Reflections from a Liminal Space

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Well, I decided to close my business. Which feels strange, because I know the work isn’t done – I am.

How do I say anything of value in a post? I know I’ll be unpacking thoughts for years to come.
Like, maybe I should have quit upholstery 10 years ago when I figured out that there was an imminent labor shortage in Minnesota… Or 6 years ago, when I figured out that I’d have to open my own space in order to teach . . . Or 5 years ago when we figured out that our local issues weren’t actually local at all. . . Or 4 years ago when we learned that an official journeyman needs 6,000 hours of training, and we couldn’t get past 200 in the classroom.
Should I have quit when we learned how many businesses are already gone, or when we discovered that upholstery had no associations, or when we learned how much work it takes to create training programs without any classrooms in which to deliver them?
 
When was the right time to give up?
 
But OH YOU GUYS . . . If you had met the students we had, if you had seen the young business owners we’ve seen . . . I think you would understand why I wanted to keep going.  There are such amazing people trying to get in. And the progress they’ve managed to make, with near zero support… incredible. And we NEED these people, these businesses. 10 million TONS of furniture goes to landfill every year in the U.S. alone. I don’t understand why we aren’t THROWING resources at these students and small businesses, why we aren’t doing everything in our power to help them succeed. Should I have quit when the vendors turned down our requests for funding? When the trade schools turned us down? When manufacturers turned us down? When?
 
I confess, I’ve been angrier in the last year than I’ve been in my entire life. Angry for my trade community, that shows up every day, and tries to make a difference at the end of a furniture dumping pipeline that just never quits. Angry for all the gaslighting that happens, the suggestion that people should just teach themselves this complex trade off of free videos, without classrooms, or mentors, or work study. And when they’ve somehow managed to do that, the suggestion is that they should now train their own employees, or open up their workroom for classes, or personally adopt all the furniture laying around their neighborhood. It’s fun! I don’t like being angry, and I’ve been SO angry. 10 million tons isn’t exactly a hobby sized issue.

Should I have quit all the times we asked for funding and instead received “recommendations” for more things FLC could volunteer to do? Or all the times we were told to “not worry,” just pass the bill down to students and small businesses, instead of insisting that the financial responsibility isn’t theirs alone to bear?
Or how about I quit now? And I say the things that we can’t usually say?
How about I suggest that we stop CHARGING businesses for education and instead GIVE THEM FUNDING to pay people while they learn, GIVE THEM FUNDING to step away from their own bench and teach? If we’re going to pass the buck for furniture waste into the aftermarket, how about we pay already overwhelmed businesses to develop new employees? How about we stop treating them like the village hobbyist? What if I quit now, and say that?
 
I’m so tired, and I’m so sad. Because I wanted to be here. Every time we meet a promising student . . . I want to be here. I want to give them everything they need to succeed. Every time we meet an overwhelmed business owner with more requests than they can handle, I want to be here. I want to help them find the extra hands they need before they, too, burn out and give up.
 
But there is a puzzle here I just can’t solve, no matter which way I try to come at it. And the angrier I get, the less likelihood there is that I’ll bring new support to our table. Nobody likes a complainer, after all.
 
This is not how I expected the story to end. How can we not be doing something about this? How can we keep throwing hundred dollar answers at million dollar questions and then be surprised when the last craftsperson is gone? In my heart, I still hope someone can unlock doors that I couldn’t. I bring a lot to the table, but I think that this will take skills I don’t have. I hope in some way, being honest about our own experiences might help.

Still. I’m glad we stood up and tried to do something. I’m proud of that. I’m hella proud of my team, for doing great work – always on a shoestring budget and with never enough time. I’m proud of our students, and everything we’ve seen them accomplish. I’m beyond grateful for the amazing people I’ve met along the way, the traveling I got to do, the businesses I was invited into. There’s no community I’ve ever been more proud to be part of than the trade of upholstery. And because I know so many of the people doing (or still learning) the work, I KNOW there are some pretty amazing boots on the ground, fighting for the future of this craft. In many cases, even redefining it. I hope they get what they need to succeed. As for me, I have unfortunately reached my mental and physical limit for self-employment, something I never have found easy. Though I love upholstery, and training (and managing – who knew?) I don’t love constantly holding the house up. It’s kinda wrecking me, actually. Which implies a 99% likelihood of changing career fields, since there aren’t many places left in the aftermarket where upholsterers can even show up. That’s what happens when we wipe out a field by saying “it’s cheaper to buy new” for 50+ years. (How strange that we apply the same logic equally to sectional sofas and paper plates…)

Training is the only thing that ever made sense to me to focus on. I’m STILL confused. Surely, at some point, we should care that our workforce has disappeared? That they took whole businesses with them? That it takes years to develop a single craftsperson, even with the benefit of classrooms and apprenticeships??? Surely this is a problem worth solving!!! And it is. I still believe it is.
 
So between now and the end of the year, I’m going to celebrate. Celebrate the women and men I’ve met who are out there somehow doing the work. Every day on the front lines, convincing the world that furniture doesn’t have to be disposable. Not with big corporate marketing budgets, but with creativity and passion, on social media, on blogs they personally write, and face to face with the consumer. I’ll celebrate their businesses, which are a miracle worth celebrating, coming into existence against all reasonable odds, proving again and again and again that upholstery is no dying trade (although it surely is a struggling one). I’ll celebrate the reupholstered sofas and chairs that people are sitting on as they read this (and the one I am sitting on to write it) I’ll celebrate all the ways in which these new businesses are connected, and cheering one another on. I’ll celebrate because we have all fought HARD for that. 10 years ago, if upholsterers showed up online, it was usually to push people down. And you certainly didn’t support “the competition”… Every time I see an upholsterer re-post their neighbor’s work, or share a “secret” or pass along an opportunity … Oh I will most certainly celebrate THAT. And I’ll celebrate that this incoming generation of upholsterers has skills and connections that I don’t. Because they might yet unlock something I couldn’t. I’ll celebrate that there are long overdue discussions already happening, around furniture waste, right to repair, circular design. . . . I’ll celebrate (and hope) that real change may yet be possible.

For the next month, I’ll be in my space, doing some of the things I love best – upholstery, and teaching upholstery. For the rest of the year, as we wrap up our online programs, I’ll be spending time with a few of my favorite upholstery folks, showing up for a trade event here and there, and no doubt sharing some favorite memories from the last 6 years. After all, there have been some really wonderful moments along the way. And there have been loads of wonderful people. I wouldn’t have missed them for the world. After that? I’m not sure. But I am looking forward to finding out ❤️

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