Planning Your Upholstery Workspace

‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions, so what better time to talk about workspace organization? Under normal circumstances, a messy shop is one of the frustrations I hear most frequently from business owners. January marks the end of peak season for many workrooms, so there’s a high likelihood that those frustrations have been bubbling over for you in recent weeks. But I have good news! It doesn’t have to be this way. Today, I want to give you some actionable steps towards a less frenetic future. I’m also going to offer some additional reading for anyone seeking a deep dive on this topic.

First of all: WHY???

Who cares if the workroom is a mess? Well, YOU should, for one. A messy workroom increases the likelihood of damage and contamination. It sends a visible signal to your client about the kind of business you run. And you better believe, it’s costing you MONEY. Upholsterers are often quick to grab the idea of hiring a helper to push more work out the door – but they miss the many places where time is repeatedly being squandered. 

Disorganization leads to inefficiency. Any time spent looking for stuff, tripping over stuff, reorganizing stuff, moving and stacking stuff . . . ALL THOSE HOURS are NOT spent generating revenue. (To say nothing of how incredibly stressful it is. . . ) My goodness, what if you got all those hours back???

Taking time to improve your workflow and organization isn’t easy . . . but it’s a WHOLE lot easier than hiring and training. And issues of disorganization will MOST DEFINITELY multiply with each team member you bring in. So there’s no time like the present for looking this issue in the face! 

#1. Change your mind

“Mise en place (French pronunciation: ​[mi zɑ̃ ˈplas]) is a French culinary phrase which means “putting in place” or “gather”. It refers to the setup required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared during a shift”

Source: Wikipedia 

I don’t understand it, but there is a fierce cultural belief in upholstery that chaos and mess are synonymous with creativity. I will concede that what we do is often messy, and rarely straightforward. But this could be said of many things – for example, cooking. Cooking can be very messy, very creative. But a professional kitchen is not allowed to descend into chaos. Why? Because nobody could do their best work under those circumstances. Even in a creative field, ESPECIALLY in a creative field, our environment should support the work we’re trying to do – not impede it. We can’t change anything until we change our mindset. As long as you believe that chaos is part of your professional identity, it WILL be. So close your eyes and imagine walking into an orderly workspace. Picture yourself moving through it without friction or frustration. How does it feel? Now let’s manifest it.

#2. Less is more

“Effective tidying involves only two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to store things. Of the two, discarding must come first.”

– The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

We ALWAYS utilize space underneath our classroom cutting table for storage.

The first issue in most workspaces is that they simply contain too much STUFF. Did your hackles go up? Did you feel an immediate physical response, and a desire to defend all your tools, dusty supplies, free chairs, and fabric scraps? Listen, I get it. I DO. But let’s decide if this is a storage unit or a workspace. Because it can’t be optimized for both. 

There are many things that NEED to be in your shop. Active client projects. A variety of frequently used tools. Space hogs like dacron and sheets of foam. People. Adding anything unnecessary into the mix creates additional hurdles. And as Marie Kondo so joyfully communicates, too much stuff will never stay organized for long. NEVER. You GOTTA get rid of clutter. But HOW????  Marie Kondo fans will recognize her method of piling up related items in one massive heap. I was surprised to learn that this approach also appears in Lean Manufacturing (more on that later). Here’s the gist . . . Pick a category: Fabric. Adopted frames. Hand tools. Whatever. Go through your workspace and pull EVERYTHING OUT IN THAT CATEGORY. Go through ALL your little hidey holes and find EVERY screwdriver, every hammer, every plier. Pile them up and take a moment to recognize how much you actually have.  Are you surprised? Now let’s say you find 20 random hammers. I bet you 100 million dollars you only regularly use maybe 3. TOPS. When I go to the tool rack, I’m reaching for my favorite hammer/scissors/pliers every single time. More stuff being there just makes it harder to find what I need. 

#3. All items are not created equal

Once you have jettisoned unnecessary items, think about what you use most frequently – daily, even. These items deserve “prime real estate” – hip to eye level, like brand name cereal at the grocery store. They should not be difficult to find or reach. Things you use less frequently, but still need? Those items can go up or down – but don’t work around it every day if you only need it twice a year. Still really struggling to let your six extra pliers and heap of salvaged springs go? Box them up, put them in a REALLY inconvenient place, and give them an end date. If you suddenly need something, it’s still there. If after 3 or 6 or 12 months you haven’t had a reason to open the box, take a deep breath and let go. Remember: you are making a difference in reducing furniture waste. You can arguably make a BIGGER difference in a workspace that lets you be productive. 

Less time struggling with clutter means more furniture out the door. 

#4. Give your space a plan, Stan

“Waste in transportation includes movement of people, tools, inventory, equipment, or products further than necessary.”

-The 8 Wastes of Lean by Nawras Skhmot

‘The Henhouse’ – Lindsay Orwig’s Workspace for her upholstery business: A Chick and a Chair

Your shop is a workspace. WORK. Space. I know we get all jazzed about finding a cool shelf, or blinging out the entryway. But at the end of the day, form should follow function: we’re here to get ish DONE. 

So how is your space designed to work? Big or small, there should be a roadmap. 

Think about how a project comes into your shop, and the stages it moves through on its way to completion.  Give machinery and equipment locations relevant to that journey. I like to start with where furniture comes in, because it shouldn’t go through an obstacle course. I also put sewing and cutting together – for hopefully obvious reasons. If possible, I’ll create some physical friction between cutting and bench areas – I don’t want messy work near expensive new fabric. Designating a “storage area” can help you communicate boundaries to clients – oops, I’m sorry, your chair CAN’T come in early – as you can see, my storage area is full. 

Starting with a good, holistic, well-thought-out plan will help you make informed decisions from here forward. 

Once you have a workflow mapped out, you can put tools and supplies in the most convenient spots. I am always amazed when an upholsterer walks across their shop to get something from a completely nonsensical location without recognizing the constant drip, drip, drip of time waste. 

So get on Google Sketch-up if you’re techy. Bust out the graph paper if you’re not. Draw the footprint of your space. EMPTY. Q-tip your brain of anything you’ve already shoved in. Where do clients come in? Where does furniture come in? Where does most of your work happen? How can you avoid having to criss cross the room all day? If you have a very small space, like a basement workshop, can you push anything offsite? Garage project storage? Consultation office upstairs? If you have a large space, are your zones clear and in the right location? Or is it one big, random free-for-all?  

Good design is invisible. You’ll know you got it right when you’re able to walk in and just WORK. 

#5 Make it easy, make it obvious

“The idea that a little bit of discipline would solve all our problems is deeply embedded in our culture . . . Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control.”

– Atomic Habits by James Clear

If I had a nickel for every workroom owner who complained about people not cleaning up, I’d throw my team a pizza party. Here’s the thing: I’ve BEEN you. Our first year offering classes, I spent a lot of time cleaning up after students, and it made me incredibly crabby. Now? We rarely have to do much. Our students didn’t all get smarter, or magically increase their work ethic: We looked for ways to make clean-up easy and obvious. Things like a LOT of pegboard, and a LOT of labels. 

Our cutting tables are separated from the bench area so nobody uses it for messy work like gluing and tearing back!

I can’t really expect a Weekend Warrior to memorize our carefully planned storage system, when half the time they’re still learning tool names. I mean, I could – but we’d both be disappointed and frustrated. I CAN usually expect them to read, however.

Surprise! Most people will use good systems if you provide them. There are whole businesses built around this premise – Ikea, Target, Disney World. They want systems SO GOOD that you rarely have to ask for help. Which most of us kind of like.

So how can you semi-automate your space?

Putting a webbing stretcher on a shelf is a start. But once that webbing stretcher gets moved (like someone USED it) there’s now no reference for where it went. If you (or your apprentice) don’t remember – and why would you – there’s a good chance it will end up somewhere random. If you want to keep insisting that everyone should “just pay attention”, have fun dying on that hill. 

If the outcome you’re after is an organized workspace with minimal upkeep, put things into logical, visible locations, and get out a label maker. People do what is easy and what is obvious – and that includes YOU in the middle of a hectic job when you just don’t want to think about it. 

Is your brain busy? Mine is very VERY busy. In a perfect world, I’d like to expend zero brain cells on clean-up. And it’s not because I’m lazy. It’s because I have bigger cognitive fish to fry – and I bet you do, too. 

#6 Create a maintenance system

“Anything you create a process for today saves you time tomorrow

– Procrastinate on Purpose by Rory Vaden

Everything we’ve discussed up to this point will give you a really solidly low-maintenance start. But an organized shop DOES need some regular attention. In most businesses, this gets no proactive love. Clutter builds up until someone freaks out and deals with it – usually while yelling. 

Keeping each sewing machine stocked with identical essentials helps us stay organized and creating.

You need a system. 

If you are new to the idea of building systems in your business, this is a great place to start. Most upholsterers are very hands-on, and keeping your space tidy is a physical task. And it’s a LOT more repeatable than upholstery, which makes it much easier to nail down. SO: I want you to write down all the tasks associated with cleaning up your shop. AND BE SPECIFIC. “Clean up at the end of the day” is vague to the point of worthless. Me and my husband have very different definitions of what clean means. So do me and my neurotic older sister. Clean is a very subjective term. Do you mean sweep? Vacuum? Do tables need to be moved?Do tools and supplies get put away? Left with the project someone is working on for the next day? Where do notes go? Templates? Where does remnant fabric go? Where does something go if nobody knows what it is? Who comes around to clear those piles out?

Now take all this information and give each task a home. Figure out WHO is supposed to do it, and WHEN they are supposed to do it.  Beware the “someone” – SOMEONE should SOMEONE should!!! Boss up.  Figure out which “someone” you’re talking about. Do you expect every team member to do an end of day list? Is this an apprentice duty? A manager duty?  Your personal end of week ritual? Something you can delegate to a teenager? Is it daily? Weekly? Monthly? After the end of each project? Figure it out. Any plan that’s vague and only in your head has a 99.99% failure rate, no matter how good and smart the team is.  

I’m a HUGE fan of a checklist – asking someone to make one, or asking someone to test one. Involving team members in the development of a system increases the likelihood that they’ll use it, and that it actually works. 

Eliminating unnecessary clutter helps us inventory and find what we need quickly.

#7 Embrace perpetual improvement

Getting your workspace organized, and systems in place to keep it that way. . . It isn’t a “one and done” task. Each improvement will reveal new gray areas and weak points. Don’t get frustrated. Embrace the challenge. Work out the kinks. 

What do we do as upholsterers? We try stuff. We observe the results. We adapt. If you aren’t seeing the results you’re after, what can you modify? Clarify? Simplify? 

Old habits die hard – when we get busy, we forget. We go back to what we’ve always done. If we don’t quite understand what’s expected, we make things up as best we can. But walking into a clean and organized shop is it’s own reward, and worth the persistence. What a palette for starting your workday!

How we’re applying these principles: We are actively walking this walk – creating an organized and low-maintenance training space has been essential to offering workshops that don’t disrupt our professional flow. If classes left a mess, we wouldn’t have made it this far. Instructors have been incredibly key in identifying weak points, gray areas and opportunities for improvement. 

Our FLC classroom systems are multi-faceted. . . The space is designed to support good habits – very little clutter, intentionally positioned work zones, lots of pegboard and labels, etc. This helps students navigate and care for the space – and to a large extent, they do. Our instructors give end-of-day cues when it’s time to start cleaning up, and let students know what that means (sweep up, tools away, fabric stacked with project, etc.) They are available to answer questions as needed, but students do the work. At the end of each workshop, instructors run a full cleaning checklist. It’s organized by area, and as simple as possible. We’ve identified WHAT the work is, WHO does it, and WHEN. This fits OUR schedule. The end of a workshop is a very logical time to give everything a proper once over (also our instructors are awesome) Your needs will be different – but we hope this gives you some ideas to start with. 

– Cynthia Bleskachek

Books quoted in this post:

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