Building a Better Tomorrow

Last week, I listened to an episode of 99% Invisible on “social infrastructure”

(Listen to it here: Episode 346 – Palaces for the People)

Social infrastructure are the places, events and connections that bind a community together.

Social infrastructure can include libraries, parks, trails, shopping districts, and all the events and gatherings that happen there – just to name a few.

When social infrastructure is present and well tended, a community is statistically more likely to be happy, healthy and resilient in the face of difficulty.

When social infrastructure erodes, communities become brittle, vulnerable, and individuals within them more isolated.

Photo by Josh Sorenson on

Ah ha.

In the past few decades, upholstery has seen our education system collapse. We can see that loss, we can name it, mourn it, and address it.

But I’d argue that the collapse of education created a larger, less visible wound.

It appears, for all intents and purposes, that the U.S. upholstery community has functioned for decades with almost no guilds, associations, unions, or organizations.

Schools were largely acting as central hubs for our professional community, the fragile keystone of our loosely joined industry.

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When programs went away, our social infrastructure was the catastrophic collateral damage. How now were we to know each other? To work together?

For our older tradespeople, there may have been enough residual relationships to limp along. Perhaps you already know the people you care to know.

But our newer tradespeople? They’ve never had that community. Or worse – they’ve been actively ostracized, for not having “real” training. Which is hilariously cruel when “real” training is no longer an option.

So here we are on the tail end of our residual infrastructure, with a new generation of upholsterers attempting to phase in.

Beyond the already staggering challenges of learning upholstery, navigating a trade sans infrastructure is excruciatingly hard – and often isolating.

We have almost no shared resources to tap into, almost no places or events where we can connect, particularly at the local, physical level.

We’re all swimming upstream on our own.

It IS true that our infrastructure is attempting to rebuild, particularly online. Suddenly, we can find one another! We can share what we do, show photos of the process, deliver education without classrooms.

But online only relationships are incomplete: People need people.

As new classes have sprung up, our social infrastructure has tried to rebuild there. And why not? If schools served that function before, can’t they do it again?

Though it may overlap, education and social infrastructure are not the same. Sometimes you need both – more often, you don’t.

Secondly, modern education is almost entirely small and (mostly) privately funded. Without the physical, monetary and systemic support of an actual trade school or university, shouldering the weight of our nation’s upholstery infrastructure is a laughably heavy load to bear.

As our industry has changed, robust local education is almost certainly a thing of the past. Those who want professional education will be learning online and traveling.

I was surprised as an educator to have students travel cross country – occasionally, it seemed, for the pleasure of connecting with other professionals.

I’m always delighted to see an out of state student, but I couldn’t help but think: This is an expensive and inefficient way to network. And wouldn’t it be preferable to create somewhat local connections??

Shouldn’t there be better ways???

Our infrastructure is shockingly eroded. And such things are not created overnight. Rebuilding will be more challenging than ever, because of our reduced and scattered numbers. And it’s is not a one person task – infrastructure is only as good and strong as the community that creates and maintains it.

This job takes a village.

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But here’s some good news: Anyone can help improve the social infrastructure.

We’re laser focused on education right now, and LOOOOOOOOVE to argue over who’s “qualified” to teach (I’ll leap into that debate another day)

But social infrastructure is a job that belongs with everyone. You needn’t be the best or most experienced upholsterer. It can be as simple as an annual picnic, a casual field trip, a local upholstery club.

PUAM at Fabric Supply, Inc. in Minneapolis

How many times have you said or heard, “Someone should make a magazine” “Someone should make a podcast” “Someone should throw a party!” “Someone should, someone should, someone should”

SOMEONE isn’t necessarily someone ELSE.

And how often have you seen an event, gathering or opportunity in another industry or country and thought, ‘I wish we had that’?

It ALL requires social infrastructure.

Now I have some GREAT news: the work has already begun.

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Over the last nine months, a group of upholsterers from across the country has been working together. They’ve researched, and fought, and brainstormed, and problem solved. They’ve imagined the possibilities: and then they began to build.

(There may have been Nacho Tots.)

And at last we are ready to share the news: A National Association has begun.

The National Upholstery Association

This association is an opportunity to redefine our shared identity. To create a new sense of professional community. To see what we can create together.

Are you ready for that? I know I am.

I will be honest: I did not think this was a realistic goal. I thought it was too much work, with too few hands. But this group of (possibly crazy, definitely determined) women proved me wrong.

I also feared it was too soon, that too few people would leave the sidelines and join in. That too few people would value the bigger picture.

And I hope you prove me wrong.

Because social infrastructure is only as valuable as its participation rate. What good are parks or trails or libraries if nobody chooses to use them?

THIS IS the greater good that our profession desperately needs. A healthy community cannot reroot without infrastructure.

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I try not to ask my readers for much. If you’re an upholsterer in the U.S., I know – your hands are already full. Believe me . . . I KNOW.

But I WILL ask you for this: If you want to see a better future for our industry, get involved. In any way you see fit: GET INVOLVED.

The seed money has been raised and donated. The website has been built, the bylaws written, the legal paperwork filed, the logo created.

The table is set. Now it’s time for the guests to arrive.

To learn more about The National Upholstery Association (NUA) visit their website. You can’t join yet, but you CAN sign up to receive information and explore everything that’s already been accomplished.

I’d like to emphasize that this work was done by individuals like you. We’ve waited a long time for someone else to start, but this challenge belongs with our community. Let’s demonstrate that upholstery is a skilled trade worth fighting for.

I’d like to thank the following people for providing the funds and sweat equity to get started. I don’t know why you jumped in on such a wildly unfocused invitation – but I’m grateful you did. Just LOOK what a bunch of determined misfits can do . . .

(In alphabetical order) Joan Bonzon, Louise Cornick (Upholstery Education), Elizabeth DeCrescenzo (Nailed it Upholstery), Rachel Fletcher (Knox Upholstery), Kara Greimel, Karen Huset, Kriss Kokoefer (Kay Chesterfield), Audrey Lonsway (Sewing Den, LLC), Lindsay Orwig (A Chick and a Chair), Diane Parlin (Parlin’s Upholstery), Carla Pyle (Natural Upholstery), Rhonda Shanahan (The Whimsical Chair)

“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”
Helen Keller

1 thought on “Building a Better Tomorrow”

  1. Bernstein Lorraine

    I always love reading your posts. Your passion for upholstery and your dedication to improve the educational opportunities for others is so good.

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