For several years, I had the good fortune to work under the tutelage of Diana Shroyer Guenther at A-1 Foam & Upholstery. She is one of the finest craftswomen I’ve ever met: I simply would not be the upholsterer I am today without her.
Her journey through this profession is a story worth retelling. I hope you enjoy it, and if you are a woman working in the industry today, I hope you’ll tip your hat to the brave women who came before us. . .
“When I was growing up my mom taught me and my sister how to sew: Clothes, curtains, everything. . . I liked sewing a lot.
I never tried to reupholster any furniture. I didn’t really know about upholstery, but I loved going to thrift stores.
When I got pregnant with Sheila, I was a single mom. When she was 3 months old, I got a job in manufacturing. I had great daycare. But I just hated it when I came home and they said, ‘oh she smiled or she did this’ you know, her first stuff . . .I said I can’t do this. I want to be the one.
For six months, I worked at a place that let me take piece work. home. That gave me the idea to find something to do at home – I was dating Terry and we were planning on getting married and having more kids . . .
So I looked into the vocational school and I saw upholstery. . . I thought that would be cool. I love to sew and thought it would be great to upholster furniture.
I started in 1976 – I signed up, only to find out that I was the fifth woman to ever take the course, and that originally Mr. Rodde didn’t think women could handle it . . . the first woman had to go to the governor to get in.
I remember when I walked into the class Mr Rodde and some of the students laughed. They looked at me and just kind of giggled cause you know, here I am, a woman, and a LITTLE woman. (Diana is 4’9”)
I think it had to do with abilities like lifting. But even the men, when you’d put a sofa up on sawhorses they would ask for help. When I was self-employed, and I would be by myself, I would just put one end up on the horse and I’d walk over and get the other end up, you know? When you don’t have two people, you do what it takes.
There were men that would sign up, and the first thing that Mr. Rodde had us do was sew. And some of the guys, within the first week they quit. They’d say, ‘I ain’t doing this. This is woman stuff’ [laughs]. So there was still that thinking, you know. . . that mentality that women do this, men do that.
What surprised me was I went into it because of sewing. When I got in there and realized how much framework there was, working with the springs, and all that stuff, I thought, ‘Holy sh*t, what’d I get into?!’
It was eighteen months but the first part of it we had to use tacks and hammers. It was more old school, the original upholstery ways. So I learned hair stuffing, the double stuffing and using the natural cotton, Marshall units for the cushions, hand sewing . . . I learned all that and then the last three months we could use our air staple gun.
When you do the tacks and hammer, you learn… you get fast at that tool.
I still use the tacks and hammer if I’m doing an antique piece and the customer wants it done original. It’s up to the customer: if they want it original or not. If they want it original, it’s preserving the original way it was done.
Most of us have customers that just want something redone, like, say it’s Grandma’s chair and the straw is all over the floor and they don’t want that . . . they just want to make it so that it looks good and they can use it without stuff falling out. I don’t think there’s one thing wrong with that. It depends on what the purpose of the chair is.
By the time I graduated, there were as many women as men coming in. They just saw the course and were interested in it, I think because of the creativity and stuff. . . before that, there were women interested, but they couldn’t take the class because they weren’t allowed to.
When I graduated, Mr. Rodde told me he realized how wrong he’d been. I graduated with an A, and ended up working with Julie and Darlene for a year . . . And we showed them, you know? I mean, I learned how to tie springs and do everything a man did, and I was a little woman. . . I think it just shocked him . . . he finally had to admit that women could do it. He told me he was wrong.
Mr Rodde wanted me to work down at Excelsior Upholstery or Gabbert’s. There was some some very high end upholstery shops that did work for the designers, but I didn’t want to drive that far.
We got married in 1978. By the time I started at home, Sheila was like eight years old. She was in school. But T.J. I had him after I started in 1979. I was working for me. I started my business, and I had him the next year in May.
Well, I forgot how much work a baby was. I figured I’d feed him and he’d sleep for four hours and I’d work [laughs]
T.J., he just grew up in the basement. We lived in Fridley, and I had a shop set up . . . I made a little play room area for him and I tried to get as much done as I could when he was napping. It was hard.
When my son was about maybe two years old, I was doing an antique chair so I was spitting tacks, and I didn’t want him to see me put tacks in my mouth. So I would make sure he wasn’t looking, and I’d put tacks in my mouth and then bring the hammer to my mouth . . . I put my hammer down, and pretty soon he picked it up and he just starts kissing it! He thought I was kissing it and pounding it, kissing it and pounding it! Like when he had a sore, or a boo boo and I’d kiss it . . .
I loved working at home, but when you have a deadline and you’ve got a lot of interruptions it’s stressful.
I did everything: I did my own bookkeeping, I did pick up and delivery, I did the estimate. . . I did help people pick out fabrics, which I didn’t enjoy as much, because I found that I showed them what I liked. You know, what do YOU like??
A lot of times during the day, I’d have to quit work and, say, bring T.J. to hockey or whatever. . . I’d have to put in a couple hours in the evenings in order to get whatever I needed to get done for the day. It’s a tradeoff.
I worked by myself for eighteen years. It was kind of learn-as-I-go, because of course, you don’t learn everything in eighteen months. So I’d get a piece and I’d think, ‘how in the heck did they do that?’and I’d have to figure it out. That was the advantage once I joined the upholstery association, and had people to ask. I think once, only once because I stubborn, I called Mr. Rodde, and asked him a question when I was really stumped.
Most of my business was word of mouth – I’d do stuff for somebody and then they would tell someone in their family . . . I got most of my work that way. I was a mom too, so I was busy. I didn’t want to have a three month backlog. I would get a backlog and that would make me nervous. So I didn’t do a lot of advertising. Most of my work was word of mouth, and that worked for me because slowly I built up a good clientele. Ten years later I was doing the same furniture over again, and that was fun.
My kids were grown, so I was by myself a lot. Baker Furniture was looking for somebody to fill in as furniture supervisor while Jill Julich was on vacation. I was a little slow at that time, and I thought, oh, that might be fun! So I did and I really liked it. It was like a different world. I went from being by myself to working with other people. Plus, you’d go there, punch a clock, do your work, punch a clock, and go home: you’re done. When you work for yourself, it is so stressful.
I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot working outside the home. When I started at Baker Furniture, we were doing furniture for designers. I was working with Jill, and she went to school under Steve Cone. So we were teaching each other. . .
I think there’s a lot of benefits of working with other people.
I would imagine it’s real frustrating for people who want to get into the field now, because there’s no full time schools.
It’s rare to find a home based business or a small business that will take someone on and train them because their time is involved in just getting the stuff done.
Even in manufacturing, whenever we would get really super busy and they would bring people in from temp services, it would slow the line down because we had to take time to teach them.
So a shop, to take somebody on, for a while they’re going to lose money. . . if people find a shop where they can learn on the job, they’re really fortunate.
You always got to start again at the bottom, no matter what job you do. You start at entry level . . . you show them what you know, and you learn what you don’t know, and and it just evolves.
It’s just sad, you know, that both schools discontinued their upholstery classes for computer classes, and now there’s a shortage of people with these labor skills. . . that just really saddens me. And what is going to happen, you know? Is it eventually nobody’s going to know how to do upholstery? That’s why I’m so glad that you chose to teach. . . I’m just so glad that you are doing that.
Your generation learns so much more from the Internet. I think it’s because they can Google, “How do I fix my chairs?” . . . There’s so much now on the Internet that they they’re starting to learn about, ‘Well, WOW, I can reupholster’. . You know, I think that’s just great. I think that’s really the ticket to getting the information out there.
One of the things, now that the green and repurposing is coming back, a lot of the younger generation don’t even know that you can reupholster your furniture. Have your friends and family, do stuff for them, just to get something in their house that they can share with their friends and family. “Hey, look what so-and-so did.” Get the word out! But then, you know, nowadays we’ve got Facebook and stuff like that. . . that’s really a bonus.
It’s never boring . . . every piece is different.
I’ve always just really enjoyed upholstery, it’s such a rewarding profession . . . you
get something and it looks like crap and then when you’re done, it looks so nice! And you save something from the dump, you know? You saved it from the landfill. . . I just get, I get such a feeling of accomplishment to do that . . . and, you know, I think I’m going to do it until I can’t do it anymore.”
After a long and busy career, Diana recently retired and is now back at home – doing upholstery for fun 🙂 To hear more from Diana on these and other topics, you can check out the LIVE INTERVIEW we recently did together on Facebook. If you want to meet Diana in person, you can find her every month at a PUAM meeting, where she serves as president to the organization.