The National Upholstery Potluck

I have a confession to make: these past 9 months, I’ve felt rather despondent.

Two years ago, I took the scary leap into a shop of my own, determined to make some difference in the educational void facing our community.

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I had very few answers, but how do you discover solutions if not through research and experimentation?

  • Step 1: Get our serious learners into a more ongoing relationship with hands-on education.
  • Step 2: Network our pants off. 
  • Step 3: Be loud on social media.
  • Step 4: Hope it yields something worthwhile.

And okay . . . it DID.

For a new business, frantically learning along the way, we did tremendously well.

Unfortunately, it seemed like the more we learned, the more underwater I felt.

Locally, we could offer serious students only a tiny fraction of the hours allotted to a degree program. It was a struggle to simply keep teaching in the black. Hours never stretched as far as they needed to. And would degree programs ever come back, with all their support and funding? That outlook was decidedly grim.

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Where did upholstery degrees go?

How on earth could we be the in-depth educational resource that people were seeking?

And IF we could, what then? Through our attempts at education, we began to unravel a bigger challenge – the eroded structure of industry around us.

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The seven year gap

Almost immediately, we started hearing from people all over the country.

What I’d focused on as a local and isolated challenge appeared to be happening everywhere. Students who couldn’t find education. Students who found education, but couldn’t navigate the leap to professional. Shops that couldn’t find skilled help. Young professionals drowning under the weight of their own businesses.

If we couldn’t even solve these problems at home, how on earth could we help anyone in Iowa, Alabama, Arizona, California?

Here OR there, could  you have ANY professional training without healthy, involved shops for internships and job placement?

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Upholstery education, back to front

The education component alone . . . could it be modified to suit non-local students?  To create education for the vast majority of students who don’t have access to a low-ratio local option would take an enormous effort, and a completely new way of approaching the problem.

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Upholstery education, upside down

If such a model were possible, how could it be created? How could it be funded? How could it be marketed and delivered? How do you initiate ANYTHING within an industry this disconnected? Who is in a position to help??? Most of our workforce is either rapidly approaching retirement, or hopelessly overwhelmed. The vast majority of upholsterers are not connected to one another in any easily discernible way – we have no unions, no guilds, only one professional association (near as I can tell – the Professional Upholsterer’s Association of Minnesota)

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PUAM at Fabric Supply, Inc., Minneapolis

There are pockets of structure and networking, through social media, online forums and sister trades (such as the Window Coverings Association of America) but connecting with even a small slice of the upholstery community is painstaking and exhaustingly inefficient.

And that upholstery community? We tend to disagree on just about everything.

Our St. Paul program was built primarily around hands-on supported open workshop for modern residential reupholstery, from hobbyist to aspiring professional. It’s what I know best and what is most relevant to our local market.

That seems like a big slice of education. But it’s not.

Some in our U.S. community would say NO! We need traditional education! We need historic restoration! We need accredited Masters!
Others would say, WE NEED WEBINARS! We need quality online courses!
We need professional conferences and trade shows!
We need podcasts! We need publications!
We need  natural, sustainable materials in the product market!
We need marine! We need automotive! We need commercial!
We need apprenticeships!
We need relationships with the design community!

And all I could do is think . . . Yeah.

Yeah. We need all of it.

Education for hobbyists. Education for aspiring professionals. Continuing education. Networking events. Trade shows. On-the-job training. Modern education. Traditional education. Specialized education. Local resources. Destination events. Some education structured for quality, and some  for quantity (what is upholstery, after all, besides knowledge and practice?)

Beyond the education, we need take a good hard look at our business models. We need to reevaluate our game plan in the modern market.

We. Need. All of it.

But how? But where? But who?

At first I was just so frustrated, so defeated. What was the point? You can’t ever be everything to everyone. We could barely be ONE thing – what about all the needs we were utterly failing to meet?

All of our hard won progress was laughably irrelevant once you stepped back to look at the bigger picture. 

Do we give up? We certainly can’t fix all this.

NOBODY can. . . It’s not a one person problem.

Which is how I eventually concluded:

We can’t succeed with a catered event:
this situation requires a potluck.

What if we focused on engaging, connecting and empowering the community around us? What if we said, “HEY! It’s fine to check out the offerings on our menu, but take a minute and dig through your own fridge.  See if you can’t magic up a little casserole to share.”

Because I KNOW. . . that’s what we’re doing up here. We’re looking REALLY REALLY HARD at what’s available.

What do I do well? What do you do well? Who do we know? What can we try?

We’re pulling out the random cans, scraping out the crisper drawer and saying, OKAY! What can we make with this????

Unless you have the exact same ingredients . . . you just can’t copy our recipe. And BiteSquad doesn’t deliver this particular dish.

But! But!!!!! You may have ingredients that we don’t!!!!
We aren’t exactly working with a fully stocked kitchen up here.

Upholsterers in the U.S. have a loooooong history of not working together. There is a deeply entrenched fear that sharing “secrets” with our neighbors leaves less for us.  So this approach might be a tough sell. But you know what? I don’t subscribe to those attitudes.  I loves me a strong community – to collaborate with, to refer to, to work among.

Couldn’t we all use a stronger community right about now???????

I’ve said it before, let me say it again: A rising tide lifts all ships. We need to get these boats a-floating.

In two years, we’ve collected pretty good evidence to support a collaborative approach. We’ve worked together and  accomplished more because of it.

It can be done. REALLY.

And another important thing we learned? We didn’t have the answers. . . but we accomplished far more through action than we would have through inaction.

Doing SOMETHING was a million times more productive than doing NOTHING.

Two years ago, I opened a space and didn’t know what to expect. I just knew it was time to start, and I hoped that solutions would arise.

They did.

Mostly in the form of people. Good but regular people, who showed up with a dish to share. Knowledge. Passion. Experience. Insight. Time. Energy. Encouragement.

It was a potluck. Some days, we had all potato salad and no forks. Other days, we argued over which is better: brownies or carrot sticks – why not both?

But we crept forward.

Two years ago, we reached out to our local community and took a leap of faith into the great unknown.

Now it is time to leap again. 

And we’d like to invite the larger community to join with us in a year long discussion. A pilot. An experiment.

A national upholstery potluck. 

In spite of considerable challenges, we still believe in the viability of our trade – but we know that real solutions will require many hands.

Please join us this Tuesday for a short facebook live conversation as we share more details on the year ahead – what our plans are in Minneapolis, and how we’d like you to be part of it.

We’re setting the table. And we hope you can make it. 

what's next?

9 thoughts on “The National Upholstery Potluck

  1. Another great read. Thank you so much for all the time and energy you put into this important education endeavor. Hats off to you!

  2. Cynthia,
    You have an amazing knack for laying out the pieces of this puzzle – thank you for providing a view of the big picture. Truly, it’s going to take many hands to put this thing together into something that benefits everyone. I’m in!

    1. Carla, thank you for reading – I would LOVE to see you include you in our conversations next year, I’m so super excited about what you’re doing out in Montana! I hope you can tune in on Tuesday for our short facebook live conversation! Best, Cynthia

  3. Hi Cynthia,
    I am a member of the Marine Fabricators Association that is a division of IFAI (Industrial Fabricators Association International) located in Roseville Mn. http://www.IFAI.com
    There is a yearly EXPO held in different cities & The divisions have yearly 3 day conferences with workshops & seminars, as well as regional weekend workshops and bi-monthly magazines for each division….invaluable information & everyone is so willing to share & many have issues that you touched on above!
    Some members have training schools. There is a closed Facebook group – Marine Canvas and Upholstery Discussion Centre…where we share & network issues from materials to techniques…
    I write for Marine Fabricator Magazine and specialize in Marine Upholstery & was recently introduced to reading about your efforts, which I greatly applaud!
    I am going to pass your info along to the editor & trust this will assist your vision toward combining knowledge & support on a broad scale!
    Warm Regards,
    Terri

    1. Hello, Terri
      Thank you for reading and commenting – I REALLY appreciate your passing our information forward! I was a big fan of the Upholstery Journal and recently came across a letter from the editor, Chris Tschida that was really thought provoking to read 11 years later. . . . I’d be quite interested to connect with IFAI and/or Marine Fabricator Magazine on the topic of training and education, it’s clearly a puzzle that’s much, much bigger than our little shop.
      Best, Cynthia Bleskachek
      The Funky Little Chair

      1. Hi Cynthia, I am delighted to read that you and IFAI already connected!
        Actually the issue of training is the topic of my article in the Sept/Oct issue…we have certainly been on a rollercoaster here in Puerto Rico since Hurricane María & lost 3 key persons!
        Fortunately 1 has returned part time as he has had several family responsibilities!
        Whereas 2 recent trainees were more hobbiests who didn’t understanding or care about the value of being trained in a specialized field!
        So much to consider & I am encouraged by your vision & passion!
        Warm regards,
        Terri

  4. Hi Cynthia,

    You have captured the state of upholstery education and you are not alone! I work to support sewn products manufacturers across the United States, and there is a similar situation with industrial sewing and a lack of critical infrastructure. In response, the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI)’s Makers Division is creating online industrial sewing training videos for members for basic sewing operator training. In case it will be helpful to your cause, the first twenty five videos are now available and more coming soon. In addition, IFAI’s video library hosts many technical sewing videos. I am the national program manager for IFAI’s Makers Division,feel free to reach out to me. IFAI is a member-owned, nonprofit representing industrial fabrics manufacturers, sewn products manufacturers, suppliers and equipment dealers.Your group PAUM is one of the largest upholstery groups that I am aware of thus far. IFAI.com/makers

    1. Hello Magda, thank you for reading and commenting – your phrase, “lack of critical infrastructure” is exactly the difficulty I’ve been struggling to articulate. I would love to have a conversation about IFAI’s assessment of the situation. . . We also see a possible path forward combining video and hands-on skills training, and next year will be trying to establish work study connections with a few shops, but it is a tricky landscape indeed. It seems like at some point reupholstery really sheared away in its own direction . . . I’m lucky to be near the PUAM where we have some ability to connect with a group of upholsterers. I see that IFAI is aimed at skilled manufacturing, and wonder where and if you see an overlap with the skilled after market? Lots of experienced shoes to fill . . .
      Best,
      Cynthia Bleskachek
      The Funky Little Chair
      cynthia@thefunkylittlechair.com

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