Worst First Upholstery Project

Meet Virginia! (Are you singing the song???)

Cynthia and Virginia

Virginia is a recent Weekend Warrior – three times over, actually!

NOW meet Virginia’s chair!!!!!!!

It’s GORGEOUS, isn’t it????? But let’s talk  . . .

Back in September, a gal named Nancy was the first person EVER to sign up for a Weekend Warriors Workshop. She had so much fun that she talked her sister into signing up, too – meet Virginia! (Sing it!!!! SING IT!!!!!)

Ahhhhhhh, like many would-be students, Virginia was ever so excited to jump in on her favorite chair, a wonderful old WING CHAIR!!!!!

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She also fell in love with a HUGE REPEAT!!!!! And made it clear that she’s VERY PICKY about things lining up!!!!!!

Now, my dears, I’m a middle child: peace making and negotiation are what we do. I rarely deliver a hard NO on potential projects – occasionally, but not often. I don’t want to squelch anyone’s budding upholstery enthusiasm, or scare them away forever. . .

But I also don’t want anyone blindsided,  homicidally frustrated  in my shop, with a half finished project, or 50 hours into something they assumed would take 10. And  I REALLY don’t want to get yelled at. Middle child, remember?

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I want people to be happy and successful,  challenged, but NOT overwhelmed. I want people to make informed decisions about their investment of time and money. I want them to have realistic expectations, so they aren’t disappointed with a reasonable outcome.

So. I didn’t say NO . . .But I DID say things like,

“Hmmmmm, it’s definitely not an ideal first project.”

“First projects are usually far from perfect. Even with our best intentions, some things just take loads of practice”

“My concern is that it may turn into a ‘forever project'”

“Most students take 30-40 on their first wing chair, and that doesn’t include pattern matching, or foundation work”

“I’d say be prepared to take several sessions, AND do lots of homework”

“Eat your Wheaties and prepare for imminent frustration”

We finally agreed on tackling the matching ottoman first. It would provide a nice introduction to many of the tools and techniques Virginia would need to complete her chair – but with an attached cushion, boxed/welted top, a patterned fabric and double welt, it was a 500 level project in and of itself. I’ll be honest: I lost a bit of sleep worrying about how terribly this weekend might go:

  • I’ve seen grown men humbled at the sewing machine for weeks.
  • I’ve been raged at in parking lots by little old ladies.
  •  I’ve seen so many people lose their minds halfway through the project they were ABSOLUTELY SURE they wanted to tackle first.
  • And you’d better believe, I’ve been brought to tears by a few evil projects of my own. 

But here comes a hard truth: Like so many other things, there’s just NO WAY to appreciate the time and skill involved in upholstery until you try it. I can tell people until I’m blue in the face, but they’ll never believe me. . . until they try it. It’s one of the lovely fringe benefits of education, actually: Love it or hate, everyone leaves with a deeper appreciation for this little craft, yay!  🙂

So back to Virginia:

With guidance, she did her tear back at home, a task that can easily eat up hours. Normally, we ask that new students NOT tear back at home – the documentation process is important, and if the padding and foundation get destroyed, the labor time triples in a hurry. But Virginia had the guidance of her sister, a past participant, who knew what was expected. So we were able to dive right in on the cutting and sewing, woo hoo!!!

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Now here’s the thing: Virgina killed it. I mean seriously, I was blown away. She was impressively competent at the sewing machine, hallelujah, and moved through about as proficiently as any Weekend Warrior I’ve seen. Time estimates are impossible – we give best guesses based on past students, but really, people land all over the map, and the perfectionists are worst by far – equal parts slow and painfully crippled with angst (Love you guys!)

 I didn’t think Virginia was slow by any stretch – in fact I was elated! She, however, was not. She was physically wiped, mentally wrecked, and visibly anxious. I was shocked by her assessment of the situation – her results were so atypical that I hesitated to share her project photos

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“I don’t want to give first-time students unrealistic expectations.”

With a crazed look and hair poking out in several directions, Virginia declared,

“GIVE THEM MY PHONE NUMBER!!!!! I’LL TELL THEM TO LISTEN TO YOU!!!!!!”

I thought that was very entertaining and generous, and of course, I thought she was joking. . .

So we chatted about the chair, and Virginia really, really debated whether to bail. At this point, I was cheerfully optimistic. She’d demonstrated all the necessary skills, with aplomb! I knew she’d agree to homework AND ACTUALLY DO IT! I mean, REALLY, this thing was as good as done (you know . . . ALMOST)

She later admitted that, despite my words of caution, she’d felt convinced of leaving with an entire finished project that first weekend. Really, how hard could it be??? Oops. 

More homework. More Wheaties. Round 2. 

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This time, Virginia learned the frustrating reality of trying to match a large repeat on the curves and angles of a chair.

Perfectionists be warned: Reality’s a b****

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But again! She came out like a champ and just about wrapped up the inside of the chair. And again! I was more elated than she – remember, 30-40 hours on a wing chair, so 12 hours to finish the inside (BEAUTIFULLY!) was seriously wrecking the curve. This time, she even asked for an estimate on having the chair finished. I hate doing that for students. I mean, I WILL . . .  grudgingly, but if you came for the satisfaction of doing-it-yourself, I want you to LEAVE with the satisfaction of doing it yourself . . .

So another pep talk. Another offer by Virginia to accept phone calls from students (and now also clients!!!!) who might be thinking upholstery is some kind of cake walk. Ah Virginia, you make me smile 🙂

Round 3!!!

This time, Virginia came with her sister, brother AND niece – how fun is that???!!!

Weekend Warriors

Finish the cushion, outside the frame. Dive in on the double welt (already cut – HOMEWORK!)  While Virginia finished the frame, I used downtime to sew up some of her miles and miles of double welt. We wanted to ensure that she could finish at home if time ran short.

I checked: She didn’t feel that I was “depriving her of the experience.”

Again, Virginia reminded me, “I’m serious. You tell people to come and talk to me.”

Never in a million years would I give out a student’s personal cell phone. Virginia is way too nice to get yelled at by strangers about springs and cushions.

But imagine my surprise when she wandered away and came back with a letter 😀 This letter is now hanging in my shop, and I asked permission to share it here, along with Virginia’s story, project and words. I hope you’ll enjoy:

Virginia's letter

For the record, Cynthia is NOT unlucky in the least! She has the best job/clients/students in the world – including Virginia 😀

Here’s the thing with advice on project selection, especially FIRST project selection: It’s really tricky. I don’t know FOR SURE how fast or handy or successful or frustrated you’ll be.  All I can give is my best guess. . . It’s an informed guess, but a guess nonetheless, one that presumes you’re quite competent, and quite determined – most students are! But folks who dive right in at the deep end go one of a few ways:

  • They are completely frustrated, overwhelmed, and very possibly angry.
  • They never finish
  • They finish, but in three times as many classes and they’d wanted to pay for.
  • They finish, but with half the standards they’d hoped to achieve
  • They retain very little, because they’re crashing through two dozen different techniques like a bull in a china shop.
  • They never come back.
  • OR they come back with something simpler and have a more successful and enjoyable experience, hooray!

When I say start small, it’s because I hope you’ll enjoy yourself, and have room to be mindful of the process. I hope you’ll retain a few key versatile tips. I hope you’ll experience enough upholstery to decide if you like it . . . if you DO, I hope to see you again! And again! And again! If NOT, I hope that you had fun, and maybe even finished a little upholstered treasure of your own.

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I’m not saying this to scare or discourage or dishearten you: If you want to learn, I want to teach. But no joke: Upholstery is tough! Ask any old pro how many years they banked before they felt confident, before they felt FAST.  Ask how their first few projects turned out. Ask if they’re still learning, after all these years.

That’s what makes this a proud craft. That’s what makes it art. If you want to learn, oh yes, I want to teach. And if you want to KEEP learning, I hope you someday look back with pride at just how far you’ve come since that very first day.

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Will we see Virginia again? I hope so! After she finishes her double welt, and maybe enjoys a stiff drink in her reupholstered chair. Perhaps before her next class, she’ll have time to check out this great Pinterest board called, “Good First Upholstery Projects

And if Virginia tries to drag in a ratty old chesterfield or vintage recliner, well . . . this one student said I could hand out her phone number 🙂

CLASSES ARE CURRENTLY FULL, BUT WE’LL POST WEEKEND WORKSHOPS AND ADVANCED GROUPS FOR FALL – SIGN UP FOR OUR MAILING LIST TO JOIN IN THE FUN!

And of course, check out our SUMMER WORKSHOPS to sign up for great special events in June and July!

Cynthia 🙂

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5 thoughts on “Worst First Upholstery Project

  1. Nancy sandahl says:

    Virginia, you did such a nice job on that chair. As many times as I joked with you about you being anal about stuff these past weekend warriors I spent with you, it had been so memorable for years to come for me. A little of that anal might have rubbed off on me, when I looked at how tremendously beautiful. That chair is. I am planning on taking another few classes. I hope you at least come have lunch with me at the workhorse. Love love, your little sister. Nancy

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  2. Jenny Wood says:

    What a great post. I love reading these!! You are such a great teacher Cynthia! I have NO doubt that you are in the right place. Keep on keepin’ on! 😉

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  3. Virginia says:

    Thanks for all the great comments. The only reason I took the class, was Nancy said she would help me. I think this is why Cynthia let me do with the project to begin with. Nancy bailed on me before the first class even started. I said to Nancy if this is not done by the end of the second class this project will never be done. I was still trying to guilt her into helping me. I was angry at myself for agreeing to take the class I was angry with Nancy for not helping me. I was angry at the fact that I couldn’t find the material I really wanted. I was so angry I couldn’t appreciate how beautiful it was turning out until I was gluing the double welt on the first part of the chair. I wouldn’t go back to help someone else with their project. I have 8 Duncan Phyfe chairs to recover. My material is a tone-on-tone. I don’t think I have to match a pattern from chair to chair. How hard can this be?!?!

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