Do You Upholster the Right Way?

Alright, that title is deliberate upholstery click bait. . . But I want to tell you something, and please bear with me.

Here’s a secret truth about upholstery:  It’s really, really, really, really easy to tear someone’s work apart.

I don’t mean in the literal sense. I mean figuratively. If I were inclined to do so, I could walk into any shop in the world INCLUDING MY OWN and find something to criticize. It would take very little effort, very little imagination.

That’s because upholstery is not only extremely challenging: it’s also (another secret truth) extremely subjective. Guaranteed, my idea of “perfect” isn’t the same as yours or the upholsterer down the street.

Last week, I had a 20 minute conversation with a client about 3 pillows. Where should the zippers go? What stripe should we center on? What direction should the welt cord go? I usually make my covers slightly smaller than the inserts, was she good with that, or had she anticipated leaving with 16″ covers? I was happy to share my thoughts, but it the end, it was HER idea of “perfect” that mattered.

And while I’m at it, here’s another thought: Is “perfect” even a thing in upholstery? To be honest, I don’t think so. At least, I’ve never achieved it, and people tell me I’m pretty good (awwwww)

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On any day of the week, on any given project, I could list a dozen tiny things I wish I could have done JUST a little better.

There’s ALWAYS something.

So what we do, unless you hide in a closet and never share your work . . .  it leaves you pretty wide open to criticism.

I don’t know about you, but I find that scary.

The reason I’m writing about this now is because of Aunt Bea. When I teach, I make decisions based primarily on what’s quantifiable – I want to make skills as structured and straightforward as possible, especially if I’m introducing them to someone for the first time (or trying to shoehorn them into a video format)

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For one of my advanced students, or for a client, there would have been extra considerations, bits and tweaks and additional steps.

So I’m feeling a tad vulnerable,  you see.

I have put something out there, very publicly, that’s not quite up to my own “professional standards.” For good reasons, yes yes!  But nonetheless, there it is, at 3am, making me all kinds of crazy, wondering who’s going to show up and shred me in the comments.

Now I didn’t get on here to whine about my insecurities – we’re learning to get along just fine. But it really got me thinking. . .

If I’ve been at this for almost 2 decades and I’ve had a lot of great teachers and loads and loads of practical experience. . . . If I’M feeling vulnerable, how the heck are people feeling that are just starting out? Maybe people who are mostly self-taught? People without access to mentors or degree programs or regular hands-on education? Because that’s a lot of people!!!!! And we need these people to keep learning!!!!!!

So here’s my point:

For Pete’s sake, BE NICE TO EACH OTHER!

I want to scream it from the rooftops. STOP TEARING PEOPLE DOWN ON SOCIAL MEDIA!!!!

Stop acting like there’s only one RIGHT way!!!!

Now I’m not talking about condoning low standards. What I AM talking about is not shutting down the conversation by being a grade A snob.

My skills have never improved because someone made me feel stupid and inexperienced. Never. Never ever. Not even once.

But my skills have repeatedly improved because someone made me feel comfortable asking questions. My skills have improved because I was inspired by the example of someone else’s exceptional work and approachable disposition. My skills have improved because someone else believed I was capable of improving.

Many of those someones are members of the Professional Upholsterers’ Association of Minnesota. I joined with my mom’s shop in 2001. She was self taught, and it was my first encounter with other professionals. Scary.

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Members of the Professional Upholsterers’ Association of Minnesota

They could have been jerks. They could have made us feel very small, and very amateurish (many of the members had graduated from upholstery degree programs while they were still an option in Minnesota. Several had even been instructors.)

If they had, that would have likely been the end of my upholstery career.

But they didn’t. And it completely changed the trajectory of my life.

My workmanship has steadily improved through access to a supportive, experienced group of professionals. I’ve gone to them with every manner of question, from minute technical questions, to big philosophical business questions. I continue to reach out to mentors within that group when I need a trusted perspective.

And it opened my eyes to how little we really agree on in upholstery.

Truly, it’s wild.

Going in, I was afraid that everyone would know “The right way” except us. Ha!

I’ve seen spirited debates on everything from how to thread your sewing machine, to whether you should put batting on the sides of a cushion. It’s bananas. If you’re ever bored, go to a meeting and throw in a little conversation bomb, some seemingly innocent starter like, “I prefer synthetic burlap.” Then kick back and enjoy.

At one of the first meetings I attended,  a potentially contentious debate started up about whether to bias cut your welt cord.

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ALWAYS!!!

ALMOST NEVER!!!!!

And I remember then-president Paul Henly of Regal Design Studio calmly diffusing the situation with a simple observation. “There are good reasons to do it either way.”

That was it!!!!! We didn’t take a vote to decide who was right!!!!!!

THEY BOTH WERE!!!

And seriously, they were – both members were experienced and knowledgable. Among other things, they knew what was working best for them, for their clients, their typical workload (I think one was primarily residential, one primarily marine.)

But that moment rather shaped my philosophy.

The more I learn, the less likely I am to use words like, ALWAYS, NEVER or RIGHT.

I have very few hard and fast rules in upholstery. Usually, as soon as I think of one, I think of a situation where I’d make an exception.

Now, when I teach, I use words like USUALLY, GENERALLY, and TYPICALLY followed by, “And this is why.”

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Teach the reason. Open the dialogue. Give students room to explore. Try to cultivate an open and inquisitive mind.

Because I think that’s the most important thing.

When we talk about “The right way” I think, ‘Are you making informed decisions?’ ‘Are your decisions MORE informed than this time last year?’ ‘Are you continually reevaluating yourself to see if there might be a better way?’ ‘Are you making the best possible decisions for your client based on your current skill set, your level of experience, the best products you have available, their individual needs?’

Are you reaching out to all available resources to be the best upholsterer you can possibly be?

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Tuesday Mentorship group learning from PUAM president, Diana Shroyer-Guenther (pictured with Amy Otteson and Lindsay Orwig)

And here’s where we all (hopefully) help. If someone goes out on a limb, shares their work, their initial accomplishments, their perceived successes and failures  – if they are met with disdain and judgement and scorn, will they go out on that limb again? Or did they just learn not to ask any more questions?

I know we’ve covered this: I don’t think upholstery is a dying industry.

But a lot of people do.

And maybe the most dangerous thing we can do is knock each other down.

Our enemies are uninformed consumers, and cheap new furniture. Our enemies are people turning out low quality work for lack of good education and networking. Our enemies are all the reasons people choose not to reupholster.

Let’s not make enemies of one other.

When it comes to keeping upholstery alive, a rising tide lifts all ships. We are in this together, y’all. The more students, professionals and consumers who understand and appreciate what we do, the better it will be for all of us.

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So that’s my big idea:

Be nice.

Be great at what you do.

And be humble.

I don’t suppose it will save the world. . .  But it certainly can’t hurt.

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
Mark Twain

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8 thoughts on “Do You Upholster the Right Way?

  1. Donna C says:

    I hope no one threw shade on Aunt Bea, cuz she turned out friggin amazing!!! I took your Craftsy class and it’s been a life changer! I’ve learned so much and I know the class was only the beginning. I love working with my hands and have done many different artsy- craftsy (get it? Craftsy?! 😆) things in my life and loved them all. Like I said in your Craftsy class…I’d hit you up in Minnesota to learn in person, but my private jet never seems to be available 😉

  2. Laura says:

    Refreshing to hear an experienced upholsterer being positive about learning skills and not being perfect from the start.
    So many times have I heard master upholsterers ripping into learners work – everyone has to start from somewhere. The fun is the journey to getting better.

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