I once reupholstered a wing chair for a woman in her seventies – she was referred to me by an older male colleague who had decided to change careers.
We went through the estimate, details, timelines, fabric, etc. Then she paused and said. . . .
“You know, I just think it’s so interesting! I’ve never heard of a woman doing upholstery before!!! Is that common???”
It IS actually . . .
But her viewpoint was fair – you may not realize that professional upholstery has seen a massive gender shift in the last half century.
Why is that????
I have a few theories:
Upholstery as a niche service
Fifty years ago, getting your furniture reupholstered was a relatively commonplace expense – you don’t throw away your house because the siding wears out, you get it recovered! Neither did you throw away your furniture . . .
The cost of professional reupholstery was attractive compared to the cost of replacement.
We also had a lot more furniture manufacturing in the U.S., so there was a strong market for upholstery skills.
Over the years, manufacturers have figured out how to drop the cost of new furniture at an astonishing rate.
For example, in 1959 a Ward’s recliner was listed at $79.95
Using a conservative estimate from census.gov if the current median U.S. home value is over $300,000, (side note, that’s INSANE) then a new recliner should cost well over $1,000.
Obviously , that’s an oversimplification, but a quick google search reveals that new furniture is shockingly underpriced compared to its 1950’s counterpart.
Why this is the case, and whether consumers should care is an entirely different topic.
Anytime you want to discuss it over a couple of drinks, you just call me up.
In the 1950’s, your consumer likely saw the inherent value in having something reupholstered.
If you were a very good upholsterer, there was probably an upholstery job for you.
Ah, but in today’s market, reupholstering is not an obvious case of smart economics – it’s almost a luxury service by default. Most of our manufacturing is gone, and our large shops have dissolved into so many sole proprietorships, one man (woman?) bands, as it were.
To be a modern upholsterer, it isn’t enough to be great at upholstery – you have to communicate like a rock star. You’re probably the one doing sales, and fabric consults. You’re the one convincing clients that the price tag is worth it, you’re the one promising to deliver more than a chair, because a chair alone can be gotten for less.
You have to establish relationships with your clients and deliver top notch service to go with your now-above-market price.
I don’t usually lean too hard on gender stereotypes . . . but in all fairness, gender stereotypes are what kept us out of upholstery shops in the first place.
So please – forgive and indulge me . . .
Let’s just say that IN GENERAL the female upholsterers I know are considerably more on board for all the talking – the customer service/lengthy consult/enthusiastic-ululations-over-Grandma’s-chair side of modern custom upholstery.
Now, does this mean men CAN’T be great at communication? Of course not. Duh.
I’ve seen both Steve Cone and Grant Trick deliver customer service like a BOSS. They frankly put my skills to shame, and I’m sure they’re not the only ones – they can communicate gracefully in sticky situations, I can carry a sofa backwards down stairs – we’re just breaking down ALL KINDS of stereotypes.
What I AM saying is that excellent people skills are no longer optional.
Man or woman, if you’re depending on your upholstery prowess alone, you’re going to have a much harder time staying employed.
2. The rise of cottage industry
In the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, there was enough work that large storefronts with multiple employees were relatively commonplace. As the market shifted, these expensive to operate business models became increasingly difficult to support.
So where did our upholsterers go?
Many of them moved home.
It is a SUPER smart move, really – take out the lion’s share of your overhead, simplify your palette of services, focus on work that’s a good fit for one person in a relatively small space, and put most of the money into your pocket or your home.
Now guess who’s statistically more likely to BE at home?
Ring a ding ding – Women.
In particular: Moms
I know loads of upholstery careers that centered initially around a desire to be available and flexible for kids.
One example: Me.
Another example: my mom.
More upholsterers than I can reasonably list here. REALLY.
One favorite upholsterer/mom is my friend Sarah, of Everafter Upholstery in Minnetonka, MN – I’ve known her for 13 years, and I always enjoy getting her home/shop voicemail: “I’m a full time mom and part time upholsterer.”
She’s built an elegant little career that puts her kids first – no small accomplishment in modern day America.
I’m two thumbs up on the rise of stay-at-home dads, but nationally, they still only account for about 15% of parents who stay home. (Any of you dads out there want to learn upholstery???)
The fact remains: more women are stay at home parents, and as upholstery has moved into homes, there’s been a natural collision course.
Upholstery is a very viable cottage industry.
Not an EASY one, and certainly not a FAST one, but viable? You bet.
In fact, it may be ideal for moms who aren’t interested in full time work – a client base takes time to develop, as do skills. It’s possible to start with a little bitty side hustle, and grow it over time alongside your children. By the time those buggers are teenagers and ready to do tear back? You got yourself a business.
I know what I’m talking about here.
(Teenage boys make excellent shop helpers, especially if you pit them against one another)
Conversely, it’s almost impossible to turn upholstery into a full time gig overnight, or even over a couple of years. There’s simply no substitute for experience, and finding education is a spotty, complicated affair. If your big picture life plan includes a drop in income for 5-10 years anyway, you just might have a perfect window in which to build your upholstery skills.
I think our future job force is going to include a lot of moms (and dads??? )
#3 Feminism – YAY!
The premise back in the day was that women aren’t strong enough to do upholstery. Thanks to the hard work of our feminist foremothers, we’ve now proven that, in addition to things like voting and bench pressing, women CAN in fact tie springs and carry furniture.
Diana Shroyer-Guenther, friend/mentor/PUAM president was one of the first few women to attend the upholstery program at Minneapolis VoTech in the 1970’s. The first woman had to go to the governor to petition for entrance. Diana is not only a woman – she’s a tiny woman, barely 5 feet tall. And when she took the program, she was just 18.
She says the guys laughed when she walked into the room.
But guess what? She’s one of the best upholsterers I know.
And her instructor admitted so, too.
I asked her once, why she thought we have more women in upholstery. I trotted out my theories.
She responded, “I think they always wanted to do upholstery. It’s just that they weren’t really allowed.”
So maybe it’s as simple as that.
I’m a runner. Not a very good one, especially at the moment.
But I did a marathon. Once.
I wonder if you’ve ever seen pictures of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon?
It wasn’t so very long ago. She registered under a pseudonym, and the race organizer was so angry he tried to tear her number off and drag her from the course.
So often when I run, I think of Kathrine Switzer.
I’m thankful to her, and women like her. She wasn’t just running a marathon: She was making a very public statement about the physical and mental stamina of all women.
I’m really glad she finished.
Thank heavens that when I came wheezing and staggering into finisher’s chute at our Twin Cities Marathon, the only tired, broken woman I was representing was me.
Because of women like Kathrine Switzer, I can JUST be a marathoner.
Or even a half assed distance runner, if I want to be.
Nobody particularly cares.
I think the same is true of upholstery. When I do upholstery, I’m just DOING UPHOLSTERY. I’m not making a big social statement. I didn’t have to go to the governor. I don’t have to worry that my failures will condemn more talented or determined women who may wish to come after me. Nobody is looking to me as an example of my gender’s abilities or lack thereof.
What a relief!!!
I like upholstery, but I don’t know that I could do it with all that weight on my shoulders.
I actually think it’s really bizarre for upholstery to be considered inherently male OR female.
From where I’m standing, it lives happily in the middle, in the perfect intersection of traditionally male and traditionally female attributes.
You have to be strong enough for springs, but delicate enough for hand stitching.
You can’t be sheepish about dirt – but work must go out pristine and dressed to the nines.
Sometimes it’s hammers, and drills and bar clamps . . . other times, it’s sewing machines and curved needles and pillow forms.
So I don’t know. I don’t know for sure why more women are doing upholstery. I’m just glad we are. And to celebrate, I think we should look at a bunch of photos of women doing upholstery
Looks pretty good on us – wouldn’t you agree?