About a year ago, I found myself at the cutting table in Hancock Fabrics, chatting with the sales clerk and my friend Ann while we waited for our purchases.
“She teaches upholstery classes,” Ann told the lady, gesturing at me.
“OH you don’t need upholstery classes!!!! You just take it apart and put it all back together!!!”
My friend was fairly appalled, I think, but I just half smiled and shrugged. While anybody who’s tried upholstery appreciates that a lot can happen between “Take it apart” and “Put it back together,” the clerk had a point: That’s pretty much the gist of things.
Obviously I believe in the value of quality upholstery education – if I didn’t, I’d make a pretty poor teacher. But I find myself with lots of time to consider why anybody ELSE should believe in it. I am fortunate to know many fine upholsterers, some who have degrees, some who are completely self-taught, and plenty that fall somewhere in between. So do you NEED classes? I don’t know. Maybe not. But maybe it’s a good idea. Let’s unwind this thread a bit . . .
“I’ll teach myself”
So here’s the thing: We ALL pay for our upholstery education, in one currency or another. If you take classes or get a degree (you lucky ducks who still can), you’re paying in good old fashioned cash. If you’re self-taught, on the other hand, you’re paying for your education with a heavy dose of trial-and-error and LOTS of sweat equity. If you have more time than money, or you fancy the perks of working from home, this might be a really good choice. My mom taught herself upholstery at home while she raised her kids. It worked well to figure things out on her own in the hours around and between parenting duties. However, it also meant that unfamiliar or technically challenging projects (such as her first channeled chair) took her weeks, maybe months. It meant she did her own tiresome research, pouring over book after book, trying plenty of things that DIDN’T work before finding something that DID. It occasionally meant reordering fabric out of pocket for a second or third go at something tricky. She may not have paid for classes, but if time is money, she spent plenty of it.
“But wait! What if I learn on the job??”
Woo hoo! This was my plan of attack, more or less, and it worked well for me. When I was starting out, I valued the consistency of a steady-if-unremarkable income and I liked the security blanket of working in someone else’s business. However, my path had its own price tag: Lots and lots of time doing the unremarkable or undesirable work. Customer service, simple upholstery, cushion replacements, hours of repetitive cutting and answering the phone. Learning on the job tends to be heavy on the “job” and light on the “learning” as any child of an upholsterer will tell you – you learn the trade, but first you have to make a whole lot of buttons and tear back a whole lot of furniture. Whatever a shop pays you, they have to be able to recoup and then some. Any work that’s delegated has to be cost effective and of professional quality. That doesn’t lend itself well to coaching someone through an edgewire-spring-system. But it lends itself VERY well to, “Tear back this sofa” and “Cut 400 yards of welt cord.”
“So what about classes?”
Classes cost money. Less for online, more for in person. Less for an occasional workshop, more for a degree (you lucky ducks). Is it worth it? Let’s outline the perks.
-Access to professional quality tools/supplies
One really tough aspect to self teaching is the start-up costs. I won’t lie: the right tools and materials make life a WHOLE lot easier, whether you’re a newbie or a pro. It’s really hard to be successful if you’re struggling with the wrong tools or low quality supplies, and all too often, that’s what is available to the DIY market. But unless you’re full-time-whole-hog, you probably aren’t stoked to spend $1,500 on an industrial machine, or to bring in 4 sizes of button molds and a press. Education gives you access to all the goodies for a much smaller investment in the short run.
Guess what? Even with a professional skill set, I almost never work at home. Somehow my time disappears, and trying to create workspace is an aggravation I can barely tolerate. It’s just so much more efficient to work in a proper space within a dedicated time. If you’re serious about growing your skill set, you too may find it helpful to build regular time into your schedule – and you’ll feel much more successful in a dedicated space that’s ready to go.
– Individualized instruction
One of the trickiest things about mastering upholstery is that every project is different and none of them is covered step-by-step in a book. A knowledgeable upholsterer can look at a project and pull from a wealth of experience to customize a successful approach. They can modify techniques to suit unique situations. They can devise solutions that you won’t find detailed in any blog or video. Working with an instructor will help you understand the process of identifying/mastering techniques AND how to mix/match/modify them to fit new and unexpected situations.
-You don’t know what you don’t know
My first instructor was my mom, who was very successfully self-taught. Nonetheless, I was surprised when I first worked at another shop. Even feeling very qualified for the position, I was shocked at how much I didn’t know I didn’t know. “SURE, I know how to tie springs! Edgewire?? No problem, I read a BOOK!!!! Wait, what? That’s not right??? Ummmmmmm. . . “ Though occasionally humbling, working under the supervision of other upholsterers greatly increased my skills, my speed and my standards. This is no insult to my mom or any other self-taught professional. I can only say that I personally would have had a hard time getting to where I am on my own.
In any field, networking is invaluable. That’s perhaps more so in a small field. However it may look from the outside, upholstery is a tricky career path – there are no flow charts and precious few degree programs. Technical skill is MAYBE the most important part of being an upholsterer, but it’s by no means the ONLY important part. There are many ways to gain insight into the whole trade (facebook groups, professional organizations, helping in a shop) but it’s certainly a perk of education, whatever your goals might be.
-Education as the primary goal
Only when you have an instructor is education the primary goal. Certainly certainly certainly you can learn a good deal working under someone else. You can find generous insight online through various groups and pages. But at the end of the day, any professional has to focus first and foremost on keeping their business in the black. If they don’t, they won’t be around for long. When you pay for instruction, you can expect that your education is the number one priority.
One of my favorite reasons: It’s just really FUN to work in a space with other like-minded individuals. Everyone we connect with has something to teach us. It’s hard to discover your best self in a vacuum. Everyone you encounter has the power to teach you, inspire you, motivate you, challenge you . . . When you step into a workshop, you learn from every person and every project in it.
IN CONCLUSION . . .
The bottom line is this: You can learn upholstery without classes.
I did . . .
Still, I wish I would have had the option.
I was lucky to have my mom’s support, and a series of jobs that gave me access to skilled and encouraging people. Nonetheless, it took me a solid 10 years to feel MOSTLY comfortable calling myself a professional, and another 5 to open a shop. I’m kind of a chicken, but still. . . It was a slow and daunting road.
When I was learning, it seemed that upholstery classes were a thing of the past. I struggled to understand new techniques from books. I was appalled by what passed for “upholstery education” online. I was frustrated for myself and every other person trying to learn. I was frustrated for my trade, being reduced all too often to one page tutorials that offered only quick fixes and shortcuts.
Thankfully, I feel like this is changing. Gradually, professionals are opening their shops, in person or online. Consumers are seeking out quality instruction in all forms. I feel good about being part of that change. Sometimes, all you need is a one page tutorial, or your own pluck and ingenuity. But sometimes it’s nice to have more . . .
There are so many ways to learn upholstery. Obviously, the clerk I met is happy as a clam learning on her own. Are you? If so, with all my heart, I wish you the best on your upholstery journey. If, however, you feel like there is value in taking classes, I hope that you do. If you’re close to St. Paul (or fancy a road trip), I’d love to see you at The Funky Little Chair. If you can’t get to us, I hope there’s a class in your area, or that you consider learning online. There are so many ways to learn. I hope you can find a few that work for you.
“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.” Chinese proverb