Last week, a woman dropped by The Funky Little Chair to inquire about classes. We answered a bunch of questions, and she started to leave, rather jazzed to give this upholstery thing a try.
Then she turned back and asked, “So what kind of people do well in upholstery? Who ends up really liking it? Is it like a sewing thing? Is it more like manufacturing?”
I LOVED this question! I’m always intrigued to see who sticks around – I’ll tell you, upholstery isn’t always what people expect. Some folks acquire a taste, and others immediately look for a new hobby.
I thought it would be fun to crowdsource this question, so I reached out to some experienced upholstery friends:
What does it take to be successful in upholstery?
It was a wonderful discussion – here are a few of their answers:
Being good with your hands
“I think you really gotta like working with your hands, because that’s what you’re gonna be doing. And you need strong hands, but I think you can develop that.” Amy Otteson, Amy Oh Design, Minnesota
I think this is what draws a lot of folks to upholstery in the first place – we’re increasingly a society of corporate and tech jobs. We sit at a lot of desks. People who come in crave the opportunity to get their hands on something real. But be forewarned:
You can’t be afraid to get dirty and physical.
“It is not a trade for anyone who is afraid to get dirty or get a thousand owies from staples, slivers etc, get glue on your hands, work with dirty disgusting interiors of old furniture.” Tracy Spear, Sew Kewl Upholstery , Utah
I told our visitor that people often come in expecting home ec, only to discover that class is a lot more like shop: You’re going to get messy. You’re going to get scratched up. You’re going to be tired. It’s a terrible, wonderful, unavoidable part of the job. (One of my favorite parts, actually)
Understanding physical problems
“Generally people who understand how things work, and if they don’t they can figure it out.” Kylin Brimhall
“I used to pull the furniture apart to see how it was made. It wasn’t popular.” Michael Tulk
” Visualizing end product is key and also knowing and understanding 3rd dimensioning, the order of operations.” Davis Bradshawe, Vinyl Destination Upholstery, Maine
“Problem solvers” Louise Turner Cornick, Sitting Pretty Upholstery Services, California
“No two jobs are ever the same. Someone with a creative mind and problem solving skills.” Nathan Spadaro, Decor Upholstery, Sydney
So much of upholstery is the ability to READ a project – take apart what’s there and understand how to recreate it. How does this work? If it doesn’t work, why not? Spatial and logical skills are critical, because you can’t find a road map to everything you’ll encounter – you have to apply what you know to whatever you find.
The human brain is a beautiful and amazing thing. Some people are really good math, others at language. Some people understand complex strategy and love chess. Other people will destroy you at Scrabble while you’re busy playing two letter words.
It’s apparent when people dig into a chair that some brains are better wired for deciphering furniture than others. I’m a firm believer that we can learn pretty much anything with enough determination, but natural aptitude certainly doesn’t hurt.
No matter what, don’t make the mistake of expecting a cakewalk:
Being comfortable with struggle:
“I think you have to be willing to fail. That’s the only way you’re going to learn anything.” Amy Otteson, Amy Oh Design, Minnesota
“It goes beyond class: It’s hours and hours of trial and error and trying again to get it right.” Tracy Spear, Sew Kewl Upholstery
“I can envision what I want a piece to be, how it could look and love the process of getting there. I curse and get angry with every piece and struggle a bit with each one, but the end result is so satisfying, that the bloody fingers, callouses and frustrations and failures are worth it.” Jennifer Hopkins, West Brome Upholstery, Quebec
Ugh, the struggle is brutal, and so many new students are caught off guard. If you want to be good at upholstery, there is SO MUCH STRUGGLE between you and that goal.
I remember the year I learned how to sew boxed/welted/cushions – I wanted to have a grown up temper tantrum every time I had to rip out a seam or restitch a corner.
But as the saying goes, “It never gets easier, you just get stronger.”
Struggle is an inevitable part of being successful in upholstery: You can’t walk around it: You gotta walk through.
Meticulous . . . But not necessarily a diehard perfectionist
“Attention to detail is a must have!” Kylin Brimhall
“Knowing that there’s no such thing as perfect in upholstery.” Gabrielle Lindberg, Cotton Seed Designs, Minnesota
Okay, this is a little tricky. Good upholsterers are EXTREMELY detail oriented – but nobody struggles more in our workshops than perfectionists.
There’s a certain amount of letting go in upholstery – it’s subjective, and challenging, and old pieces are often charmingly imperfect. Fabric is naughty, and padding moves. You cannot, must not, be a slob: But if you need everything to add up to complete and total perfection . . . you might want to stick with sudoku.
Creativity, vision and passion
“I think the human mind likes to create. A lot of jobs don’t allow that.” Amy Otteson, Amy Oh Design, Minnesota
“An artist… If you aren’t creative, you won’t get far.” Davis Bradshaw, Vinyl Destination Upholstery, Maine
“There are those hard days when the there are so many staples I just can’t even look at another one, dirty discussing fabric and gross stuffing but in the end after tearing everything off I have a blank canvas to create with. Passion is what makes a great upholsterer.” Marianne Funk Henderson
The woman who stopped by asked, “Is it like manufacturing?” and the answer is unequivocally NO. Unless, I suppose, you upholster in a manufacturing setting, but even then – it’s never a simple as Peg A into Hole B.
Every fabric is different, every chair, every upholsterer. There’s a good deal of interpretation involved, far more than you might expect. Though manufacturers have been amazing at streamlining, upholstery is on the short list of things we haven’t figured out how to automate: There’s an indisputably human element.
“Patient, detailed individuals” Don Willis
“Patience. A willingness to learn, and understanding and acceptance that you’ll never really know it ‘all'” Lindsay Orwig, A Chick and a Chair Upholstery, Minnesota
“Someone with mass quantities of patience is helpful.” Rob Meyer, Pete’s Auto Upholstery, Florida
“In my experience people can either visualize in 3D or not. I think that this ability combined with the patience to slowly improve is all you need.” Simon Blackburn, Simon’s Upholstery, Texas
Patience was the single most cited attribute and I couldn’t agree more.
I’m of the mind that upholstery is never really, “mastered” – there’s always room for improvement, always more to be learned or refined. The learning process is lovely, but oh-so-long. Folks who are wired for instant gratification are quickly disappointed.
But patience pays off, and discovering that you’re comfortable with a skill that once eluded you . . . well, it’s delicious, is what it is.
We don’t get there in a hurry, but through patience, practice, creativity, vision, determination, frustration and celebration, we just might get there anyway.
Big thanks to all our articulate upholstery friends for sharing your lovely insights. I’ll leave you with one last quote from my friend Nathan in Australia, because I think it really sums up this craft that we call upholstery:
“A person must be accepting you can never master this trade because it is impossible to recover every variation of upholstered furniture.
You will be taught skills that you add to your experiences, and combined will make your challenges easier to conquer:
Patience and persistence.”
Nathan Spadaro, Decor Upholstery, Sydney
I couldn’t have said it better myself <3
Want to try upholstery on for size? Check out our upcoming classes: Education
2 thoughts on “Would you do well at upholstery?”
I never really thought about what makes a good upholsterer; I just know that when I got more serious about it, I finally found my happy place. As a newbie I struggle a lot but those are the growth spurts, right? I enjoyed reading viewpoints of the seasoned professionals. It is wonderful to have such mentorship in this trade. Thank you!
Robin I’m glad you enjoyed, and YES there are definitely growth spurts! Mine seem to coincide with times when I was putting in a lot of time on anything specific – sewing cushions, tying springs, pulling vinyl. UGH! Practice does indeed make perfect, or at least closer to! It’s good to look back and see how all your hard work has paid off! Best, Cynthia