Upholstery education, back to front

How is new education created? If you were starting from scratch, where would you begin?

This is an important question, because as we’ve discussed in previous posts, our old models for upholstery education are increasingly impractical.

How do you pull a new  model out of your hat?

This was the question I put to an experienced and passionate educator friend over dinner one night:

How is new education actually formed?  

Her answer was elegant:

You determine what are the critical skills and tools that a student needs to succeed – and you create programming to support those goals.

This is an educational concept know as, “Backwards design.”

First, you have to identify who you’re trying to teach and how to define success. Then you build appropriate programming back from that point.

There are many flavors of upholstery education:

Hobbyist level education may be primarily about doing something creative and hands-on, completing small projects for personal satisfaction. What does upholstery education look like if the end goal is historical preservation? What does it look like if the end goal is skilled production/manufacturing?

All these programs would look very different.

Before we can create education that works, we have to identify our student and clarify our desired outcomes.

Presently, my focus is on how to educate the aspiring U.S. professional

I’m in a part of the country where many, many tradespeople are retiring with nobody prepared to absorb their diverse workload. The vast majority of this work is modern residential, but we also have profitable shops that work with designers, architects, marinas, restaurants, hospitals, clinics, hotels, offices, etc.

I believe that a good amount of potential work is never even pursued, because shops are simply spread too thin. 

Our industry has long held fast to the idea that what aspiring professionals need is skills, skills and MORE skills.

(This is also where the conversation gets stuck, because we generally can’t even agree on what skills are “right” and who is qualified to teach them. Certainly, the skills required will vary depending on what kind of work you intend to do.)

So would-be professionals needs skills. Yes.

But is that ALL they need??? Is it even the most IMPORTANT thing they need???

I am in the business of skills training – and interested in doing it well.

But I can’t deny the uneasy feeling that education alone is not enough, no matter how much we improve upon it. 

Skills training is a good start, but I can think of at least 3 other ingredients for  success: Practice, connections, and grit.

#1. Practice (practice, practice.)

This is a serious challenge. All the curriculum in the world is worthless without hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of practice. Many students are traveling for education, making it utterly cost prohibitive and impractical to spend their class time repeating a skill to proficiency. Even where education is locally available, it likely isn’t set up to facilitate the quantity of hours required for mastery.

Education is knowledge. Practice is proficiency, consistency, comprehension and speed – VERY important for a would-be professional.

So where is the burden of practice, once skills have been introduced through education?

At present, the vast majority of our shops are not well structured to take in slow, inexperienced new professionals. They’re too small. Their workloads lack repetition. Often, they’re just too busy to fold in someone who requires supervision.

The result is that we have a jarring disconnect between “student” and “professional”, with no supported grace period between. New upholsterers get repetition on their own, often at home, which invariably leads to clients showing up.

TAH DAH! You’re a professional, congratulations. 

Our industry isn’t so wild about that sequence of events, but the truth is, we lack viable alternatives. And skills training alone won’t change that.

I’ve been advised by a friend or two that I should just put up the education, and not worry about the bigger picture.

Maybe so. But I can’t quite leave it alone.

Because if our goal is to actually train PROFESSIONALS, quality education will continually run into the brick wall of larger industry dysfunction.

Can you imagine an education degree without student teaching? A cosmetology degree without a supervised work period? The value in any professional training goes well beyond the classroom. 

#2. A professional network

Serious students need access to multiple teachers, professionals, businesses and experiences. They need to see and explore all the many facets of our industry – not just the narrow slice in which one teacher resides.

And if you ask me, they need to actually be inside working shops – not just classrooms.

Because being a professional upholsterer is not a “paid hobby.” There are many layers to success, and every shop is different. It’s like the leap between cooking for your family and being the chef in a busy restaurant.

And our community doesn’t need an army of carbon copy professionals, all trained with identical skills, competing for the exact same clients.

We need to cultivate a professional community as skilled and diverse as the market demands around us.

That cannot all happen inside a classroom: serious students need networking.

If I was intending to train a truly kick-ass professional, I’d want to physically place them in several shops, preferably quite different from my own. Not just for diversity of skills, but for the valuable relationships that might be cultivated therein.

Unfortunately, networking  in our industry is notoriously difficult, especially for the newly trained. Shops are concerned about protecting their clients and their knowledge. Social media has begun to fill some of the need, but meaningful local connections are sorely lacking for most new upholsterers.

How can you thrive in a vacuum?

#3 Grit

“Passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.”
Angela Duckworth, Grit

So our industry is a bit of a mess (understatement)

If you want to break in, you’re going to need more than technical skill – you’re going to need grit, determination, ingenuity, chutzpah, whatever you want to call it.

Opportunities will not be presented to you – you’ll have to seek them our,  or create them. There will be no clear path to success, no solid rungs to climb.

It will take YEARS. 

Grit is the piece which is arguably – currently – more important than technical skill.

If you show me two professionals, one with lots of training and one with perseverance, ingenuity and determination, I’ll put my money on the latter every time.

Maybe things should be different, but as the industry stands, grit is a requirement. I get very nervous about students who believe that skills training alone is an assurance of employment or prosperity.

Oh my dear. We’ve only just begun.

Can we teach grit? The research is currently uncertain. Perhaps the best we can do is acknowledge its relevance.

So let’s review:

Who are we attempting to educate? Future skilled professionals.

What does the student require for success? 

  1. Skills 
  2. Hella practice
  3. Professional networking
  4. Grit

Skills training we’re working to replace. But what about the other components? Good education does not stand alone – not in something as complex as professional upholstery.

For now, let’s place the burden of GRIT upon our hypothetical student:

BYOG. Come ready or come not at all.

That leaves practice and networking.

How do we cultivate these components within our scattered, tattered industry? How do we rebuild a bridge between education and industry? What is the impact if we don’t?

Skills training is important – I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. But it strikes me as short-sighted to create “professional” education without discussing the larger picture. 

So what are we to do?

What indeed. . . We’ll pick up this part of the discussion next week, examining the missing link between education and industry – it’s impact on all of us, and what might be done to restore it.

But I have one last thought for today. . .

A recent guest on The Andrew Deitsch Podcast was explaining Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency .

(or trying to – I still don’t get it, but I’m glad somebody does. )

One passing comment really struck me. He said, “Progress will always favor the path of least resistance.” or something similar.

I thought that was so interesting. As a general population, we don’t deliberately go looking for harder ways to move forward.  Why would we?

So as formal upholstery education became sparser, harder to find, less convenient . . . new students migrated to the path of least resistance: self-teaching.


Can we force the river of education back into old channels, now that it’s made new paths? Hmmm. . . maybe?

Alternately, we could develop professional education that works WITH these new paths. We could figure out to successfully intercept them. We can work to provide this self-teaching generation of would-be professionals with the additional tools they need to be great tradespeople.

Given that grit is the toughest ingredient to “teach”, I’m pretty excited about candidates that likely already have it.


It’s something worth thinking about, anyway. . .

Big thanks to my dear friend and sister-in-law, Jennifer Parlin for indulging my endless questions regarding education. You are wellspring of generosity and insight, and I look forward to pestering you repeatedly in the years ahead. 

If you are interested in understanding more about Grit, check out Angela Lee Duckworth’s excellent TED Talk .

To read more about Backward Design, check out this article from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching 






5 thoughts on “Upholstery education, back to front”

  1. Great thoughts Cynthia. I admire your dedication to this cause as I am one of those up and comers. Sounds like a robust upholsterers’ organization/association could help fill the networking/mentoring gap in addition to supporting education efforts. Is there such a thing or one in the past to be revived?

    1. P.S. Just did a search and found nothing along these lines but a North American association who doesn’t appear to be very active. Nothing here in CA where I am. I would love to network and find a local mentor.

      1. thefunkylittlechair

        Hello Debbie! Excellent questions with no easy answers – I know there are some folks in California working to make things happen (Louise Cornick at Upholstery Education, for one) but I THINK they’re mostly in Southern California, and one thing we’re discovering is that there really is a need for SOME kind of local resource – traveling for quality education is good, but it’s hard to get everything you need that way 🙁
        We do not have a U.S. Association, though there is some interest. Rumor has it there used to be one, but I’ve been in the industry for 15+ years and never heard a reliable report, so if they existed, they weren’t very active.
        I know there’s interest in reviving one, so you never know. I personally think we’ll see state or local associations first, number one because it’s easier to organize (theoretically) and also because industry resources and challenges vary so much from area to area. A shop in Minnesota will necessarily function very differently from one in Mississippi or California or Massachusetts.
        We’ll see . . . I think there is a new generation of upholsterers hungry for collaboration, so here’s hoping!

  2. I was amen-ing throughout this entire article. My experience was kind of a hybrid of “structured” instruction through our technical college. There was no certificate, just a one night a week community enrichment class taught by a guy with 50+ years experience. I took it 5 consecutive times bringing in my own projects. Than started doing things for friends and family — exactly like you referenced — and applied for my master business license 2 years later. It’s nuts! I cringe when I think of the quality of the work I put out when I was a new professional. That was 15 years ago and I’ve been honing, learning, quitting, and coming back to it ever since. I can’t quit it. I love it. But I throw my hands up in frustration at least once a week. When you do custom work you never know what will walk through the door and what surprises it may harbor. Talk about being stretched thin. I regularly turn away work because I can’t handle it all and I can’t take the time to train someone to replicate myself. I have an assistant and I hire teens to strip down pieces but it’s still not enough. I’ve taught workshops in the past but find they are just more work for me added to my already heavy load. So, yes, yes, yes. We are in a pickle. Thanks for the article and the comraderie!

    1. thefunkylittlechair

      Nia thank you so much for reading and commenting!!! You articulate so perfectly what I think is happening across much of our industry. It’s not an ideal cycle, but the challenges to restructure it are daunting, to put it mildly. And they go way beyond education. As you say, you never know what will walk through the door – it’s crazy what the average upholsterer does in a typical calendar year, even it you work to keep your services somewhat limited. I too often feel like I’m turning away good work (or at the very least, not pursuing it) in order to stay sane. I’m glad you’ve done some workshops, and I understand entirely why you generally don’t – it really is it’s whole own giant undertaking, usually without the support of any third party.
      The good news to me, is that we certainly have potential work, and we have people who’d like to do it. Surely, then, there are solutions for bringing the two together, and in the process, hopefully providing a little support and relief to our many shops who are operating as overwhelmed armies of one. I spoke with a second generation retired upholsterer from Wisconsin yesterday, who recently closed up shop with a whole docket of ongoing commercial accounts, plus custom automotive. Nobody to buy his shop, nobody to absorb the profitable work. Bananas!!!! And yet, so very typical . . . .
      Anyhow, thank you for reading, I do hope you’ll keep following the conversation in the weeks ahead. Trying to problem solve our way out of this repeating pickle. . .
      Best, Cynthia Bleskachek

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