help of a Welsh Government grant (that I qualified for on a delicious technicality) I booked myself 3 weeks at the Traditional Upholstery Workshop, practically on my doorstep, here in Carmarthenshire.
As a second generation upholsterer I was taught mainly by my dad and while he was a great upholsterer, he wasn’t a great teacher. When I asked questions he would look at me as though I were an idiot and say ‘give it here,’ and just do it himself. He could show me how to do anything but wasn’t able to explain in words. So over the years I signed up with a number of different teachers in London, Yorkshire and Wales. They were mainly hobby classes but I’d go week after week and year after year and with the help of a few books and my dad’s ‘use your brain and just work it out’ philosophy, I slowly pieced things together. But I’m far from an expert in traditional methods so the Traditional Upholstery Workshop was ideal – their reputation told me that foam was the F word and should never be uttered, and that Messrs Horse-Hair and Hessian would be my new friends. So I packed up a half-made chair for one of my customers and off I went.
Talk about self conscious. I’m supposed to be a professional and I seem to do everything wrong. I don’t do upholstery like this at all. I regulate through the scrim, this way feels like grooming a monkey. Surely I don’t need to mark out my stitches? And surely that’s a tight enough edge roll? What do you mean I have to unpick it and do it again?
By day three I have stabbed myself with a regulator so many times that I am applying plasters on top of plasters and wondering if my Tetanus jab is up to date. Everyone is lovely, but I’m keeping my head down, feeling not very professional at all.
By day five I have made the most perfect and beautiful seat possible. As I look at it I realise I am changed. I have learned.
Traditional upholstery is beautiful. And then we cover it up in fabric. It is a dark-art known only by the initiated and customers have no idea of the skill and time it takes. I decided to use the luxury of learning-time to make some samplers to show my customers what it’s like underneath. I took two small picture frames, webbed them and stitched them to first-stuffing stage. One with an edge roll and one with a feathered edge. This took me three and a half days. I think the other students thought I was mad, particularly when, upon finishing I exclaimed “I appear to have made a pair of pork pies.”
They’re great though. I’ve showed them to a few friends and customers and each time the reaction has been a genuine ‘wow’.
I also made some of this bench using a fantastically expensive linen scrim that I’ve only ever seen in books. A huge pleasure to work with, and by now, having stitched and unpicked my little samplers so many times, I’m getting much better at making seat pads, quite good even.
Apart from improving at stitching hair pads, the other thing I wanted to learn was a Van Dyke Join. This is the seemingly impossible and mysterious art of joining fabric when deep buttoning. I’d never done it before because I’ve never had to make a piece of buttoned furniture large enough to warrant it (I have done a Chesterfield but not with buttons). And it looks so complicated in the books. Given the time available, I decided to make a deep buttoned stool in the traditional way and put a join in the fabric just for the sake of it.
It turned out to be one of the most simple tasks of all, which is more than can be said for my newly-learned deep buttoning technique of fastidious pinning and checking and un-pleating and re-pleating and not-rushing and making-sure-that-everything-is-perfect-at-every-stage.
I am so happy with this daft little pad that I’m keeping it detached from its rather ugly legs and hanging it in the workshop to be handed to people from time to time with the boisterous question “Can you see the join? No, didn’t think so.”
The Traditional Upholstery Workshop is excellent. It has exactly the right environment for proper learning. It is AMUSF accredited and most of the students are intending to carry out upholstery on a professional basis. Indeed, the past alumni are testament to this. There is exactly the right mix of having a chat with your benchmates and getting on with your work. With only 5 students to 2 teachers you never have to wait for attention.
And most importantly of all, the teachers Liz and Emily are both genuine experts. When you ask hopefully if your edge-roll is tight enough, Liz will quietly put on her leather gloves, unpick two stitches and with a tiny regulator somehow drag just the right amount of stuffing forward and say “It is now.”
It is one thing to be told how to do something but another thing altogether to be shown.