I’m an upholsterer: Diane Parlin

My mom, Diane Parlin, first learned sewing in the Philippines, where she attended high school while her parents worked as missionaries. She took pattern making & garment sewing through the University of Manila, tediously working on an old fashioned treadle machine. It was not love at first sight.

After moving back to the U.S. in 1972 at the age of 18, Diane met and fell in love with Mike Parlin, a young Army veteran studying to be an automotive mechanic. Together, they spent weekends drag racing cars and planning their future.

After getting married, Diane was determined to stay home and raise her kids, but she needed a way to supplement the family income. So she put out feelers for 4 potential at-home revenue streams: childcare, typing, ironing and sewing. Eventually, a meandering path led her to owning her own upholstery business. Knowing her has taught me a great deal about the power of determination, resourcefulness and (naturally) upholstery: This is her story . . .

Mike had a little bit of his GI bill left – he had attended Dunwoody for auto mechanics and he had a little left when we saw this correspondence course in one of the automotive magazines,  Auto Upholstery Institute.  It was 30 lessons and they’d send you a lesson and everything you needed to do it. We learned tools, we learned fabrics and vinyls and padding and foam. We had to build a car seat that was actually cardboard, a kit.  You made the cover and sent it back for grading. That was the final, to do this seat in miniature that showed your stitching skills and all of it.

We thought we might get a shop that was mechanic/upholstery auto. That was the original plan, but with kids we needed regular income and benefits.

I did get licensed as a daycare, but the problem with daycare was that I like my own kids better than anyone else’s. It wasn’t worth the stress.

My sewing machine came through the school. The first one came and the table was broken –  they’d dumped it off the truck. So it had to be sent back, and a second one sent out, which was pretty funny for the guy who brought it. . . or not.

I paid $1,500 for it in 1975.  It’s the only machine I’ve ever owned.

I do personal automotive because I have the ability to, but I’m not doing automotive on the open market. Anything you remove from an automobile, chances are you’re dealing with different tools and MN rust.  I’d rather work with wood than anything that’s embedded in metal.

The first actual job I did was for Rattan and Wicker and that was all sewing. After that, I put it in the Anoka Shopper that I would do cushions, dining room chairs. . . You know, the relatively simple jobs. Then it’d be,  “I saw those cushions you did, I saw those dining room chairs, could you do this?” And I’d look at it and go “Well, that isn’t very different.”  It just slowly built.

It got to the point where I was making more with the upholstery than I was with Rattan and Wicker. They were paying me $1.50 a piece and were sending me the more difficult cuts, you know, the buttons and the welting and the straps . . .  I had enough upholstery coming in that that’s where I made the switch.

I didn’t start out with high expectations of a full time job, I started out trying to make enough money to cover a grocery bill.

The main problem I had at first was that every job needed something different. and when I’m having to invest 25-50% into a new button size, or welt, zipper, dacron, cotton . . .  it was tight the first couple years.

When I was learning, I’d go to the library, get a book, read it. Now you can go online and find a video of anything. Watching someone do it is a whole lot easier to follow.

I did a channel back for Aunt Peg and Uncle Larry and I’d never done a channel back. I read every book, every book had a different method and I tried one that made sense to me. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like how it was done, I didn’t like the way it looked. So I think I did that channel back 5 times, got more material, did it again out of another recommendation, until I finally got where I had the style that I liked.  Channeling is what I considered my hardest thing to learn.

There are a lot of different methods.  You keep trying it until you find one that you’re comfortable doing, one that your hands are comfortable with. The method I use works for me. It might not work for other people, but it works for me.

(Regarding education)  It’s going to save you a whole lot of time to at least have the basics. I had to do the basics on my own and it was probably five years in before I was comfortable. Even now, stuff comes in that you’re going, “Where do I start?!”  Like a chaise that came in recently. I hadn’t seen anything like that in 35 years – it was a first.

The more knowledgeable you are, the better you come across to your customers. If you just go in and go, well okay, I can do that and you have no advice on foam and you have no advice on springs and you have no advice on fabrics, you come across as more DIY than any kind of professional, so the education is important. It makes you more comfortable and confident in your ability to take on some of these jobs.

(When asked her most embarrassing moment) The kids were little and everyone in kindergarten had glue sticks for their arts and crafts projects. You just rolled them out and there was glue!  So I ordered glue sticks from FSI and I bent it and I pushed it and I cut it with a razor blade and I’m like, “Where the heck’s the glue???”  So I called FSI and I said, “How do you get the glue out??” and he was like, “Uhhhhhh you use a hot glue gun.” So that was my most embarrassing moment. I always told the kids don’t tell me that you feel stupid because everyone can do stupid stuff and they’re not stupid.

(On her biggest frustration) My main thing is customers who want Kravet work for S.R. Harris prices. They want the best, top of the line material for $8 yard and their attitude toward labor is the same way. Those people drive me crazy.

At this point returning and referral are probably 80% of my business. It makes it a lot easier because you don’t have people walk in going, “Well, do you know what you’re doing?” as much as you do when you start.

A customer came from way South because she said “I called three decorators and they all said you.” That’s a compliment. To hear that makes me very proud.

I just enjoy coming to work because there’s always something new – you rarely work on the same thing more than two days in a row. I love antique furniture, especially it it’s a family piece. I love people taking the time to save grandpa’s couch or chair or whatever. I just enjoy the upholstery itself.

You can find Diane Parlin most days at her shop in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota. If you don’t see her right away, check around back – she might be outside enjoying a good book.

1 thought on “I’m an upholsterer: Diane Parlin”

  1. What a wonderful story! Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s so encouraging to me that you just worked at it and did what you could and kept on through all the changes of life. Thank you!

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