I entered the upholstery industry in 2001, first through my mom’s shop and then through the Professional Upholstery Association of Minnesota (PUAM)
That was when I first heard, “upholstery is a dying industry,”
I hate that phrase.
Hate, hate hate.
But I understand it. New furniture is cheaper than ever. Walmart is booming. Degree programs are just about wiped out.
It’s easy to get down, and I don’t blame those who came before me for being burned out. It’s exhausting to work in a field where your skills are too often unrecognized or undervalued. It’s impossible to grow a business if you can’t find skilled people to hire. It’s aggravating to defend your craft again and again when every other client asks, “Why is upholstery so expensive?????”
In 2001, I saw a maybe opportunity to work with my hands, to contribute in a field that valued sustainability. I saw a looming hole in the future, one I could prepare to meet while raising a family. ‘The demand for upholstery may be small,’ I thought, ‘But the supply of professionals is even smaller.”
So I chugged along in the upholstery field, networking and learning, and not earning very much money. I wasn’t thinking about teaching or self-employment, ooooooooh no! I was hoping a dream position would open up in someone else’s shop and I’d be first in line to grab it, YEAH!
For awhile I had a position with an up-and-coming shop and was feeling good. Unfortunately, they figured out that upholstery services were not generating enough revenue in-house, so the services got farmed out and my position evolved into sales. I won’t tag that shop, and I don’t fault them: it was what made sense. I stayed on for several years, learning a great deal about customer service and small business struggles.
Now I started thinking about education. . . Not in any big scale way, just in a, “People keep wandering in with questions, why don’t we teach them?” kind of way.
I wasn’t thinking about a revenue stream. I was thinking about grass roots marketing: invite people in. Teach them to appreciate this lovely little industry by trying it
So first I poked around Community Ed, hoping to find a partner who might take up our cause. Then I had the good fortune to partner with an excellent woodworker in NE Minneapolis for several years. Now I’m in my own space, still banging my head against education and the future of upholstery, still waiting for someone to show up and start solving all the challenges.
And guess what? Superman has not come leaping over tall buildings.
Degree programs that have closed do not appear to be coming back. Those that still exist are focused on manufacturing or design, not custom upholstery or restoration.
Are we doomed? Perhaps, but I think not. And at any rate, I plan to go down swinging.
Because while ding dongs like me were sitting around pining for the past, other folks were looking firmly at the future.
10 years ago, online upholstery education was appalling, a joke. Some of us cringed – others like Kim’s Upholstery got on YouTube and did better.
When colleges closed their doors, private shops like ModHomeEc stepped up and got to work.
When RePinned couldn’t find a mentor nearby, she found loads of them online. When she couldn’t find an upholstery job, she made her own.
Every time I teach, I’m delighted by the determination and creativity and gratitude of people coming into the shop, people who aren’t willing to wait on the sidelines while our trade slides quietly into the past.
The future of upholstery is now in the hands of scrappers and self-teachers, problem solvers and networkers. People who see the changing world and aren’t afraid to charge in.
And this is very good, very fortunate. Because the well-laid paths are long gone. We need pioneers.
So who will save the upholstery industry? We will.
Some of us will save it by being very very very very good at upholstery.
Some of us will save it by understanding social media.
Some of us will save it by teaching.
Some of us will save it by traveling in search of lost skills and techniques.
Some of us will save it by connecting with new markets.
Some of us will save it by being historians and storytellers.
Some of us will save it by being informed consumers.
I don’t think that upholstery is a dying industry. My schedule is slammed for the next 2-3 months. Three different shops called last week, even busier than me, to see if I could handle some overflow. No, upholstery is not a dying industry. . . but we can’t pretend it’s the SAME industry. We need to get very real about how to reach new clients, especially when bigger industries can reach them faster, and with lower prices. We need to figure out where our new professionals will come from, and get excited about them. We need to decide if we’re looking backward with sadness or forward with hope.
No, the cavalry is not coming to save our little industry. But we can save ourselves. I know it . . . I’ve seen it. . . . and I love it.
“I’m looking ahead to next year, discussing new opportunities with my advanced groups and the PUAM, looking for ways to write more and teach more. . . .If you’re interested in coming along, please subscribe to my blog and/or join my email list!” Cynthia 🙂