Does Upholstery Education Undermine Professionals?

There’s a funny notion that bubbles up in upholstery circles: The idea that education undermines professionals.

It seems to boil down to two general arguments:  giving away trade secrets, and training your competition.

Let’s have a look . . . 


You’re giving away trade secrets.

Maybe I’m uncommonly thick . . . But I don’t know what “secrets” people are talking about.

The only secret I’ve really learned is that upholstery takes years of practice.

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I’m happy to share knowledge and tips and skills with students . . . . But the one thing that really matters? I couldn’t give it away if I tried.

If students want to be successful, they have to accept that there’s no substitute for experience.

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And the skills and knowledge we pass along – are they secrets??? Somebody shared them with me  . . . It’s only fair that I’d share them, too.

That isn’t giving away secrets: That’s ensuring valuable knowledge is not lost. 

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Members of the Professional Upholsterers’ Association of Minnesota

 


You’re training your competition.

Most students do not end up going pro, or even competing on a casual scale. Most figure out in a hurry that serious upholstery is a serious commitment. It’s really HARD. It takes space, and appropriate equipment, and SO MUCH time.

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In truth, our students are a good referral base: When people come knocking (and they DO come knocking) with project requests: “I saw you took a workshop!!!! I have an upholstery project for you!!!” many students refer to us or another professional. (Heck no, I don’t want to do your sofa. I want to make a French mattress for my mudroom. Call these guys.)

They want to do upholstery for fun 🙂

Ah, but what about the handful of students who ARE serious???

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I don’t know about the rest of you . . . but it took me well over a decade of sweat and practice and networking to get to where I’m at – it is not easy to pull yourself up to a competitive position in the upholstery market.

At the very least, I have a 15 year head start on my students – If they can catch me, more power to ’em, because that would be some feat.

And I mean that: I could really, really use some strong peers in their 30s and 40s, oh please oh please. (more on that later)

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Now let’s consider the potential gain that education provides:


Increase in consumer awareness/appreciation.

Once upon a time, I was the manager at a local foam/upholstery shop. Day in and day out, I was having the same exhausting, dead end conversations as every professional I knew:

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Lindsay Orwig and Amy Otteson role playing a client interaction. I’d say it’s going well.

Why is upholstery so expensive? I can buy new for that! That’s ridiculous! I had no idea it would be so much! It can’t be that hard!

I was so sick of having the same discussions, knowing that nothing I said would change the conversation.

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. . . . But if people tried it . . . . . . . . .

People WERE asking to learn, after all. 

Consider please, two scenarios:

#1 – A client comes in with a simple chair, receives a quote, flips out, says, “WHY SO MUCH? I COULD DO IT MYSELF!” and you say, “FINE!!!!!!! DON’T LET THE DOOR HIT YOU IN THE BUTT!!!!!” The end. 

#2 – A client comes in with a simple chair, receives a quote, flips out, says, “WHY SO MUCH? I COULD DO IT MYSELF!” and you say, “Maybe you could! Would you like to take a class? Here’s a staple lifter we sell, if you want to tear back at home. Plan on several hours, and be careful not to stab yourself.” Then in class, this client has to plan their own cutting layout, and wrangle an industrial sewing machine, and they freeze in terror at their first easement cut. But all the while, they have someone skilled guiding them along, genuinely encouraging their efforts, showing them how unique their chair is on the inside. And what this client thought could be done in an hour actually takes them 6 – and the results are so much less than perfect because PRACTICE, remember . . . but they’re proud!!!!! And they understand, now, why upholstery isn’t cheap. But they have a positive relationship with at least one professional who didn’t tell them to go jump. They leave and tell their friends about the experience: “Oh my gosh, upholstery is harder than I expected, I was so tired!!!!!” And hearing it from a trusted friend is different than hearing it from a stranger . . .  

Can you see the potential advantage?

Education is an opportunity to connect with the market in a very positive and genuine way.

When we offer classes, I don’t think that we’re undermining the talented professionals around us.: I think we’re acting as ambassadors for our skilled trade.

Our past students don’t walk into shops and scoff at the upholsterer that their job is easy. This I promise.

Let me be perfectly clear, though: Education doesn’t work if you’re out to “prove jerk customers wrong”  – you need to genuinely want to help and share. The appreciation is an inevitable side perk.

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We’re able to demonstrate to even our casual students the depth and breadth of a professional skill set, the difference between “hobby” and “career,” the value in utilizing an experienced tradesperson for certain projects, even if you’re a savvy DIYer (why no, I don’t think you should gut your grandmother’s 1920’s sofa after one class. Maybe give it 10 years . . . Don’t want to invest 10 years? Might want to call a professional)

I don’t know about you, but if some consumers want to reupholster their own thrift store accent chairs, I’m ok with that. I’m busy retying springs in this 1920’s sofa.


Elevating standards

Here’s the thing with NOT offering education: it won’t stop people from trying.

GASP!

Abstinence-only upholstery education doesn’t work: people are still going to do it.

And if we aren’t teaching, they’ll make do with whatever the horrifying internet provides.

I started teaching partly because I saw one too many articles on “How to reupholster a wing chair for under $20 – no sewing required!!!”.

For Pete’s sake.

If we aren’t in the conversation, these kinds of confusing messages will represent us.

Whatever you’re doing with that wing chair, dear person, please stop calling it reupholstery. 

So. We can sit idly by, while DIYers and hobbyists do questionable things to potentially valuable furniture.  We can deny them the tools to do better and then stew in our resentment.

OR.

We can meet them and help. We can show them by example, what a good professional is, what a good professional does.

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Refusing to provide education will not stop people from doing upholstery: It will only stop them from doing it really well.


Professionals in the pipeline

If upholstery education can, theoretically,  put more quality professionals in the pipeline, does that mean less work for the rest of us? 

It’s a valid concern, and some of my peers have been through markets I can only attempt to understand. For example, when a manufacturer closes, or off shores its production and suddenly the local market is flooded with self employed upholsterers . . . That would rattle me for life, I suspect.

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But I teach. And I genuinely hope that a few of my students will stay the course, and become the kind of professionals we’ll all be proud of.

OH SO MUCH I HOPE THAT A FEW SUCCEED. 

Because I’m 38. And I’m already tired.

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I’m very young, as upholsterers go. I could have made it my professional mission to be last woman standing.

MWAHAHA!!!!!! MORE FOR ME!!!!!

Early on, that was probably on my mind. But I’ve seen it play out for too many shops.

Here are some REAL problems facing our industry:

  • Shops not answering the phone, because they’re so overwhelmed and stressed out trying to turn as much work as possible with their own two hands. 
  • Shop owners retiring with nobody prepared to buy their business, or even pick up their client load. (do you know how valuable a client base is????)
  • Clients unable to find a local shop, because there aren’t any . . . or they’re hiding because they’ve established a referral network and literally can’t handle any more work. 
  • Shops with ridiculous lead times (hey, it’s okay for that shop, but one more reason for consumers to say screw it, I’m buying new.) 
  • Shops delivering sub par customer service because they’re exhausted and burned out.  
  • Large or technically challenging projects going unbid because shops can’t find skilled help to do the work. 
  • Designers with good paying clients who  sell new furniture for lack of a viable reupholstery option. (Designers need very good shops, you see.)

These are not hypotheticals.

EVERY SINGLE ONE of these is pulled from a recent conversation.

REGULAR, REOCCURRING conversations. 

And from where I’m standing, education is the answer.

Do I know what I’m talking about? We’re going to find out. 

I have invited serious students into my shop. I have assured them that I will do everything in my power to support their success. They are highly visible on ALL my platforms. I tag their names, their shops.  I share their posts, and encourage them to be as visible and self promoting as possible. They’re learning everything I can teach, and connecting to the amazing people who taught ME.

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Amy O cutting welt cord

I haven’t told them to hush up and stay in line. I haven’t accused them of undermining me or the market.

I WANT these students to grow their audience, I want their friends and family to know they’re doing upholstery. I want my clients to applaud their journey. I want EVERYONE to have more awareness of upholstery as a viable option . . . and I want everyone to have good shops to work with.

I opened my doors, and amazing people showed up.

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I cannot teach them traditional, or automotive, or marine. I can only share what I know. I can teach them modern upholstery. I can teach them customer service and pricing and communication. I can teach them social media and networking. I can teach them TEACHING.

Hopefully, in the future, I’ll be able to bring them a variety of qualified mentors, but today, I can only share with them the very skills that I use to employ myself. 

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Am I literally training myself out of the market? Am I training my competition?

It’s a scary possibility

But when students message me to share their excitement, their accomplishments – the clients they’re booking, the pieces they’re selling, their rapidly growing audiences . . .

I take a deep breath . . . and try to be their biggest cheerleader.

It’s hard. I try not to admit that, but it is true. I don’t want to lose my job. I worked really hard to create it.

But I just can’t do it all alone.

None of us can. 

Not well. Not for long. 

 

Am I training my competition? Maybe. But really . . . I hope I’m training colleagues. 

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Kim C. planning to match a large repeat.

When our students eventually leave . . . I hope they thrive.

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Jacey R measuring for new cushions

I hope they will be a strong connection for all of us.

Gina Y and Lindsay O taking a break.

I hope they will carve our a path that is uniquely theirs, to reach customers that the rest of us haven’t.

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Lauren P working on her first upholstery project

And I hope they will care for the industry collectively. I hope they will support one another. I hope they will rebuild the structure that has eroded among us over the last two decades, as manufacturing and education quietly collapsed. I hope that we can collaborate to bring professional upholstery back into markets where it’s too long been absent or underserved.

So what can I say? I don’t think education undermines professionals. In fact, I think it’s critical to the future of our industry.

Am I right? Am I wrong?

Meet me here in 5 years and we might have a better answer. 

For today . . . It’s a leap of faith <3 

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*P.S. there is ONE way in which I’ve seen education potentially undermine professionals: When it’s set up with poor boundaries and is a disruption to client services. We understand and respect that most upholsterers simply do not have time, space or interest in providing education. We know that DIYers dropping in with questions or asking to learn for free is a distraction and a hindrance for already-overwhelmed shops. We hope it helps our neighbors to have a place they can refer curious DIYers, someplace that is set up for education. We’ve worked hard to communicate with our students about the importance of respecting shop boundaries, whether ours, or those of other shops they may visit. And our students have been wonderful in their understanding.

If you’re considering adding education in your area, make sure that you create it with parameters that respect your whole business, and make sure you communicate those parameters with your students.*

Want to do some hands-on education this summer? We’re just about wrapped up in St. Paul for the year, but we’ll be in Tryon, North Carolina this August. Join us at Custom Workroom Technical Center for a 3 day Modern Upholstery Skills: Open Workshop or a one day Diamond Tufting Basics class.

7 thoughts on “Does Upholstery Education Undermine Professionals?

  1. Louise Cornick says:

    Well said Cynthia!
    I agree with all you said. Education is the key, and the higher the quality of that education the better the results.

  2. Patricia Kosche says:

    In my 32 years of self employment, I have thought, taught and discussed the topic. Like yourself, I still do not have an answer. Fantastic article .

  3. Carol Jacoby says:

    I fabricate window treatments and couldn’t agree more. I had mentors who helped anyway they could, there was more than enough work and we all cared about quality.
    I would love to see you g women see more even if just for themselves. Great article!
    I also can get you a few of those little chairs, a client of mine is in the school furniture business.

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