The skilled human element

Spring is a crazy time for upholstery shops, and we’ve been feeling it in St. Paul. . . But somewhere between emails and messages and phone calls, I’ve felt lucky to claim a few quiet stretches in the shop, just me and a project.

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Those are such lovely days.

This is the part of the job that people are drawn to. The hands on fabric, the making, the artistry, the physical and creative challenge of turning vision into reality, bringing form and function together into something beautiful.

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And this week, like so many, as I wound my way through another chair, I was impressed yet again by the endless variation and challenges of upholstery. . . 

My current project is a wing chair. Not a particularly unusual wing chair, though it’s a good, old solid one, to be sure! What’s somewhat unusual is the fabric we’re using: a bright, WONDERFUL bird print from Charlotte Fabrics in Minneapolis. It happens to be an indoor/outdoor fabric, which means that, compared to most upholstery fabrics, it’s a bit slippery, a bit stiff, and a bit challenging to work with. I knew that there would be difficulties, wrapping this particular textile around something as complex and curvy as a wing chair.

But you see, difficult is what we do. 

As I started in, I snapped a quick photo and sent it to an upholsterer friend: “Look what I’m working on this week!!!”

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A few minutes later the response: “Have fun with that arm panel.”

* Important side note: I hope you have a few upholstery friends like this – someone that can spot inherent challenges only upholsterers know – OH HOW WE KNOW. Only another professional would observe at a glance that trouble was coming. It’s good to have people in your network that can properly empathize *

What this friend had spotted was already on my radar: many upholstered arms are finished with a detachable arm plate or panel that’s covered separately and then attached with panel or finishing nails to conceal staples and raw edges.

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They’re a royal pain in the butt. 

Most clients would be shocked to discover how sad their naked arm panels are – older ones may be made of wood, but newer ones are almost always a simple affair: a few layers of cardboard, held together by short staples, a bit of glue, a lot of optimism.

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Settee with wooden arm panels – can you see how thick they are?

Arm panels are always a tedious hassle of one flavor or another. 

Some upholsterers like to use panel nails to wack them in. I usually put finishing nails right through the warp/weave of the fabric (I can never get the placement right with panel nails. Those buggers always end up bending over and making trouble)

Especially challenging are curved panels – you have to try to keep the wimpy panel curved while you somehow upholster it with itty bitty 1/4″ staples. A good way to do this is to put the panel across something curved, like your thigh.

(also a good way to staple your thigh.)  

If you don’t keep it curved enough, the panel will go on loose and wrinkled – TERRIBLE!!!! Sometimes you can steam or work a bit of wrinkle out once the panel is on, but not much. And it’s really tough to properly tension fabric into the curve, because your itty bitty staples keep popping out of that itty bitty cardboard.

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It’s infuriating.

So I knew trouble was coming, but I’m pretty good at arm panels.

We’d just have to figure it all out.

It would be tricky putting finishing nails through the tight fabric, but if I placed them strategically into busy parts of the pattern . . . . And the fabric was going to be gnarly around the curves, but with patience and steam . . . 

The first real sign of concern was the condition of the arm panels.

I believe they were replaced when the chair was last reupholstered. Instead of an upholstery quality chipboard (yes, there are distinct qualities of cardboard) they were made of almost a corrugated cardboard.

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One thing was for sure: they weren’t interested in holding a staple – certainly not with sufficient tension to wrestle the fabric into submission.

I considered cutting new arm panels. But I’d still run into the problem of trying to get nails through it. And between the curve and the fabric, I wasn’t sure I could turn out an acceptable result.

So what else?

The other common (much slower) approach to finishing the front of an arm like this is to hand stitch it. I’ve done so enough times, but I was concerned about stitching this particular fabric. It certainly wasn’t going to be easy, working it into a tight, smooth curve. And my regular needle would probably create Frankenstein stitches in the tight weave.

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In the end, I used a combination solution. I traced the shape of the old arm panel onto the frame with chalk. I wanted to make sure they both came out the same! Then I outlined it with welt cord, stapled into place.

I decided to start by back tacking one long straight edge with a cardboard strip. It’s a fast, clean, reliable way to close – Might as well take advantage of one thing that can be done easily!

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For the other edges, I first stapled cardboard tack strip down to hold the welt firmly in place. Then I padded it out with a bit of synthetic cotton, trimmed, turned and pinned the fabric into position, and carefully . . . slowly. . . hand stitched the remaining edges.

I used the smallest curved needle I could find, and nylon 69 thread from the sewing machine to make sure my stitches and stitch holes were tiny enough to make the fabric cooperate.

Overall, I was very pleased with the result.

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It certainly wasn’t the fastest way to do it.

I don’t know for a fact that it was the best way – 10 upholsterers undoubtedly would have concocted  10 different solutions.

I just know it was a successful solution, and that’s what I needed.

But while I was stitching, I kept thinking how much upholstery still requires a skilled human element. The ability to problem solve, and adapt. The dexterity and creativity and ingenuity of it. . . This is what manufacturing has yet to eliminate.

Oh, they’ve been genius at speeding things up.

But they haven’t been able to eliminate one key ingredient:

skilled human hands.

And when you get into custom work, restoration, reupholstery . . . you don’t even have the benefit of repetition.

This is the piece that clients can’t fully appreciate. It’s what students can only REALLY learn the hard way. It’s what makes upholstery education a true challenge. . . . 

I’d guesstimate that in 15+ years I’ve upholstered about 100 wing chairs

And STILL this one held new challenges.

I doubt I’ll ever run into this exact situation again.

But I’ll encounter new problems to solve. Of that, I am certain.

If I reupholster this exact chair in 10 years with another fabric. . . I’ll have different challenges.

If I put this exact fabric on another chair tomorrow . . . I’ll have different challenges.

Everything about this chair, I’d done before . . . but in different combinations. I’ve done wing chairs, I’ve worked with outdoor fabrics, I’ve made pleats, and smoothed curves. I’ve wrestled arm panels, I’ve back tacked, I’ve hand stitched. . .

I needed all these experiences in my bag of tricks and then I needed to pick them out one by one and string them together into a brand new something.

This is why it’s so important to be a self teacher. Even if you have mentors, even if you have classes. Because even after a 100 wing chairs, there will still be a wing chair you haven’t seen before.

Hopefully, we have a rich well of successes and failures from which to draw potential strategies.

Hopefully, we have a network to reach out to when we’re stuck.

Hopefully, we’re not afraid of trial and error, of mistakes, of struggle.

You are the secret ingredient, the thing that cannot be eliminated. Your ingenuity, your dexterity, your experience, your instinct, your good judgment, your unique perspective . . . these are the things that technology has yet to replicate. 

You are the skilled, human element.

He who works with his hands is a laborer.

 

2 thoughts on “The skilled human element

  1. Cynthia – thanks so much for this post. It reminds me of a great point in that fabulous book The Artist’s Way about not getting caught up in production but instead in the act of creating which allows us to tap into our higher selves and our gifts, including creative problem solving like you talk about. I’m a novice upholsterer and so enjoy your Craftsy online class, writing and tips and photos. You are inspiring me to keep after it and build my creativity-focused 2nd career!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and that you’re enjoying your journey into upholstery!!! I love that book, The Artist’s Way, thanks for the reminder, might be time for a revisit!!! Congrats on your second career <3 Best, Cynthia

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