About 5 years ago, I started teaching upholstery in NE Minneapolis. We were pretty successful with the hobbyists, but people kept asking, “Now how do you do this as a career?”
I surely didn’t know. I’m the daughter of an upholsterer, and still it’s been a long, messy road.
But it seemed like a question worth answering, so in 2016, I opened a shop of my own to see what we might see . . .
There are still more questions than answers, more challenges than clear opportunities. But like watching a photograph develop, there are definite shapes emerging . . .
I’m going to spend the next couple months sharing my observations and ideas regarding professional level upholstery education in the U.S. – it’s far too many thoughts for just one post.
And I’d like to lead with this:
The Upholsterer of the Future
I used to joke that an upholsterer was never one of the people in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
Meaning, most people didn’t have enough familiarity with our industry to even form a “stereotype” of who we were.
But really, that’s not true.
Whether or not it was visible, upholsterers of the past definitely had a “type”
Mostly men. Lots of introverts. Amazingly skilled in their trade. . . probably not early adopters of technology. Comfortable with established practices and time honored traditions, distrusting of new innovations. Protective of their “secrets”, not at all inclined to collaboration with “competitors.”
This generation entered a very different market, one with degrees, apprenticeships, and relatively large shops. There was far more manufacturing in the U.S. and consumers generally expected high quality from new furniture. It was possible to be great at upholstery and find a career working with your hands.
This generation was heartlessly steamrolled by a rapidly changing nation.
Manufacturing left. And so did education. The reupholstery market in many areas became flooded with skilled tradespeople, even as the price of new furniture plummeted.
Consumers, not yet savvy to the sleazy shortcuts behind inexpensive furniture, rudely and persistently challenged the price of custom reupholstery. Again. And again.
Tradespeople burned out. Or worked twice as hard. Large shops broke up.
Professionals who hung in became overwhelmingly self employed, adding a staggering list of responsibilities to an already challenging craft.
That is the sad part of the story.
Sad because these men and women have not always been valued as the artists and craftspeople they are. The job description changed around them. And oh, my dears, many of them are beat down indeed, as any of us would be after years of infrastructure disappearing around us, and clients casually, relentlessly demeaning our worth.
And as these men and women retire, there’s new sadness, because they often have no way to bequeath their experience, their stories, their expansive knowledge, their business, their pride.
The unfortunate truth is that the upholsterer of yesterday is a poor fit for today’s strange new market. . .
. . .The subsequent conclusion has been that upholstery was a dying industry.
But here’s the thing . . .I don’t think that’s quite true.
Because I work, and the market is interested.
I teach, and some really good people show up.
But our serious students are WILDLY different than the professionals they aspire to replace.
And that’s a good thing – they NEED to be. Because our market is not the market our forefathers (and mothers) knew.
In no particular order, here are some common, general characteristics I’ve observed in our aspiring professionals.
There is no easy way to get upholstery education in the U.S.
You must travel, or self teach like a demon, or hobble together from a variety of resources. Probably all of the above and then some.
You’d better be a problem solver, because you’ll need to maneuver around a LOT of obstacles to get trained.
Ah, but there’s a bright side:
every modern U.S. upholsterer needs to be a problem solver anyway.
Our defunct education is currently acting as an accidental vetting ground, weeding out casual candidates who aren’t likely to thrive anyway.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
If you require a clear, defined path? You’re in the wrong field. Things are a mess. Even with the skills, you’re going to be creating your own job, manifesting your own community.
Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, is waiting to hand you a career.
Is there work? You bet. More than our industry is currently equipped to handle well. But are there good jobs? I’d have to honestly say no, not many. By a “good job” I would mean something like “competitive pay, stable, benefits, upward mobility. . “
Nope, not many like that, definitely not early in your career and probably not without relocating. Our industry structure is in very rough shape. I hope that will not always be the case, but here we are. . .
It’s funny, I entered this profession through my mom’s shop, and then through the PUAM, so for a long time I didn’t see what was going on outside the industry.
I was sitting INSIDE being oh-so-sad about the changing market, and really hoping degree programs would come back, because HEY! Maybe I could teach . . .
What a surprise to discover that curious DIYers were not waiting.
They kept right on DIYing, checking out library books and garage sales, hopping online, learning by trial and error.
NOW: our industry has been quite disdainful towards DIYers, hobbyists and self-teachers – and I won’t lie, some things out there are wholly appalling.
But the truth is, we’re REALLY lucky that people kept moving, instead of waiting 20 years for a “right” way to learn.
Can you imagine how much worse our current situation would be without these people??? You can say that professionals should ONLY learn upholstery this way or that, but if resources aren’t available, you can’t blame people for finding alternatives.
In fact, you should commend them.
It’s funny to me when I hear things like, “people today don’t want to work with their hands, they’re not willing to get dirty, they want an easy job”
I want to scream, “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW HARD PEOPLE ARE WORKING TO FIND UPHOLSTERY EDUCATION?????????”
The students we work with are NOT marked by laziness or apathy or entitlement. If they wanted an easy path, they’d certainly choose another.
In order to pursue upholstery, they’re traveling, and researching, and learning on their own. They’re throwing themselves into the vicious public arena of social media.
They’re determined and resourceful and resilient, AND THOSE ARE EXACTLY THE KIND OF PEOPLE WE NEED.
As a teacher, personally, I’m delighted when students have started learning on their own. Then I know they’re invested. We’ll have things to refine and advance, of course, but they understand what they’re getting into, and often, they’ve already identified areas of perceived weakness and confusion. AWESOME.
As a professional, I’m deeply concerned that we not belittle and alienate these “hobbyists” – they are our best candidates for the future, and our whole industry will suffer if we form a rapid brute squad to drive them all back to their basements.
The people who have been waiting all this time to get started??? It’s going to be very hard to drag them up to speed. Give me the self teachers.
Every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
In order to find education, you’re going to spend some time online, I promise. You’re probably looking on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram. You follow blogs. You comb through pages of google searches. If you’re lucky, you may connect with a job through social media networking. More likely, you won’t. But then, you’ll likely be using online platforms to reach potential clients of your own, or at least to share the journey with your friends and family.
I don’t know about you, but tech is NOT my BFF.
Mailchimp makes me want to punch myself in the face. Same for YouTube. My darkest days as a business owner are spent in front of a computer screen.
But our industry does not stand a chance unless we join the online conversation post haste, like 10 years ago.
Consumers expect convenience, and they’re receptive to businesses that tell a story. There are so many tools that are currently underutilized by our industry, so many potential markets we’re failing to pursue.
The upholsterer of the future can help change that. Hooray!!!!
College educated . . . but not in upholstery
As you can see, the upholsterer of the future is a respectable specimen.
Now pop quiz:
where do tech savvy, self motivated, collaborative problem solvers go when they turn 18?
Overwhelmingly, the answer is college.
Ah!!! But you currently can’t GO to college for upholstery
(more on that in a future post)
So currently, our best candidates are likely to show up with a degree, slightly later in life, saddled with some educational debt, and a little wiser for the wear.
I went to college for vocal performance/music education. I also worked for 8+ years as a fitness instructor for YMCA of the Twin Cities.
I have taught many students of many ages.
The fact that we’re dealing primarily with candidates in their late 20’s or older does not upset me. AT. ALL.
Adults who have had careers, who have juggled debt and invested in education, who perhaps have children, homes, spouses. . . they know the value of their time. They show up prepared to learn (if they are serious) They understand the necessity of their own involvement. They know how to network, how to pursue opportunities instead of waiting for them.
THEY ARE FANTASTIC STUDENTS.
The tough part is that this is not their first rodeo: adults aren’t necessarily jumping up and down to incur another 4 years of learning debt and reduced wages, especially with an uncertain career path ahead. Can we blame them???? But years is what it takes, along with some serious sweat equity.
The great part is that these each of these students comes with their own unique palette of skills.
This year, we’ve worked with students who have degrees in everything from accounting to art education. One has an MBA in international business. Another has worked as a wedding planner, Mary Kay consultant and muralist. We’ve had a flight attendant, a national park ranger, an attorney. Some have retail experience, or computer programming skills.
These unique qualifications give each candidate a unique perspective on the market. As a whole, they become a dream team for developing and implementing new solutions in the brave new world.
An attorney? An accountant???? An art teacher??????
It’s like we assembled The Avengers, Upholstery Shop Edition.
Collaboration has not been a natural fit for our industry. 30 years ago, shops were far more likely to view their neighbor as a competitor than an ally. I’m not sure why this was – predominantly men? Introverts? Traditional business structures? Deteriorating U.S. furniture market creating an overwhelming sense of lack? So many reasons, I’m sure.
But lack of collaboration has, in my opinion. been very destructive as our industry steadily became weaker and sparser.
A rising tide lifts all ships, and this tide hasn’t been rising for awhile.
Ah, but the upholsterer of the future is going to collaborate by necessity. It’s already happening. People coming in are reaching out across the country to find training, to find colleagues. They’re discussing education, and pricing and marketing. They’re problem solving with their neighbor. They believe in building something together, instead of shutting each other out.
(Active members of The Professional Upholsterers’ Network)
I certainly feel this in St. Paul. I know that my individual success is inseparable from the success of those around me. Most days, I’m already wearing 10 hats:
The idea of collaboration with a strong community makes me want to ugly cry grateful tears of joy.
So I hope you will agree when I say . . . Our glass has changed, but it is not empty.
Still, we have an alarming disconnect between professionals going out and professionals coming in.
I think many retiring upholsterers are frustrated that they don’t see a replacement generation they recognize. Good candidates ARE trying to come in, but the pathways of yesterday are gone, and we haven’t adapted.
But if we can clarify who we’re talking to, who already showing up to the table, then maybe we can start to figure out what they need, where to reach them, and how we can move forward together.
It may be sad, but there’s no sense in continuing to bang our head against a closed door:
How about we start looking for windows instead?
Please join me over the next several weeks as we dig down on this discussion – we’ll be looking at multiple models for education and industry. If you’d like to understand more about how furniture manufacturing has changed in the U.S., one book I’d recommend is Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy
4 thoughts on “The Upholsterer of the Future”
Great article. I have been contemplating developing an apprenticeship program as I need to hire and train if I am going to grow my business beyond myself. I would love for our industry to collaborate and train to rejuvenate this dying art! Looking forward to following your discussion!
Great article. I started my upholstery journey as a young mom/very good seamstress with four young children who wanted to learn how to recover my sofa and loveseat. Fortunately for me, my local community college had classes on upholstery and I could take them at night with my husband watching the kids. In class 101, we built an ottoman from scratch (glued, screwed, doweled joints, tied springs and all). When I was finished, an elephant could have balanced on that sucker, and I was hooked on upholstery. I eventually reupholstered my sofas (plaid fabric) in “sofa class”. I took every class that was offered until my husband got a job transfer. I am very grateful to Mid Plains Community College, North Platte, Nebraska for that training. However, after we moved, I burned out over time. There were no other upholsterers I could talk to (like in class) and so many customers expected to pay next to nothing for my time and skills because of what they could pay for retail junk. Now that my children are young adults and I’m an empty nester, I might be persuaded to hang out a shingle again if I had community support in the way of collaboration and technique, product and price sharing with other people in similar businesses. It can be lonely, living on an island. lol I’m looking forward to your next discussion.
Rebecca, I enjoyed reading your comment, thank you for sharing! I’m glad to hear you had access for awhile to some education, though I know it leaves a lot to learn through practice and patience. I’m sad that you weren’t able to find a professional community, I can only imagine how isolating that is 🙁 Though I’m aware it’s all too common for most upholsterers. I’ve been very lucky to live in an area where at least SOME of the industry is interested in connecting. I hope we can encourage more of that throughout the country . . . Best, Cynthia Bleskachek
Great post! I am so grateful to have found this community. I have gained so much from this group. I am looking forward to meeting more of this community and learning. And learning!!!
You can’t imagine how excited I am for the retreat coming in just a few days!
And I just ordered the book you suggested, it will be here by Saturday for the Sunday trip! Thanks, I was wondering what I could read.