How to make upholstery your career (and whether or not you really want to.)

As a professional upholsterer, I often hear things like, “Oh you are so LUCKY! This is my dream job!!!” I suppose professional knitters and bakers and florists are in the same boat. And believe me, I get it – I DO have a very cool job. I get to work with beautiful fabrics and tear apart old interesting furniture. . . I get to problem solve every day . . . I  work with my hands in a world that is increasingly digital . . . I cross paths with many interesting and artistic people. . .

But. BUT.
Upholstery as a profession is not for everyone, and it’s a good deal more than the fun artsy aspects you see on social media (hooray!) So before you quit your day job, I’m here to give you an insider’s take on upholstery as a full time career – what to consider before you take the plunge, and how to proceed once you’re sure.
Hobby: an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.
One of my high school teachers used to say, “Major in something you hate – you’re going to end up hating it anyway.” He was a pretty funny guy. But this appalling advice is well worth considering – taking something you love and trying to wring an income from it often changes everything we loved about it in the first place. This is why my music ed degree is gathering dust. This is why I teach a couple of fitness classes in my spare time. FOR ME these things make good hobbies.  There are certainly folks who have turned music or fitness into fulfilling and profitable careers, but for me, worrying about the income kind of wrecked the whole thing.
So here are a few factors to seriously consider before you dive headlong into your upholstery career:
  • SPEED.  Hobbies can be done in our own time. We can savor the process and walk away if we’re frustrated or busy. A professional is going to go out of business pretty fast if they can’t turn enough work to pay the bills and write a paycheck. Every. Single. Week. The target workload varies from shop to shop, but I personally completed about 80 projects this year, from cushion sets to sofa overhauls. I also teach, so this is undoubtedly much lower than an upholsterer who draws their full income from client work.
  • QUALITY. Speed and quality are opposite sides of the same coin, and as a professional, you need to focus on both. I won’t lie: this can be very stressful. It takes a long time to achieve consistently professional results and even longer to achieve them at a professional speed. When upholstery is your hobby, it’s totally reasonable to accept minor imperfections here and there. But when it’s for a client, every detail needs to be darn near perfect.
  • CLIENT/PROJECT SELECTION.  If upholstery was my hobby, I would take projects for family and friends only – work I enjoy for people I enjoy working with.  As a professional, I’m still selective about what I do and for whom (as any professional should be) but I have to consider the bottom line. This means I’ve had a fair share of icky conversations with friends and family – with expenses to clear and kids to feed, I can’t fill my schedule with deeply discounted work. I hate these conversations. They make me feel gross. But if this is my job, I have to treat it like one.  If you have a long list of friends and family excited to send you work, it’s a good start, but be forewarned that many casual inquiries never turn into real, profitable projects, and that there is a LONG road between “I have a chair” and “Here is my check.” It’s not uncommon to book a job months (or occasionally YEARS) after a client initally makes contact.
  • “THE UNEXPECTED.” When students encounter “The Unexpected”, they occasionally trash the project, or pay to have it finished, or finish it the best they can with mediocre results. “The Unexpected” is expected in upholstery, and once you’re into a client project, it’s pretty much your problem. Sometimes it’s a matter of struggling with the unfamiliar,  working unpaid overtime to problem solve and catch up.  Sometimes it’s telling the client that there’s a problem with the frame or the fabric or the plan you had discussed together. Sometimes “The Unexpected” is a really difficult customer. Believe me, there will be days when you’ll wish for a time machine so you can go back and TURN THIS ^&*$$$@@ PROJECT DOWN!!!!!!  But until that technology exists, handling “The Unexpected” is in the job description.
  • ALL THE ASPECTS OF SELF-EMPLOYMENT (PROBABLY)  I can’t speak for every market, but in Minnesota, the days of large upholstery shops are gone. I tried for years to do upholstery as an employee and thereby duck the added responsibilities of self-employment. Eventually, I gave up and wrote my own job description. Almost every professional I know has had to hire him/herself. That means worrying about taxes and prices and supplies and rent and customer service and marketing AND AND AND. . . It’s all a necessary part of getting work through your door, and it probably won’t be your favorite part. But as one of my friends likes to say, “The busiest upholsterers I visit aren’t necessarily the best upholsterers I visit.” Being great at upholstery is only one aspect of what the career requires.
Still there??
I like my bad news delivered first, so my apologies if you’re currently discouraged. But let’s talk about the good news. THE GREAT NEWS:
It’s absolutely possible to make a good living as a professional upholsterer.
When I sat down to decide what I should do as a brand-new adult, I laid out the career possibilities and realized that upholstery was an excellent option. The demand for upholstery may be relatively small, but the supply of professionals is even smaller. With most degree programs closed, upholsterers are retiring faster than they’re being replaced – most of them with giant client lists. If you have the skills, desire and dedication, there is a potential market for your services.
But of course the question remains: “HOW DO I GET INTO THIS AS A PROFESSION?”
It’s a question I get from students and it’s a really, really tough one to answer. Once upon a time, most people finished a two year degree program and then a 2 year apprenticeship in an established shop. For most of us, this traditional path is off the table. Still, the diploma was never really the point: The skills and experience were. More good news: YOU CAN STILL GET THOSE THINGS, HOORAY!!! Just expect to think outside of the box, because your path is bound to be fairly unique.
Still, after years of long ruminations and longer conversations, I’ve been able to draw together a general outline and some realistic suggestions that I hope you’ll find helpful. May I proudly present . . .
CYNTHIA’S GUIDE TO BECOMING A PROFESSIONAL UPHOLSTERER!!!! (APPLAUSE!!!)
STEP #1: TRY IT . . . A LOT.
Get a good sense of what upholstery actually IS. Surprise!!! You’re going to destroy your fingernails and get super messy and the inside of furniture can be gross beyond description. You’ll be challenged and frustrated. There are no step-by-step instructions and very few “rules.” Every project is different and you have to think flexibly. A fair percentage of our students only learn that they really don’t like upholstery. “This is way harder than I thought it would be!” Yes and yes.
Trying it might mean some DIY adventures at home with the assistance of books, videos and trial and error. Hopefully it means classes, if classes are available in your area. In increasingly rare instances, it might mean a degree program. But let’s assume not.
The point is to give yourself a solid exploratory period. I was lucky and helped at my mom’s shop all through my childhood (Guess what? I hated it. Mostly I took things apart and was really bad at it.) But there are all kinds of ways to casually explore upholstery and get a taste.
STEP #2: EXPAND . . . GRADUALLY.
Now begins the exploratory/growth phase. You’re highly unlikely to find a traditional apprenticeship, but don’t despair – look around and work with what you have.
Many professionals started out as hobbyists and gradually expanded through word of mouth. If you have time to build, this is a great way to go. Take the projects that feel comfortable, or challenge you a little. Stay away from projects that are totally out of your wheelhouse or clients that make you nervous. If you’re taking classes, find people with projects to pay your fees and materials. Don’t overpromise: Give yourself the luxury of time and be honest with people that you are still learning. You’ll find plenty of people who are excited to bring you projects and you can gradually increase your skills and referral network. You can also seek out places to sell your work – antique or specialty stores, pop-up sales, etc. These may not be the most lucrative opportunities, but there’s far less risk than tearing into someone’s heirloom chair – if people don’t like it, they don’t buy it. If YOU don’t like it, you can stick it in the garage. It’s a great way to get practice and put a little something back in your pocket. It can also lead to new customers who’ve already seen and liked your work. Over time, you can increase your speed, prices and workload.
Another option is to work in the field – don’t get excited just yet. If you’re able to find a paid position doing the “fun stuff” in somebody else’s shop, count yourself lucky beyond measure. Most shops are small, and if they hire anyone, it will likely be casual and the pay won’t be much. You’ll get the simplest and most repetitive tasks. Don’t take that personally. A small business has to make decisions based on delivering quality work in a timely manner while somehow staying in the black. That model does not generally allow for tons of instructional time. Be open to the possibility of upholstery RELATED tasks and a heavy dose of grunt work. My first two full-time jobs were supervising in a manufacturing facility and doing upholstery/customer service for an area foam retailer (heavy on the customer service). Nothing so glamorous, but it provided an income, experience, and networking. I learned a LOT through repetition. I got paid while someone else absorbed most of the risk. Working in manufacturing increased my speed and taught me how to structure a commercial job for maximum efficiency. It provided opportunities to work with vinyl and do some teaching. Working in retail gave me a serious dose of customer service. It taught me the importance of good communication and how to organize workflow. It gave me a good set of policies regarding things like down payments, documentation and pricing. I learned supplies and foam in great detail. That may not sound exciting, but it ALL adds to my credibility and skill set. Don’t think you’re too good for “easy” work – every Master Upholsterer began at the bottom. The upholstery industry is small, and it’s good to have plenty of bridges intact.
STEP #3: GO FOR IT . . . WITH A PLAN!
Make a business plan. Write it down. With actual numbers. Again, everybody’s plan is different, so don’t expect to find this in a book or copy from another shop. Some folks work at home with very little overhead. Others need to cover the expense of a store front. Some shops work exclusively through designers. Others specialize in  commercial work or traditional upholstery or automotive. Nobody can decide how your business is structured besides you. But you CAN find great books and blogs on making a business plan –  and you should. Many cities also have business mentoring programs where you can ask your questions and get advice. Hopefully, steps #1 and #2 gave you plenty of insight and connections and experience from which to launch your career. Your plan probably won’t succeed right away and you’ll definitely tweak it as you go, but at least you’ll have a framework, and that will greatly increase your chances of success.
One last thing . . .
I think it’s well worth saying at this point that you don’t HAVE to get to Step #3. Or even Step #2. Sometimes students take one class and immediately start panicking about how to go pro. Deep breath. Give the process time. There is a whole gray scale of ways to exist in the upholstery industry.

Maybe it’s always going to be your favorite hobby, doing a few projects for family and friends, covering your expenses and honing your skills for great personal satisfaction.

Maybe it’s an enjoyable side job that pays for a vacation or two each year.

Maybe it’s one of 2 or 3 part time occupations that together feed your pocket and your soul.

Maybe the day comes when you’re ready to go pro. . . And maybe it doesn’t.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters most in the end.”

Ernest Hemingway

Happy travels!

Cynthia 🙂

4 thoughts on “How to make upholstery your career (and whether or not you really want to.)

  1. Deborah Collier says:

    This was extremely helpful and enlightening. I grew up sewing and recently worked for a light upholstery studio for two years. My children are now grown and I’m ready to do this. I’m not experienced enough to do sofas, but as you say, there’s a lot of room in the industry. I mainly wonder about how to acquire clients.

    Like

    • thefunkylittlechair says:

      I’m glad you found this helpful! There’s no one way to go about it, but I’d say just start by working your network – church, neighborhood, family/friends, social media – wherever you’re connected, start putting out feelers and be open to whatever opportunities present. If you worked for a light upholstery studio in the past, connect back with them perhaps to see if they have any work they’d like to contract out . . . The best clients usually come by good old fashioned word of mouth 🙂 Good luck! Cynthia

      Like

  2. tawnycs says:

    I love this. I appreciate hearing about the gritty side of a profession that tends to look glamorous from an outsiders perspective. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on approaching a professional about learning directly from them as an apprentice. Taking on a student probably isn’t everyone’s dream so I’m wondering what I could offer in return other than free labor. Really any thoughts from you would be so great!

    Like

    • thefunkylittlechair says:

      I’m glad you found something helpful in this! It’s so tricky for people right now, in the industry and trying to come into the industry! If you have time to work your way up slowly and can find a shop to bring you in, it’s a wonderful way to learn upholstery. I would caution you to expect a lot of shops to say no – it’s actually a pretty common request, and even a person working for free tends to slow a shop down for awhile. I’m not so sure I’d offer free labor, as most upholsterers I know would be uncomfortable accepting that – but perhaps a willingness to do the menial work that actually saves the shop time – tear back, clean-up, that kind of thing. If you have any related skills (sales, computer etc) they can also be a foot in the door, especially with bigger shops. Wish I had a more cohesive answer! Put feelers out like crazy, hopefully you connect with someone who’s ready for help. Good luck! Cynthia

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s