Where did upholstery degrees go?

Okay friends, let’s put all our cards on the table.

Because I really want to talk about what’s happening with upholstery education in the U.S.

Or rather, what’s NOT happening.

Whenever discussions ramp up around professional training, they inevitably circle back to trade schools and degree programs.

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Diana Shroyer-Guenther and classmates at Minneapolis Tech circa 1976

It’s a logical starting point, the way we used to do things. And in Minnesota, we’ve waited  with baited breath for programs to come back.

In over a decade and a half, they haven’t. 

And nationally, other programs like ours have steadily but surely closed their doors.

What’s going on here????? Most shops we talk to are busy – isn’t there work??? Can we bring these programs back???? Who are the villains who took our education away???? 

These questions have consumed my thoughts. They circle back on themselves, again and again, leading to even more questions, and precious few answers.

Our industry feels the loss of degree programs profoundly, almost universally.

It feels like a final, ominous blow, proof that our beloved craft is, indeed, dying.

But chin up now, because let me convince you in the weeks ahead: we’re not.

In order to understand where these programs went and why we aren’t (necessarily) doomed without them, it helps to talk a closer look at how they worked.

For that, I sat down with my dear friend and mentor, Steve Cone.

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Steve Cone, upholsterer, author, instructor

As a young man in Minnesota, Steve went through a traditional, formal upholstery degree program, and then completed a two year apprenticeship to receive his journeyman’s card. (Here, by traditional, I mean “traditionally structured” not specifically traditional methods)

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Steve Cone at 18

For years, he owned a much respected shop in St. Paul.

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He was the creator and lead instructor of the upholstery degree program at Century College, which closed it’s doors in 2000.

It was the last formal upholstery program in Minnesota.

At its core, it was 18 months of primarily hands-on skills training (there were also some business and theory credits) Students worked through a series of projects designed to build a relatively “complete” skill set. The curriculum was supported by packets, handouts and charts to guide students along. Steve would make 2-3 loops in the course of a class to check in with each student on their progress, and to offer assistance and correction as needed.

All in all, the program was 2,000 hours.

The school kept a large file of potential client projects in order to ensure that students had furniture that fit their skill requirements. Labor was free, but clients had to purchase first quality fabric, so students were working with appropriate materials. In the event of a cutting error, additional fabric could be ordered.

After graduation, some candidates would go straight into self employment. For those who did not, Steve was well connected and respected in the upholstery community, so he was able to match candidates with potential job leads.

A graduate of the program was not considered “fully baked” – the program set candidates up with basic skills, after which they’d hopefully find opportunities to increase speed, confidence and consistency outside of the classroom.

If, like Steve, a candidate were to continue into a traditional apprenticeship, that would be an additional 2 year relationship with one shop – if you left that shop, you had to start over.

If you apprenticed without a degree, the requirement was 6,0000 hours for a journeyman’s card.

Over the years, there was an overwhelming national shift in post-secondary education towards white collar training, tech, etc.

Upholstery was phased out and computers were brought in. It was determined that the space could now accommodate twice as many students.

The upholstery program was full to capacity at the time.

As you can imagine, this was heartbreaking for our community. . .

The program that Steve created was exquisitely crafted, and it produced many excellent candidates.

So should we attempt to recreate it???

It’s an intoxicating fantasy, one that’s given us tunnel vision for many years.

While we were waiting for it to come back, the only thing that happened was our industry became steadily weaker and more disconnected. The gap following that last class of students got bigger, and bigger.

And now, my friends, we’re in a pickle. 

Because our entire industry has shifted, and that was probably inevitable. But the candidates we should have with 5 years of training? With 10 years of training? They mostly aren’t there. Which means that we’re missing a really key piece of our industry pipeline. And we can’t recreate it overnight. Which is alarming with the number of professionals who are retiring.

The need for  education is greater than ever, but so are the barriers to providing it.

Let’s explore the Century College model . . . .




  1. Carefully constructed curriculum

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I think this is the most valuable, recognized (and perhaps salvageable) part of the traditional degree program.

In the U.S., we have random education happening, and it IS possible to pull together a set of skills. But there’s no real rhyme or reason, no prepackaged, “learn these things in this sequence”

I can think of lots of reasons why: Who is supposed to put that programming up? Who has the credibility? Who gets to say, “This is how we do it?”

It used to be colleges, but if they’re out of the picture, who in the private market is responsible and qualified?

Let’s acknowledge that creating curriculum is a GIANT undertaking.

Especially for something like reupholstery, where single new skills are often encased in long, time consuming projects, and no two pieces are alike.

Let’s also acknowledge that most professional upholsterers are already burning a candle at both ends.

And it isn’t just outlining a curriculum: It’s creating all the teaching materials to go with it, or at the very least, locating and assembling them.

As we’ve discovered in our own teaching space, it’s very difficult pull together resources that match. If we have a student sewing a cushion, there may be videos and print resources out there, but if they teach the process differently, it can be confusing for newish students. So good curriculum is multi-pronged: it’s supported by hand outs or videos or other visual aids. It includes quantifiable benchmarks and an assessment.

And of course, the best curriculum in the world is utterly useless if you can’t deliver it.

So you need to reach enough people, convince them that the curriculum is quality, get them on board, and find a way – in person or otherwise – to teach enough of them to offset all the creation and programming cost.

 That’s a tough row to hoe. 

From a backstage perspective, I want to share some sobering numbers about our informal program: In 2017, we had almost 12,000 UNIQUE visitors to our website (28,000 total).

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Of those 12,000, we saw perhaps 70-80 unique students in our St. Paul classes.

From those students, we identified a scant handful that may have the right combination of talent, interest and life situation to maybe make a real go of it.

From 12,000 . . . to about 5.

The funnel and effort required to keep our classes (mostly) full is astonishing.

The second you start limiting and structuring classes into specific content, you divide your funnel into smaller groups. It becomes increasingly difficult to run programs that meet enough common interests, schedules and geography to fill.

Beautifully, Steve’s program had sort of a “rolling” curriculum style. Students could jump in monthly and everyone ran through the skills on their own timeline.

That’s a thought worth putting a pin in. . . . 

Part of the challenge is that we’re constantly working with a potpourri of candidates – every student joins us from a different point of entry. Some are brand, brand new. Many have a smattering of DIY upholstery under their belt. A few are actually working somewhere in the trade, or a related trade, and join us for a short while to refine or master a specific skill.

We try to meet individuals where they’re at, to the best of our abilities.

Still, in spite of the considerable challenges, I’m not throwing this particular baby out with the bathwater.  The idea of creating more structured curriculum, especially for our aspiring professionals . . . it bears further scrutiny.

 2. Quantity of hours in one location

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If you ask just about any upholsterer for their recipe on  ” How to make a professional” the main ingredient will undoubtedly be hours:

You need PRACTICE. And SO. MUCH. OF IT.

It’s the single biggest barrier we face in the private market: We simply cannot replicate the number of in-house hours students used to receive.

Not even for our local students, and ESPECIALLY not for the much larger pool of students who travel for hands-on education.

Steve had his students for two THOUSAND hours. With a solid curriculum and that many hours? Oh man, you could DEFINITELY  create some quality candidates.

But remember, now: after 2,000 hours, these graduates weren’t  considered “done” exactly . . .  They were  prepared for the next stage of their journey.

Which brings me to another point . . .

3. Industry structure:

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Here’s the thing with degree programs: They’re designed to prepare candidates for a job market.

The program at Century perhaps closed prematurely. But would it have closed eventually anyway?

Personally, sadly, I’d bet yes.

Whatever led to the closure of our particular program, this has been a sweeping national trend, and they can’t all be flukes.

If there isn’t job placement, it’s difficult to justify a degree program.

As manufacturing has left  our states, and large shops have quietly disappeared, we’re left with a vast network of very small businesses.

In fact, overwhelmingly sole proprietorships, cottage industries, side hustles and  1-2 person LLCs.

Most businesses aren’t structured for semi-skilled labor: They’re doing a lot of custom one-off, and a freshly trained upholsterer is likely  more of a hindrance than a help.

The industry of today is NOT prepared to absorb two dozen serious-but-new candidates in a single location.

Is there a shop here and there who would like a post degree candidate? Absolutely!
But you can’t create an entire program around the needs of a few scattered businesses.

One more thought on the issue, at the risk of hitting a nerve: Most shops who contact us, who ARE looking for the kind of candidate a degree program could produce . . . They aren’t really offering the kind of positions that a young, quality candidate is looking for long term. They need candidates with a lot of skills, a decent amount of experience, a good work ethic. . . But by the time a person HAS those skills, and IF they have that work ethic, shops very often can’t afford them, or are frustrated when they don’t stick around.

This leads to much angst and hand wringing from everyone.

But really? I don’t think there’s a bad guy. It’s just hard to square the numbers.

We have a huge, gaping, disconnect between the shop structures of yesterday, and the candidates of today.

There is work out there. But they way we used to do business is increasingly impractical.


Which leads me to this conclusion:
Our industry isn’t dying – our business models are.


THIS is a problem we can work on.

And we shouldn’t be too precious about it. . . . Every industry has had to adapt in  order to survive.

We still buy groceries, and clothing, and travel, and luxury items, and books and homes, and entertainment  . . and we’re not always looking for the lowest price.

 But we don’t buy anything the  way we did 50 years ago.


4. Cost

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And here at last, the biggest question of all: Who is to foot the bill?

If you look at any model for upholstery education, I implore you to consider: how is it funded?? 

In the case of Century College, and degree programs in general, the massively expensive undertaking of providing students 2000 hours of hands-on education was largely subsidized by government funding. Obviously, students paid tuition, and fabric sales helped cover costs.

Still.

A degree program runs a huge tab, and somebody, somewhere has to pay it.

I think there’s some comfort when “somebody” is the government because it feels anonymous. But if government is going to write a check for education? They want to know where those candidates are planning to work.

For those of you who do not know me in person, let me out myself now:  I lean pretty far left.

But if you ask me, should the government pony up for professional level upholstery education? I’m sorry: My answer would be no.

Not unless we can prove quality job placement, and a lot of it.

Maybe someday we can. . . but not today.


I want to say something important about the program at Century:

I want to say, it was incredible.

By all accounts, according to every person I’ve spoken with.

And the reason is Steve Cone.

His reputation as a teacher, a mentor, a professional, an author . . . it proceeds him. He has affected the lives and careers of countless upholsterers across the country, including me. 

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So everything I say, I say with absolute respect, love and revere for the program he so brilliantly designed.
It was a thing of utter beauty.

He created a program for professional upholstery education that was perfectly calculated to the needs and assets of the market around him.

That should awe and inspire all of us.

But decades have passed: Our industry has changed.

EVERY industry has changed.

We don’t need solutions perfectly tailored to a bygone era: We need solutions of our own.
We need to look at what’s happening NOW.And we need to design education that fits.

And what is a modern upholsterer if not a professional problem solver?
Come one, ladies and gentleman: We can FIX this.

Because there IS work. And frankly, we’re missing a lot of it.

But possibly the worst thing we could do is keep beating the same dead horse.

This may sound grim, but it’s not: If the market were really and truly gone? We’d be sunk.But business models can be changed. Education models can be changed . . . and in fact, they MUST be changed.

With every year that passes, we have less and less energy to waste: Our quality professionals are already spread too thin.

Please . . .let’s not continue to stare at closed doors.

Expecting to survive with antiquated business models isn’t just unreasonable: It’s dangerous. Because right now, it’s the single biggest obstacle between us and the innovative solutions we actually need. . .

 

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Banging our head against the dilemma of education has led us again and again to the changing reality of our industry. Programs could be put back, but can we? 

Professional education does not thrive in a vacuum: it exits in harmony with the framework of industry around it, and our framework is alarmingly sparse. 

So next year, we’ll be exploring curriculum development, but we’ll also be creating connections with our community, hoping to carefully reweave the gap between education and industry. 

It will be painstaking and messy. We’re having one conversation at a time. But we believe that this is our path forward: a community effort, a shared mission. 

We cannot do it alone. 

7 thoughts on “Where did upholstery degrees go?

  1. Why don’t you start with “recycling” furniture. Everywhere you look, curb side, garage sales, flea markets, auctions, estate sales, etc. There is an enormous amount of good usable furniture that can be refurbished and reupholstered an recycled just for the doing, city dumps.
    Next you might look at technical schools, high schools teaching home living skills, programs trying to help reformed addicts, solders re-entering civilian life, newly weds, women in safe houses looking for a means of developing skills and renewing and building sagging self esteem. Teach a man or woman how to fish and they will never go hungry. Learning a new skill need not necessarily be taught with the sole purpose of producing a “professional”.

    1. Good morning, Grace! You’re absolutely correct – skills training does not necessarily need to produce a professional in order to have value. That’s just our current focus, as (happily) there are small, hands-on workshops popping up throughout the country. Our own shop has run run classes primarily for hobbyists and treasure hunters for the past two years, and we’re delighted with how many people have attended. These programs can be a great tool for connecting with the new and hobbyist market, which in turn helps move some of those wonderful curbside diamonds in the rough back into homes. Reupholstering a chair or sofa requires a not-insignificant investment of resources (time, materials, space, tools etc) and, as you have observed, there is an enormous amount of good furniture that ends up in the dumps, sad sad sad! So it’s very, very good to see more folks taking an interest in reupholstery as an option – from the casual to the serious student, as well as more consumers. We’re excited to do our part through training, but it is a big job and we’re grateful that others are out there trying to spread the word and share the love – lots to teach, and lots to learn!
      Thanks for reading 🙂
      Cynthia

  2. Thank you for such a thoughtful and informative perspective…I share much of your sentiment about the loss of skills related to the blue collar trades. I also agree with you that there is blue collar work out there and not enough skilled people to do it. I think change starts when society recognizing that while the computer industry has become a mainstay in our economy …that there are still valuable blue collar jobs that require skilled workers. We can’t have a world of just computer programmers…and that working with your head and your hands is just as valuable of a resource (if not more in my opinion). We need to encourage and provide a means of providing education to people who wish to gain these skills…. this is where the government should offer strong incentives to promote education.

    I think myself and others are tiring of the – fast everything …disposable… life style that dominates our culture …I am seeing more people… growing a garden, preparing great food, learning a new skill like reupholstering-myself included… looking for ways to bring pride and meaningful experiences that come from working with your hands and creating beautiful and useful things that enrich the living experience…things you won’t necessarily get from putting your face in front of a
    an electronic device.

    I could go on for days…your efforts are sincerely appreciated!

  3. After giving this some additional though…in response to how to provide craft skills training like upholstery to others in a more cost effective way…. one approach would be to create the curriculum in an E-training online environment. Yes students will need a sewing machine and materials along with a mentor to review there progress and provide assistance and direction….but I think it may doable even from a distance with current technology….

    … I could’nt believe how much I learned just from your video on how to sew a zipper for a box cushion…Thanks!

  4. Thanks Christine for speaking out about this. I feel the “angst” you speak of on three counts: (1) that so much of the furniture and textile industry has left the country I fear it may never return; (2) that the “market” for highly crafted furniture, and appreciation of the skills required to produce it among the furniture-consuming public has been replaced by a value system that favors low-cost mass-produced minimalist products that people will easily throw in the dumpster when they are tired of it. (3) Having just dropped out of an upholstery program in Washington State, I am terribly frustrated and saddened by the “gap” in upholstery training.

    I think the technical college route to upholstery training is challenged on a few fronts. In my experience there was no effort by the program administration to separate those who were motivated learners training for the work force from the casually interested or the hobbyist. Providing weekend or evening classes for the non-professional trainees would have helped elevate the intensity and focus of instruction for the professional trainees. As it was, the program had a ‘weekend art class at the community center’ vibe, with little structure and minimal oversight.
    Second, while I agree that it takes many hours to acquire proficiency, a program of intense training should NOT require two years of classes. The technical college business model seems to be to maximize the number of classes and time to help their bottom line. When you look at the curriculum of some of the trades they expand the time it takes to master some skills to 10 -12 weeks, when it should only take 2 to 4. There are reports that people are catching on to this. Throw in the influence of the abundant financial aid packages and you get the sense that this isn’t just about training students – it’s about the business of capturing welfare transfer payments. I left the program because it had poor value, and was too slow-paced and unstructured. But, now I have no place to go to learn the trade I really enjoy and aspire(d) to pursue as a business except for books and videos. Feels pretty hopeless.

    Thanks for sharing the videos from FLC. It’s been helpful and encouraging.

    1. WOW – I love everything about your thoughtful comment! I think you and I could have a very long, loud conversation over a couple cocktails.
      Your first hand experience is so relevant and, unfortunately, familiar. I’m working on a new blog series partly about why degree programs slowly devolved into barely more than community open workshops, and the barriers to separating hobbyists and aspiring professionals, especially at the local level. I’m very sorry for your experience and wish there were better pathways for you – I wish that for all of us, frankly. The road into an upholstery career is all but impassable. We are left to pack our own meals and go off trail alone.
      I am curious about your comment on the length of a degree program. I actually do agree – some skills can be covered in a few days, versus weeks. What I don’t see is that they can be taken in quick succession. Locally, I’ve felt like students were better off if they learned a skill and then went off to practice before biting off another hunk of instruction. You just can’t properly digest advanced skills if you haven’t spent time with the basics – but no way all that time needs to be (or practically CAN be) in a classroom. I’m very curious about low residency programs for determined learners such as yourself, models that could boil down the instructional component into less hours and help candidates make better use of those limited hours. Thoughts? The challenge is whether students have access to the other tools they need to succeed. I’m absolutely rabid to see better supports in place OUTSIDE the classroom for those who are trying to come in. Skills alone are just not enough, and so many pieces are missing. Education is trying to work in very arid ground.
      But to put an optimistic spin on this, I DO think there’s a culture shift happening in upholstery. New professionals are coming in with all their energy and creativity and ingenuity. A better way will be built, and there IS market opportunity waiting.
      I’d encourage you to connect with the newly founded National Upholstery Association – they even have a board member in Washington State, Michelle at Blue Roof Cabin. Networking is never a guaranteed payoff, but it’s been the best tool I’ve found and eventually tends to yield dividends of one kind or another. I think you will find some of the forward thinking peers you were missing at the technical college. I was out there this past summer for an area meet-up and I promise there are some LOVELY professionals wandering around your area. And most of them came in through all the obstacles you’re describing.
      Alright, well that’s enough rambling – but again I enjoyed your comment. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll check back for more on this topic. Sincerely, best of luck in your professional journey.
      Cynthia Bleskachek
      The Funky Little Chair

      1. Regarding thoughts on low residency programs for motivated learners: First, I’m certain we agree that learning upholstery, as well as woodworking, and all crafts really, is primarily experiential. Getting machinery and tools to become extension of our body and intention is a matter of practice – practice – practice. But there are matching concepts and ideas that need to be clearly communicated and understood too. Unfortunately the technical college recruiters often find teachers with impressive resumes of experience, but they are not necessarily communicators or ‘idea people’. You can only get so much from a demonstration without the communication. (Imagine turning the sound off when watching an instructional video). Turning students loose on a project after the non-verbal demo and saying “come see me if you get stuck”, is essentially saying I can’t explain it, but I can show you how I do it. In the end the instructor does more than half of each student’s project. So, one key to a successful program is to find the right instructor/mentor. I’ve got a feeling there aren’t many. Case in point; I spent the first 3 or 4 weeks frustrated and disappointed in my sewing skills because I couldn’t get the ‘walking foot’ to walk instead of run. Had the instructor picked up on my vocalized frustrations and communicated the trick of ‘bobbling the pedal’ to ease out the needle when it is buried in 4 layers of vinyl, or explained how to adjust the motor clutch to make it more or less sensitive to pedal movements, I would have advanced through the exercises even faster. Yes, I learned by struggling and failure, but I lost time with the inefficiency.

        Based on my experience I think comprehensive technical college programs for training workforce could be shortened by merely increasing the intensity of practices and content delivery in an ‘emersion’ setting – like six hours per day, 4 or 5 days per week, for three or four semesters; not a two hour class on building an ottoman or recovering a car seat 3 days per week for a month. Even though the upholstery concepts and skills required of the DIYer and workforce trainee are the same, it boils down to a matter of the student’s personal valuation of those skills and the intensity at which they are presented. The DIYer may give up on the craft after their ottoman is completed.

        I also agree that learning support outside the technical college classroom is needed – something like the MakerSpace idea. The problem with the MakerSpaces in our area is that they are prohibitively expensive to rent and they aren’t equipped with upholstery equipment. The classroom, internship/apprenticeship arrangement that you have set up at Grahn’s is a good model – as long as the host upholstery shop does not feel threatened by training people who might become future competitors in a thin market, or catering to the DIYers who would otherwise be contracting shop services. The risk of working at cross-purposes to the host shop needs to be balanced by their devotion to the craft and the need to promote it in an industry that seems threatened.

        Thanks for putting the positive spin on the state of things. I’ll look up National Upholstery Association. And, sorry I forgot your first name Cynthia.

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