Would you do well at upholstery?

Last week, a woman dropped by The Funky Little Chair to inquire about classes. We answered a bunch of questions, and she started to leave, rather jazzed to give this upholstery thing a try.

Then she turned back and asked, “So what kind of people do well in upholstery? Who ends up really liking it? Is it like a sewing thing? Is it more like manufacturing?”

I LOVED this question! I’m always intrigued to see who sticks around – I’ll tell you, upholstery isn’t always what people expect. Some folks acquire a taste, and others immediately look for a new hobby.

I thought it would be fun to crowdsource this question, so I reached out to some experienced upholstery friends:

What does it take to be successful in upholstery?

It was a wonderful discussion – here are a few of their answers:

Being good with your hands

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“I think you really gotta like working with your hands, because that’s what you’re gonna be doing. And you need strong hands, but I think you can develop that.” Amy Otteson, Amy Oh Design, Minnesota

I think this is what draws a lot of folks to upholstery in the first place – we’re increasingly a society of corporate and tech jobs. We sit at a lot of desks. People who come in crave the opportunity to get their hands on something real. But be forewarned:

You can’t be afraid to get dirty and physical.

“It is not a trade for anyone who is afraid to get dirty or get a thousand owies from staples, slivers etc, get glue on your hands, work with dirty disgusting interiors of old furniture.” Tracy Spear, Sew Kewl Upholstery , Utah

I told our visitor that people often come in expecting home ec, only to discover that class is a lot more like shop: You’re going to get messy. You’re going to get scratched up. You’re going to be tired.  It’s a terrible, wonderful, unavoidable part of the job. (One of my favorite parts, actually)

Understanding physical problems

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“Generally people who understand how things work, and if they don’t they can figure it out.” Kylin Brimhall

“I used to pull the furniture apart to see how it was made. It wasn’t popular.” Michael Tulk 

” Visualizing end product is key and also knowing and understanding 3rd dimensioning, the order of operations.” Davis Bradshawe, Vinyl Destination Upholstery, Maine

“Problem solvers” Louise Turner Cornick, Sitting Pretty Upholstery Services, California

“No two jobs are ever the same. Someone with a creative mind and problem solving skills.” Nathan Spadaro, Decor Upholstery, Sydney 

So much of upholstery is the ability to READ a project – take apart what’s there and understand how to recreate it. How does this work? If it doesn’t work, why not? Spatial and logical skills are critical, because you can’t find a road map to everything you’ll encounter – you have to apply what you know to whatever you find.

The human brain is a beautiful and amazing thing. Some people are really good math, others at language. Some people understand complex strategy and love chess. Other people will destroy you at Scrabble while you’re busy playing two letter words.

It’s apparent when people dig into a chair that some brains are better wired for deciphering furniture than others. I’m a firm believer that we can learn pretty much anything with enough determination, but natural aptitude certainly doesn’t hurt.

No matter what, don’t make the mistake of expecting a cakewalk:

Being comfortable with struggle:

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“I think you have to be willing to fail. That’s the only way you’re going to learn anything.” Amy Otteson, Amy Oh Design, Minnesota

“It goes beyond class: It’s hours and hours of trial and error and trying again to get it right.”  Tracy Spear, Sew Kewl Upholstery 

“I can envision what I want a piece to be, how it could look and love the process of getting there.  I curse and get angry with every piece and struggle a bit with each one, but the end result is so satisfying, that the bloody fingers, callouses and frustrations and failures are worth it.”  Jennifer Hopkins, West Brome Upholstery, Quebec 

Ugh, the struggle is brutal, and so many new students are caught off guard. If you want to be good at upholstery, there is SO MUCH STRUGGLE between you and that goal.

I remember the year I learned how to sew boxed/welted/cushions – I wanted to have a grown up temper tantrum every time I had to rip out a seam or restitch a corner.

But as the saying goes, “It never gets easier, you just get stronger.”

Struggle is an inevitable part of being successful in upholstery:  You can’t walk around it: You gotta walk through.

Meticulous: But not necessarily a diehard perfectionist

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“Attention to detail is a must have!” Kylin Brimhall

“Knowing that there’s no such thing as perfect in upholstery.” Gabrielle Lindberg, Cotton Seed Designs, Minnesota 

Okay, this is a little tricky. Good upholsterers are EXTREMELY detail oriented – but nobody struggles in workshops more than our perfectionists.

There’s a certain amount of letting go in upholstery – it’s subjective, and challenging, and old pieces are often charmingly imperfect. Fabric is naughty, and padding moves. You cannot, must not, be a slob: But if you need everything to add up to perfection, you might want to stick with sudoku.

Creativity, vision and passion

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“I think the human mind likes to create. A lot of jobs don’t allow that.” Amy Otteson, Amy Oh Design, Minnesota 

An artist… If you aren’t creative, you won’t get far.” Davis Bradshaw, Vinyl Destination Upholstery, Maine 

“There are those hard days when the there are so many staples I just can’t even look at another one, dirty discussing fabric and gross stuffing but in the end after tearing everything off I have a blank canvas to create with. Passion is what makes a great upholsterer.” Marianne Funk Henderson 

The woman who stopped by asked, “Is it like manufacturing?” and the answer is unequivocally NO. Unless, I suppose, you upholster in a manufacturing setting, but even then – it’s never a simple as Peg A into Hole B.

Every fabric is different, every chair, every upholsterer. There’s a good deal of interpretation involved, far more than you might expect. Though manufacturers have been amazing at streamlining, upholstery is on the short list of things we have figured out how to automate yet: There’s an indisputably human element.

Patience

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“Patient, detailed individuals” Don Willis 

“Patience. A willingness to learn, and understanding and acceptance that you’ll never really know it ‘all'” Lindsay Orwig, A Chick and a Chair Upholstery, Minnesota 

“Someone with mass quantities of patience is helpful.” Rob Meyer, Pete’s Auto Upholstery, Florida 

“In my experience people can either visualize in 3D or not. I think that this ability combined with the patience to slowly improve is all you need.” Simon Blackburn, Simon’s Upholstery, Texas

Patience was the single most cited attribute and I couldn’t agree more.

I’m of the mind that upholstery is never really, “mastered” – there’s always room for improvement, always more to be learned or refined. The learning process is lovely, but oh-so-long. Folks who are wired for instant gratification are quickly disappointed.

But patience pays off, and discovering that you’re comfortable with a skill that once eluded you . . . well, it’s delicious, is what it is.

We don’t get there in a hurry, but through patience, practice, creativity, vision, determination, frustration and celebration, we just might get there anyway.

Big thanks to all our articulate upholstery friends for sharing your lovely insights. I’ll leave you with one last quote from my friend Nathan in Australia, because I think it really sums up this craft that we call upholstery:

“A person must be accepting you can never master this trade because it is impossible to recover every variation of upholstered furniture.

You will be taught skills that you add to your experiences, and combined will make your challenges easier to conquer:
Patience and persistence.”

Nathan Spadaro, Decor Upholstery, Sydney 

I couldn’t have said it better myself <3

Want to try upholstery on for size? Check out our upcoming classes: Education

And don’t forget to hop on YouTube and watch our latest chapter on  Reupholster Aunt Bea: Part 5, Front Tackband  

Upholstery: a Little Life Lesson

I think every teacher/artist/athlete/craftsperson sees their “medium” as a metaphor for life. It’s one reason I love quotes – we can all be inspired by the passionate people around us, even those who have passions different than our own.

Some examples:

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Whether you’re a boxer or a welder, a knitter or a chef, the things we do offer opportunities to understand ourselves and our world a little better.

But really? Even upholstery?

Oh yes. Even upholstery.

I feel like I’ve learned all sorts of valuable life lessons at the upholstery shop, but one in particular was rolling around my brain this week. . .

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One tricky aspect of learning and teaching upholstery is that we’re rarely afforded a perfect road map. There are certain subsets of upholstery that may have more repetition (production) or clearer rules (traditional) but if you want definite beginning to end instructions, this upholstery thing is going to be rough, especially at the start.

But here’s the bottom line: You can’t NOT start, just because you aren’t sure where the last staple will go. 

I mean . . . okay, you CAN, but you aren’t going to get very far. 

And if you’re anything like me, maybe that’s something you stumble over in other areas of your life. 

I LOVE to sit around, frozen with uncertainty. OH MY GOOOOOOOOSH!!!!!!! WHAT IF I GO THIS WAY AND I SHOULD HAVE GONE THAT WAY?????? I CAN’T GET STARTED BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE EVERY ANSWER TO EVERY QUESTION I MAY OR MAY NOT RUN INTO!!!!!!!!!!

Upholstery has been good for me in this regard. Will it surprise you to learn that I still feel a flutter of trepidation at the start of a project? I mentioned this last week to The Fabulous Amy Oh – I was just starting these fabulous client chairs:

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There’s always ALWAYS a certain amount of uncertainty . . . or rather, CERTAINTY . . . that I’ll run into little struggles and surprises along the way. I don’t love that. But it’s an unavoidable fact of upholstery, and of the world, and I’d live a pretty small life if I stuck my head in the dirt and tried not to run into trouble.

Usually, once I get to work, solutions present themselves. I can figure out a lot by rolling up my sleeves and digging in.

It certainly works a lot better than sitting at home worrying about it. 

And what if I have to try a few solutions to get a winner? And what if I have to call a trusted mentor? And what if I have to pull an arm off and start over?

What if, what if, what it???

I recognize these same worries in students all the time. They walk to their chair with a piece of fabric . . . and immediately freak out. The inside arm, which we’re tackling on Aunt Bea this week, is a great example. WATCH THE VIDEO

Before the first tentative staple goes in, people start panicking about the pleats – THE PLEATS! THE PLEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAATS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AHHHHHHHHH WHAT ABOUT THE PLEEEEEEAAAAAAATS?????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Listen up:

Chill out.

We’ll talk about the pleats when we get there. And we’ll figure them out. But put that worry in a drawer, and let’s just figure out where to start. Okay, now let’s figure out where to go next. And next. And next.

When you’re doing something new, you probably don’t have a clear path forward. But can you identify a good first step?

Let’s get all Inception up in here and consider a metaphor inside of our metaphor: 

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It’s like standing in the fog. You can only see a couple of steps in any direction. But guess what? Once you take a couple steps, you’ll probably see a couple more.

Maybe you’ll go the wrong way and have to go back. So what? At least you discovered a path that doesn’t work.

Maybe you’ll run into someone and have to ask for directions. So what? Maybe that someone knows a destination even better than the one you were headed for.

But one thing’s for sure: You’ll never get anywhere, standing around squinting at the woods. Take it from good ol’ Teddy Roosevelt: 

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And anyway, few destinations are reached by the shortest distance possible: The fog of my upholstery career is crisscrossed with footsteps in every conceivable direction. But every misstep has taught me something valuable, so in the end were they really missteps at all?

Here’s another quote to chew on:

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Isn’t that a wonderful way to frame the journey?

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that we need to learn EVERYTHING the hard way – I’m delighted that someone else invented the lightbulb, so I can just come home and enjoy it.

Likewise, I’m happy to share everything I’ve tried with students so that they don’t have to discover every single misstep for themselves. And I’m glad that others have done that for me.

But there IS great value in giving yourself permission to move forward without a perfect plan.

And there’s even greater value in trusting your future self to figure the rest out.

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You said it, Steve.

Head to YouTube and subscribe to follow Aunt Bea on her journey! 

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Do You Upholster the Right Way?

Alright, that title is deliberate upholstery click bait. . . But I want to tell you something, and please bear with me.

Here’s a secret truth about upholstery:  It’s really, really, really, really easy to tear someone’s work apart.

I don’t mean in the literal sense. I mean figuratively. If I were inclined to do so, I could walk into any shop in the world INCLUDING MY OWN and find something to criticize. It would take very little effort, very little imagination.

That’s because upholstery is not only extremely challenging: it’s also (another secret truth) extremely subjective. Guaranteed, my idea of “perfect” isn’t the same as yours or the upholsterer down the street.

Last week, I had a 20 minute conversation with a client about 3 pillows. Where should the zippers go? What stripe should we center on? What direction should the welt cord go? I usually make my covers slightly smaller than the inserts, was she good with that, or had she anticipated leaving with 16″ covers? I was happy to share my thoughts, but it the end, it was HER idea of “perfect” that mattered.

And while I’m at it, here’s another thought: Is “perfect” even a thing in upholstery? To be honest, I don’t think so. At least, I’ve never achieved it, and people tell me I’m pretty good (awwwww)

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On any day of the week, on any given project, I could list a dozen tiny things I wish I could have done JUST a little better.

There’s ALWAYS something.

So what we do, unless you hide in a closet and never share your work . . .  it leaves you pretty wide open to criticism.

I don’t know about you, but I find that scary.

The reason I’m writing about this now is because of Aunt Bea. When I teach, I make decisions based primarily on what’s quantifiable – I want to make skills as structured and straightforward as possible, especially if I’m introducing them to someone for the first time (or trying to shoehorn them into a video format)

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For one of my advanced students, or for a client, there would have been extra considerations, bits and tweaks and additional steps.

So I’m feeling a tad vulnerable,  you see.

I have put something out there, very publicly, that’s not quite up to my own “professional standards.” For good reasons, yes yes!  But nonetheless, there it is, at 3am, making me all kinds of crazy, wondering who’s going to show up and shred me in the comments.

Now I didn’t get on here to whine about my insecurities – we’re learning to get along just fine. But it really got me thinking. . .

If I’ve been at this for almost 2 decades and I’ve had a lot of great teachers and loads and loads of practical experience. . . . If I’M feeling vulnerable, how the heck are people feeling that are just starting out? Maybe people who are mostly self-taught? People without access to mentors or degree programs or regular hands-on education? Because that’s a lot of people!!!!! And we need these people to keep learning!!!!!!

So here’s my point:

For Pete’s sake, BE NICE TO EACH OTHER!

I want to scream it from the rooftops. STOP TEARING PEOPLE DOWN ON SOCIAL MEDIA!!!!

Stop acting like there’s only one RIGHT way!!!!

Now I’m not talking about condoning low standards. What I AM talking about is not shutting down the conversation by being a grade A snob.

My skills have never improved because someone made me feel stupid and inexperienced. Never. Never ever. Not even once.

But my skills have repeatedly improved because someone made me feel comfortable asking questions. My skills have improved because I was inspired by the example of someone else’s exceptional work and approachable disposition. My skills have improved because someone else believed I was capable of improving.

Many of those someones are members of the Professional Upholsterers’ Association of Minnesota. I joined with my mom’s shop in 2001. She was self taught, and it was my first encounter with other professionals. Scary.

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Members of the Professional Upholsterers’ Association of Minnesota

They could have been jerks. They could have made us feel very small, and very amateurish (many of the members had graduated from upholstery degree programs while they were still an option in Minnesota. Several had even been instructors.)

If they had, that would have likely been the end of my upholstery career.

But they didn’t. And it completely changed the trajectory of my life.

My workmanship has steadily improved through access to a supportive, experienced group of professionals. I’ve gone to them with every manner of question, from minute technical questions, to big philosophical business questions. I continue to reach out to mentors within that group when I need a trusted perspective.

And it opened my eyes to how little we really agree on in upholstery.

Truly, it’s wild.

Going in, I was afraid that everyone would know “The right way” except us. Ha!

I’ve seen spirited debates on everything from how to thread your sewing machine, to whether you should put batting on the sides of a cushion. It’s bananas. If you’re ever bored, go to a meeting and throw in a little conversation bomb, some seemingly innocent starter like, “I prefer synthetic burlap.” Then kick back and enjoy.

At one of the first meetings I attended,  a potentially contentious debate started up about whether to bias cut your welt cord.

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ALWAYS!!!

ALMOST NEVER!!!!!

And I remember then-president Paul Henly of Regal Design Studio calmly diffusing the situation with a simple observation. “There are good reasons to do it either way.”

That was it!!!!! We didn’t take a vote to decide who was right!!!!!!

THEY BOTH WERE!!!

And seriously, they were – both members were experienced and knowledgable. Among other things, they knew what was working best for them, for their clients, their typical workload (I think one was primarily residential, one primarily marine.)

But that moment rather shaped my philosophy.

The more I learn, the less likely I am to use words like, ALWAYS, NEVER or RIGHT.

I have very few hard and fast rules in upholstery. Usually, as soon as I think of one, I think of a situation where I’d make an exception.

Now, when I teach, I use words like USUALLY, GENERALLY, and TYPICALLY followed by, “And this is why.”

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Teach the reason. Open the dialogue. Give students room to explore. Try to cultivate an open and inquisitive mind.

Because I think that’s the most important thing.

When we talk about “The right way” I think, ‘Are you making informed decisions?’ ‘Are your decisions MORE informed than this time last year?’ ‘Are you continually reevaluating yourself to see if there might be a better way?’ ‘Are you making the best possible decisions for your client based on your current skill set, your level of experience, the best products you have available, their individual needs?’

Are you reaching out to all available resources to be the best upholsterer you can possibly be?

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Tuesday Mentorship group learning from PUAM president, Diana Shroyer-Guenther (pictured with Amy Otteson and Lindsay Orwig)

And here’s where we all (hopefully) help. If someone goes out on a limb, shares their work, their initial accomplishments, their perceived successes and failures  – if they are met with disdain and judgement and scorn, will they go out on that limb again? Or did they just learn not to ask any more questions?

I know we’ve covered this: I don’t think upholstery is a dying industry.

But a lot of people do.

And maybe the most dangerous thing we can do is knock each other down.

Our enemies are uninformed consumers, and cheap new furniture. Our enemies are people turning out low quality work for lack of good education and networking. Our enemies are all the reasons people choose not to reupholster.

Let’s not make enemies of one other.

When it comes to keeping upholstery alive, a rising tide lifts all ships. We are in this together, y’all. The more students, professionals and consumers who understand and appreciate what we do, the better it will be for all of us.

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So that’s my big idea:

Be nice.

Be great at what you do.

And be humble.

I don’t suppose it will save the world. . .  But it certainly can’t hurt.

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
Mark Twain

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What sewing machine do I need for upholstery?

A sewing machine is probably the most important piece of equipment you’ll purchase as an upholsterer. It’s a major investment and one that should be carefully considered – while larger shops may have a variety of machines, many upholsterers do with just one, perhaps for the length of a career. You want to choose the machine that’s best suited to you, your preferences and your workload.

You’re going to be friends for a long time.

So what do you need?

First of all, let me say that you can get a lot done on a residential machine. The main trouble is that they are slow, and you’re extremely limited on fabric options – 4 layers of velvet or vinyl aren’t going under that foot. . . and even if they do, you’d better clear the calendar, because you’ll be sewing that cushion for decades.

But if upholstery is a hobby, your home machine might be just fine.

Once things get more regular or serious, it’s probably time to level up. A proper machine is going to pay for itself in the blink of an eye by making your job infinitely more efficient.

But before you scoop up any old machine, THINK.

In no particular order, here are a few factors to consider:

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An industrial machine requires dedicated space.

DEDICATED SPACE: Can you find room for an industrial machine? A standard machine table is 48″x20″ plus space to move around it. Some upholsterers set their machines up with extended tables for maneuvering large projects. Some upholsters have their machine on wheels so it can be moved out of the way. But make no mistake: an upholstery grade sewing machine is a beast. They are not meant to pack up between jobs. That being said, you’ll find it a treat to just sit down and sew without setting up. If you absolutely can’t swing the space, or you anticipate mobile work, you might want to research a portable option instead, such as a Sailrite.

MOTOR: You’re going to want a machine that can sew fast, even if it takes some getting used to. Speed will be your friend (someday). Most industrial machines have a simple clutch motor. They can be rather gnarly, difficult to control, especially when you’re new. If it’s just you, it might be fine – you’ll get accustomed. But if you want something that’s more user friendly, a servo motor will give you the ability to adjust the speed of your machine. We added one this spring and it’s been really nice for newer students, or anyone tackling a tricky step.  As an added perk, it’s completely silent, unlike the jet-engine-ready-for-take-off of a clutch motor.

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Consew 226 (we call this one Thelma)

NEW OR REFURBED:  A new machine is probably easier to find if you want  something immediately. Personally, if I can buy second hand, I usually do, and sewing machines are no exception. There’s a wonderful secondary market for upholstery machines, which makes sense – every retiring upholsterer owned a machine, probably a good one, and well-loved. Every machine has it’s own quirks and personality. I like the idea of one with some history, a loving home, perhaps a service record. Talk to any  upholsterer about their machine and they can tell you what it does well, what makes it crabby, what they’ve had to wrestle with on a regular basis. That background is quite helpful, as is the knowledge that this machine has been cared for.

Which brings me to a point about older machines: If you aren’t sure what you’re looking at, try to stay off Craig’s list and go find a trusted source. In the Minneapolis area, my favorite go-to’s are T.J. Elias in Minneapolis and the Professional Upholstery Association of Minnesota.

T.J. Elias is THE PLACE for all things industrial sewing machines – they have answers to questions you haven’t even formulated. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, let them play matchmaker. They carry new and refurbed machines along with all the service and accessories you need to go with them.

The PUAM is a great networking source, as professional groups always are – lots of experienced people who are happy to share thoughts on different machines, and who might just know where to find one that hasn’t yet hit the market.

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WALKING FOOT: Not to sound biased, but YES. This is a minor mechanical miracle that works to pull all that fabric forward with each cycle of the foot, particularly the thicker multiple layers of fabric you’re hoping to shove through it for upholstery.  I was going to try and explain it, but then I found a page that does it way better than I could anyway. Enjoy! Toledo Industrial Sewing Machines: Walking Foot Sewing Machines Overview.

The exception here may be if you do a lot of home dec sewing – custom pillows, slipcovers, etc. A walking foot does not tend to fare as well on lighter fabrics, alas! When it comes to sewing machines, you just can’t win ’em all (but this might be a good reason to hang onto your residential machine, even if you DO dive into the wonderful world of upholstery!)

REVERSE: Like the walking foot, this is a no brainer for me. It is possible to get by without, but boy, consider carefully if you’re willing to. We constantly backstitch to lock our seams – I simply can’t imagine a workday without a reverse. We have no room for freeloaders –  If a machine wants to live under my roof, it’s going to follow my rules: Thou shalt backstitch.

BOBBIN: This may be getting picky here, but again – you’re entering into a long term relationship, so let’s get picky. Many upholstery machines feature a bottom loading bobbin that has to be inserted underneath the table.  I find it a little fussy. I have a strong preference for bobbins that load from the top where you see what’s going on. This is especially true because our machines are used by many people in the course of a week – including some with very little sewing experience. It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep things user friendly.

We have two industrial machines, both Consew 226 models (named Thelma and Louise because if you hit the gas, they’ll drive you off a cliff) In addition to a top loading bobbin, I like that they take prewound bobbins.

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We use almost exclusively nylon 69 upholstery weight thread from Fabric Supply in Minneapolis – along with spools, we’re able to get prewound bobbins in a small variety of colors. Call me lazy if you like, but the hassle it saves not to constantly wind bobbins is worth every penny. In addition, I find the tension of a prewound bobbin is more consistent, so the machines tend to stay happy and so do we.

Some upholsters prefer machines like the Juki 1508 that have larger bobbins (the 226 takes a G, but the 1508 uses an M) In case nobody has told you, stopping to replace bobbins is annoying. And if you sew large projects, you go through them FAST. A larger bobbin is something worth considering in your forever machine. (Fabric supply also carries prewound bobbins in size M, woo hoo!)

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TYPICAL WORKLOAD: My Consews are a solid choice for upholstery – vinyl, leather, velvet, mohair? No problem! But try to slide some polished cotton or drapery weight toile in there, and Louise is going to spit in your face. Even with the ability to adjust foot pressure and stitch length, she just can’t pull it through. Or she WILL pull it through, then she’ll chew it up and spit it out.

I don’t much care, because I try to stick with decidedly upholstery weight fabrics. I’m far more likely to have 4 layers of vinyl than 2 layers of cotton under the foot. She’s a good machine FOR ME.

The point is, there are no perfect machines: There are machines that are perfect for certain people. Consider carefully what you do MOST OF THE TIME because there’s no magic machine that’s ideal for everything.

If you’re an upholsterer or in a related field, drop a machine recommendation in the comments! We’d love to know what’s working for you.

This week on YouTube, we’re diving in on the nosing for our chair – if you want to see a Consew 226 in action, hop on over: Reupholster Aunt Bea: Part 3, Deck and Nosing A

If you want to come sew on Thelma or Louise, we’d love to see you in a class! Browse our schedule and register online.

The most common make/model numbers I hear from happy, experienced upholsterers are Consew 226, Consew 206 and Juki 1508. But truly: There are loads of options out there. Consew and Juki are good brands to explore, along with Chandler, Brother and Singer. Happy hunting!

What makes a “good” upholstery fabric?

This week on YouTube,  we’ll get our first look at fabric for Aunt Bea, so it seems like a good time to discuss the tricky business of fabric selection.

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There are a lot of important considerations, whether you’re having something done, or doing something yourself. Obviously, there are design considerations: color, pattern, scale. What does it LOOK like? How does it FEEL?

That’s the super fun part 🙂

Pinterest it up! Express yourself! Make your house a home! How funky is your funky little chair?

But when it comes to fabric for upholstery, there are other factors that should be weighed.  Lots of sunlight? Cats? Kids? OCD tendencies with a tufted couch and a long single seat cushion? There are so many things to consider before you casually slap fabric on your furniture. 

The truth is, there’s no “perfect” fabric  – it depends upon the client, the project, the great big picture. That’s why many professionals want you to order fabric through their shop – sorting through all the relevant information is a bit of an art, one that takes knowledge and practical experience. Sometimes, upholstered pieces are purely decorative, but in most cases, they are functional parts of our home, and using an appropriate fabric ensures a good outcome, and long term satisfaction.

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But today, because we are teaching, I don’t want to talk about good fabrics:

I want to talk about FABRICS THAT ARE GOOD TO WORK WITH.

This is a little trickier, but upholsterers know what I mean. In order to get fabric onto a frame, we have to put it through some pretty serious paces.

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Some fabrics are cooperative. And some are a walking nightmare.

I’ve taught a lot of students, and I tell you what –  fabric selection can make or break you. The best fabrics will let you pull, hammer, steam, restitch and make happy little mistakes. A fabric that cheerily accepts every whim and torture makes the job a whole lot more enjoyable.

Obviously, if you’re a pro, you need to develop skills for wrangling a wide variety of textiles. But when you’re starting out, I don’t think there’s one thing wrong with stacking the deck in your favor. Time enough later to expand your vocabulary of upholstery related cuss words.

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So what fabrics are good to work with? It’s probably easier to talk about what isn’t Here’s a short, incomplete list of fabrics that are particularly challenging and why:

  1. Anything really thin (drapery weight, polished cottons, lighter linens etc.) Imperfections in your padding will be evident, fabric may tear if you pull too hard, and you may not be able to use a hammer on it, so no metal tack strips, no pli-grip. Usually, these fabrics don’t particularly love hand sewing either, so, you know . . . good luck.

  2. Anything really heavy. Sometimes people think heavier is automatically better, but super thick fabrics can be a nightmare when you get to corners where lots of layers land together, or where you have to sew through 4-5 layers on a cushion. Padding and trimming need to be meticulous.

  3. Vinyl/leather. There are definitely different rules for dealing with these materials – but most importantly when you’re learning, sewing perforates vinyl and leather, which means you have almost no ability to rework a seam. Sewing is a one shot deal.

  4. Velvet. I might be biased here, because I still hate working with velvet. It takes a whole slew of tricks off the table. You can’t fold it, or it will mar, which is a bummer because you also can’t steam it (at least not aggressively) Even if you don’t fold it, it’s hard not to rumple fabric as you work it onto furniture. You also can’t regulate it, because you’ll push the fibers right out of the weave, and any hammering has to be extremely delicate, which somewhat defeats the point of hammering. It has a mind of its own at the sewing machine, and will wander all over the neighborhood if you aren’t paying close attention. In conclusion: velvet is evil.

  5. Patterns that need to be matched. Centering isn’t such a big deal – even on a solid, we talk about marking centers and staying straight. But throw in a giant plaid or floral and you might as well punch yourself in the face right now. The problem, really, is that you need to understand the big picture from the outset – in a loose cushioned chair, for example, your last piece (cushion) is matched to your first piece (nosing). You can’t really isolate each step. When people are tackling their first project, they’re already taking in so much new information. Pattern matching is slathered right on top of 1,000 other things. It’s really fun for  the already overwhelmed (not.)

Again, over time, you want to develop confidence with a variety of fabrics. But get your sea legs first.

So what makes a good, cooperative upholstery fabric? Let’s discuss generalities and then I’ll show you a few of my favorites.

  1. Something that isn’t too strict about being perfectly straight – I like a random pattern or texture, and there are so many fun options! I tease my advanced students that they should use floral tapestry on everything (which of course they don’t) There’s a reason you see it in so many antique shops – it hides a multitude of sins through a combination of being busy, cooperative, and fairly random. Not into floral tapestry? No worries, there are lots of contemporary options that will deliver a satisfying upholstery experience.

  2. Just the right weight. How’s that for specific? See earlier comment about super light and super heavy fabrics. Not too thick, not too thin – just right, Baby Bear.

  3. Movement, not stretch. Again, tricky – a fabric that’s too stiff is hard to shape, but something that’s too loose won’t stay snug. An ideal fabric has just enough movement to cooperate. A good example might be a properly backed, tightly woven chenille or Greenhouse’s new Crypton Home line

  4. Something that can tolerate a variety of treatments, like steam, hammering, hand sewing, etc.  – Personally, I’m a big fan of polyester. It’s a great combination of easy to work with and easy to live with.

  5. Something that won’t unravel. Rework is a given when you’re learning upholstery – a fabric that falls apart will be the cause of MUCH frustration.

The fabric we selected for Aunt Bea is a polyester blend from Greenhouse Fabrics in North Carolina. It has a lovely hand, a bit of flexibility with a knit backing for stability. It’s a solid, so no pattern to match, but it has a little texture that we thought would read well in pictures and videos (and also be a bit more forgiving, since we’re not replacing all the padding.) At just $38.90/yard, we felt it was a good value for students who want to treat themselves to a first quality fabric without breaking the bank. Check out all the colors online:  A4367 Aqua

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What other Greenhouse fabrics should you check out?

Greenhouse carries plenty of cooperative options that are attractive, durable, cleanable and forgiving. Here are a few of my personal quick pick recommendations:


B6762 Bay Greenhouse Fabrics

I’ve often said, if I could only carry one fabric (heaven forbid!!!!) this would be it. I’ve used this polyester chenille so many times in so many colors and I’m always impressed with it’s general awesomeness. The polyester is durable and easy to care for. It has nice movement, with just the right weight, a flexible weave, and an upholstery-appropriate backing – it’s like butter.  It comes in loads of colors and has a delicious, varied appearance that manages to look amazing on everything. What else could you want? It’s a great all-around fabric that retails for $58.90/yard

I used A2921 Avocado in my Craftsy Class, “Getting Started with Upholstery” and  98599 Poppy on a client’s truly fabulous Pearsall sofa. I’m currently putting 98611 Sky on Rose, our gorgeous Victorian sofa that’s all curves, va-va-voom!


B7814 Driftwood Greenhouse Fabrics

Animal prints are so big right now, and why not? They’re loads of fun! Some are easier to work with than others, but I’m quite enamored of this random cheetah pattern in Greenhouse’s new Revolution line – it’s bleach cleanable!!!! It also has a nice weight and backing, and because it’s random, there’s a little more room for minor imperfection. That’s a lot of happy for $48.90/yard!

One of our weekend instructors, Lindsay Orwig from A Chick and a Chair recently posted a client bench in this fabric: could it be ANY cuter???? What a fabulous update!!


Seriously, tapestry is fun and easy to work with! If you’re not into florals, check out one of their botanical or novelty options. I think the leaf tapestries are lovely, such as 10379 Black on this student cushion project from last year,  but I’m also pretty enamored of this map pattern <3 A8176 Jewel ($48.90/yard)


A4272 Midnight Greenhouse Fabrics

Okay, you know how I feel about velvets, but if you MUST . . . a velvet like this, with a little texture and a low pile may give you the flavor you’re craving without making you homicidal. When Angela, one of our advanced students,  put in on her little love seat last year, I was really impressed with the amount of life it had – very rich.  Photos hardly do it justice; this one should be seen in person! Nicely done, Angela!

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The truth is, some fabrics are great to work with, and some fabrics are terrible. Most fabrics fall somewhere in the middle, with their own quirks, perks and challenges. The best way to know for sure what will work for you and your project is to talk with an experienced upholsterer, designer, or fabric rep. And sometimes, you just learn through your own experience, – the very best teacher of all!

Now I’d really like to know, if you’ve worked with a variety of fabrics: What makes your top 5 list for, “Good Upholstery Fabrics?” Feel free to comment here or on Facebook, we’re curious to hear what you think! 

And remember, we’re cutting up fabric this week on YouTube, so go check it out!

REUPHOLSTER AUNT BEA: PART 2 

Huge thanks to Greenhouse Fabrics for providing fabric for our Aunt Bea series! You can always browse their beautiful fabrics online at www.greenhousefabrics.com or find a showroom in your area. If you’re in the St. Paul area, you’re always welcome to browse through samples at The Funky Little Chair! 

Say hello to my little friend: we call him Mr. Staple Lifter.

I grew up in an upholstery shop. My mom worked from home, and while I didn’t take a particular interest until my 20’s, I DID take a certain amount of knowledge for granted.

I knew what a button press was and how to use it by the second grade.

I could identify cardboard tack strip, double welt, and coil springs – and I learned the hard way not to go barefoot through the shop.

I certainly knew how to tear back furniture. We all did – it was how we earned allowance. So I knew (much to my chagrin) what a staple lifter looked like.

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Fast forward to adulthood.

As a new professional, I began to take a serious interest in our industry. I listened to conversations about the changing market, the apathetic and uninformed consumer, the loss of degree programs, the widening gap between those leaving and those entering our trade.

At one point, I had the honor of speaking at a PUAM anniversary event. My presentation topic?

“The Future of Upholstery”

Late one night, in preparation, I dove down a very scary rabbit hole.

I googled, “How to reupholster a chair”

I won’t lie: I was shocked. The posts were . . . appalling.

This was during the height of shows like, “Trading Spaces” and I think there was a general slant towards making everything fast and easy. And friends: upholstery ain’t.

I saw people covering over the old fabric, stapling in visible locations, or skipping the staples and just tucking and gluing whole projects together. I saw zero discussion of quality products or fabrics, foundation work or frame repair.

And almost without exception, I saw people taking fabric off with the most dangerous and inefficient of DIY makeshifts: Screwdrivers, butterknives, CROCHET HOOKS.

Now this fairly blew my mind. Many articles were from computer savvy DIYers, but others  were from well-known and widely read publications. I thought, “Didn’t anyone have even a 5 minute conversation with an actual upholsterer??? Why aren’t they using appropriate tools??”

I don’t want to call anyone onto the carpet: If you want to glue flannel to a coffee table in the privacy of your own home, you go, girl: I support that.

But I didn’t google, “Upcycle” or “Recover”

I googled “Reupholster” and “Upholster”

And as I told the PUAM that fine spring morning, “If we don’t get out there and represent ourselves, then these are the resources that will speak on our behalf”

So what was going on??

I’m a DIY warrior, so I put on my DIY hat: If I wanted to tackle my own upholstery project, and I didn’t have an upholsterer mom, where would I go? Hmmmmmmm.

Hands-on education at the time was really hard to find, particularly if you wanted to do more than a quick slip seat or cushion.

Obviously, younger people were going to the internet.   Unfortunately, the pages with good information were WAY down in google searches, and tended to look a tad, ahem . . . dated. So the information was there, but people don’t usually trust (or see) page 3 on a google search – especially if there’s something that seems convincing on page 1. It would be tough to sort through the hits for good resources.

Hmmmmm, where else would I look?

Probably the fabric store or the hardware store.

EEEEEEEEEEK. Sorry, ladies and gentleman. We seem to fall somewhere in between. If you have an upholstery supply store in your area, that extremely fortunate! But the big box stores that dabble in upholstery . . . Pretty slim pickings.

Nowhere oh nowhere could you find a staple gun appropriate for furniture, a high quality foam for your sofa, or a safe and effective tool for removing staples.

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There were lots of “cute” looking tools and supplies – webbing that would be good for the centerpieces at your rustic wedding, manual staple guns that could cheerily half drive a staple into plywood while simultaneously giving you carpal tunnel, that kind of thing. But almost nothing that I’d use as a pro.

The tools for removing fabric were usually cheaply made, and designed more for tacks (broader/flatter tips) which is fine when you’re knocking out tacks, but pretty frustrating if you’re lifting out staples. And a screwdriver? Oh my friends, I don’t think I could get through a single chair. I’d certainly come away bloodied and bitter.

Okay, what about the library? I learn EVERYTHING from the library!

When last I looked, they had a handful of antiquated books that taught traditional upholstery. The content was great, but not helpful if you can’t source traditional materials. And I can tell you as a professional in Minnesota: Uhhhhh. . . you can’t. Not even through our wholesale suppliers. If you’re looking for good quality natural cotton, curled hair, or a wide variety of tacks . . . prepare to be disappointed. We’re a modern market.

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So what is a determined learner to do????? Where do you look when every logical avenue turns up lemons???

In the best cases, I think upholsterers were simply too overwhelmed or unaware to meet this changing market effectively. They were running businesses.  In the very worst cases, upholsterers were hostile, making fun of hobbyists for not knowing “the right way” to do things.

I don’t like that. It sits very wrong with me to criticize anyone who’s trying to learn, especially when education is difficult to find.

We needed to get in the game. If we wanted people to learn, we had to make resources available. If they couldn’t finds us, we needed to figure out why.

Hence this blog. Hence The Funky Little Chair. Hence Reupholster Aunt Bea.

So here are a few assurances from me to you as we dive in:

Ask questions – I promise not to be an ass. I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about upholstery. I think good education happens when people feel comfortable opening up – and I wouldn’t dream of shutting the conversation down by being a jerk.  Our industry needs good upholsterers, and informed consumers. If you’re trying to learn, I’m happy to help.  IMG_5674

Since my, “Future of Upholstery” presentation, I’ve been ecstatic to see professionals around the world taking to the internet, representing on social media, writing thoughtful, informative blogs, opening their shops and this craft to an appreciative market of students and consumers. Bravo!!! Well done, upholsterers <3 I’m proud to call myself one among you.

Over the course of this video project, I’ll be sharing lots of tips on quality tools and materials. But this week, we’re just looking at tear-back, so let me introduce the first upholstery tool (I think) you should own:

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This is a C.S.Osborne Staple Lifter. Even if you only plan to do your kitchen chairs, this tool is going to save you a world of time and frustration. C.S. Osborne makes all kinds of wonderful, professional quality hand upholstery tools. They have similar tools for lifting tacks, and one for knocking out staples, chisel style. The point is this: There are tools specifically designed for tearing back furniture, and they make the job a lot easier.

If you know what it’s called, this tool is easy to find online, or through a local upholsterer/upholstery supplier. If you’re  near St. Paul, I always try to keep a few in stock for the occasional DIY warrior who shows up with hands full of bandaids and a heart full of rage. “What were you using to take apart? Hmmmm, let me show you a tool that might work better . . . “

This week on YouTube, we’ll show you how to use this clever little tool (if you haven’t used it before!) and give you lots of other tips for taking apart – there’s more to it than you might think.

Now:

LET’S REUPHOLSTER AUNT BEA!

 

Introducing Aunt Bea

We tackled a big, new challenge this summer!

I get lots of inquiries about video content, from folks who can’t physically get to our classes, and even from folks who do. It’s a deliciously convenient and visual medium – I get that. Unfortunately, I knew almost nothing about creating or posting video content, and nobody was showing up to say, “HEY!!! Want to make an online class???!!!”

Okay that’s not entirely true – I was SUPER lucky a couple years ago to get just such a call from Craftsy about opening their upholstery category. It was a ridiculous fun. If you want to see what a professionally produced video course looks like,  HERE’S A LINK TO CHECK IT OUT.  If you want to see what two boneheads with an iPhone can accomplish in 4 months, read on.

So there’s a lovely little, “Getting Started” course on Craftsy, and I think it’s a pretty great (if I do say so myself!) But so many of you are itching to tackle more challenging projects.

In the spring we started noodling the possibility of making a little something on our own. Could we do it? Would it suck? Would it destroy the hard drive on my laptop??? (Answers: yes, maybe, probably)

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I think the universe liked the idea, because a couple of fun things intersected to urge the idea along.

  1. My teenager showed me how to create a YouTube channel. Woo hoo!
  2. Amy Otteson showed up in our Tuesday group. She happens to be a retired art teacher with a lot of experience in iMovie and YouTube. And she’s quite interested in upholstery education . . . Hey Amy… hey Amy… hey Amy . . . .
  3. The Professional Upholstery Association of Minnesota, excited about new opportunities for education in our area, was looking for ways to support our efforts (I love you guys)
  4. I stumbled across a chair at the thrift store. We call her Aunt Bea.

Okay, let me tell you about Aunt Bea. I spotted her in the back room at our local Savers. Some of you are suckers for fancy old antiques and some of you like high design. Personally, I like sturdy and comfy. The kind of chair you can love to death. The kind that’s good for reading books and drinking coffee. I don’t usually get sucked into adopting orphans (or not anymore. My attic is full)  I don’t have room or time or resources for all of the furniture being abandoned, so sad, so sad! Instead, I focus my energy on encouraging folks to reupholster instead of replace. I teach, so more people can adopt pieces. And I gently but firmly decline most offers of donated furniture.

BUT OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH little gems like Aunt Bea, they get me – nobody was looking so I went into the back room and poked around. Small. Coil Sprung. Good brand. And UGLY FABRIC. Nobody was going to adopt this homely diamond in the rough!!!!!!!! NOBODY!!!!!!!!!!! But HEY!!!!!! Maybe if I had a REASON to drag it away. . . . LIKE A VIDEO TUTORIAL!!!!!!

Yes, yes, YES!!!!!! In addition all her other fabulousness, Aunt Bea was actually quite SIMPLE. Quite STANDARD. A GREAT candidate for showing skills and techniques. There was a lot we could cover on this little chair that people could take away to projects of their own.

WELL. I guess I’d better buy it, then. HEY!!! HEEEEYYYY!!!!!!! CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TAKE MY FIVE DOLLARS!!!!!!!!!! (You heard right. Five. Dollars)

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A few interesting notes:

  • I was pretty convinced that Aunt Bea would fit into the front seat of my Elantra. WRONG. But me and the Savers guy sure tried.
  • When I came back with a friend to collect Aunt Bea, they had her by the dumpster for collection. Apparently, the employee who said I could pick up in a couple days was new and confused. 12 hours later and Aunt Bea would have been a memory, not a YouTube star.
  • The name Aunt Bea came from a Facebook survey on The Funky Little Chair. We often name our more involved projects, because it’s nice to have a reference instead of saying, “The chair, the chair, the chair.” It also gives us a hashtag, making it easier for people to search and find later!! There were so many different ideas, it was fun to read! But when I read Aunt Bea, it felt just right: Old fashioned, comfortable, practical. . . . perfect. (I can’t find that post!!!! Are you the person who named her???? Please message me so I can credit your awesomeness!!)

We had a chair. Now, we needed a plan.

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  •  I talked to Amy Otteson: Could she, would she, help over the summer???? There was so much to learn!!! TEACH ME, OH WISE ONE!!!!! Can you believe she said YES?????? What a sucker. . .  I mean, what a WONDERFUL person!!!!!!  I thought this project would take us about 4 weeks. HAHAHAHAHAHA. Sigh, It’s been 3 months. We’re still working on it. We haven’t edited the cushion segments and we haven’t even started the outside of the frame. I know Amy knew I was completely unrealistic. But to her credit, she didn’t squelch my enthusiasm. She just kept helping. Hopefully, we can keep ahead of our posting schedule to make this a weekly segment. Wish us luck!!!!!!!
  • Then I talked to the PUAM. This was our summer project, would they provide a modest sponsorship? This organization is filled with supportive friends and mentors, but I didn’t know if a YouTube project would interest them – they’re pretty old school, one of the reasons I love them. But I explained that YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world, and a frequent first stop for people interested in learning about upholstery. The PUAM is deeply invested in the future of our profession. In the past, they’ve been a resource for folks coming out of degree programs, or other traditional upholstery avenues. Now, however, we don’t have those avenues. I hypothesized  that most of our future professionals would begin as hobbyists – what other choice do they have?? YouTube would be the ideal platform for connecting with those hobbyists – at a much earlier point in their journey – so that when/if they become serious about upholstery, they might have some networking and support. I’ll definitely talk more about this organization later.
  • Next, I approached the owner of Fabric Supply in Minneapolis, my preferred wholesaler. What about them? Any interest? One of the challenges for hobbyists, especially when they want to start doing client work, is knowing how/where/why to source good quality materials. Here’s a hint: you don’t go to a big box fabric or craft store. I wasn’t comfortable asking for sponsorship and was fully prepared to get shot done. But they said yes! Enthusiastically!!! SCORE!!!! I look forward to sharing detailed info on our tools and supplies throughout the course of this project.
  • Lastly, I approached Greenhouse Fabrics, because I wanted to use a first quality textile. When you’re starting out, it makes sense to hunt out a bargain. But quality fabrics come with technical information and customer support that’s really important if you want to be a professional resource for your clients. My fabulous rep, Heidi, agreed to hook us up with fabric for Aunt Bea, woo hoo!!!! Watch for more information on the fabric we selected and why.

So we were officially ready to roll!!!!!!!

Let me tell you what you can expect:

  • A 12ish part YouTube tutorial released in weekly segments.
  • Content that’s geared towards the DIY market, but hopefully with an eye on professional resources and techniques. That means I’ll be using and talking about professional quality tools and materials, but anything that could be simplified WAS simplified. We eliminated the skirt and changed the cushion styles, for example (you’ll see)
  • Weekly blog posts that support whatever we’re covering. Perhaps a resource guide, or an educational supplement. Occasionally an op ed or a fun history tidbit.

What you MUSN’T expect:

  • A video resource covering everything you ever wanted to learn about upholstery. That would be crazy. I feel like part of being a good educator is deciding how much to throw on a student in a single serving. Yeah, there’s a lot more we could have said and shown and done. There’s ALWAYS more. That’s what makes upholstery awesome. But if you try and cover everything at once, you probably aren’t teaching – you’re overwhelming, and possibly showing off. So hopefully we provided lots of valuable tidbits and a good general overview. I hope you’re inspired to keep learning!
  • Beyond new cushion inserts, you mustn’t expect foundation work. I know, I know, I KNOW!!!!!!! It IS an important part of what we do. But see above note. And here’s the thing with spring and foundation work – it’s challenging and time consuming. When folks in my Craftsy class ask about springs, I tell them that if we HAD dug into the foundation, we would have run out of time for the fabric, Seriously. We could make a 12 part tutorial on JUST the foundation, no problem. And remember, this is targeted towards the DIY market, and I think looking at the fabric covering is an okay place to start. I love teaching springs and padding in person. Come see me for a class!!! Hopefully someday we’ll get video out there for these important topics, but Cynthia’s time is, tragically, finite, and I need to get back to work now.

Our goals:

  • Supplement our live classes with video content. When I teach in person, I try to let students DO. That’s what they are there for, after all! But when I was in Denver with Craftsy, I remembered how nice it is to teach by demonstration. We really do learn a lot by watching.
  • Reach a wider market via YouTube, encourage aspiring hobbyists to connect with quality educational resources. Be approachable.
  • Learn as much as possible about iMovie, YouTube and everything that comes with it. Good luck to us, yay!!!
  • Make it our own – there’s no sense pretending we had a big production budget and all the right equipment. We didn’t, and that’s okay.  So we had a little fun with it and tried to be ourselves. I think that’s usually a good plan anyway – let folks know what you’re about. You can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I hope this gives you a sense of who we are and how we teach. If you like it, I hope you stick around or visit! But if you’re looking for a serious, structured, traditional upholstery education, I’m probably not your huckleberry – and I hope you find someone who is <3

So much more to say, but I think  let’s leave it here for now. Anyway, I hope you enjoy. I hope you learn. I hope you share. Next week, we’ll dive into Aunt Bea. Today, let’s talk about why I scooped her up in the first place. If there’s one thing that makes my little treasure hunting heart beat faster, it’s coil springs.

Wondering how to assess the situation for yourself? You’re in luck! Because now we have mad video skills ANDS access to cool vintage pieces! Hop over to YouTube to get some vintage shopping 411 – and remember to subscribe for all the fun to come!

Thrift shopping 101: Is this vintage sofa worth reupholstering? 

The Subtle Art of Cushion Filling: Part 1

Every time I make a cushion insert, I think to myself, “I should write a blog post about this!”

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Because cushion inserts can be tricky – you need to understand all the products you’re working with (in my case, usually/mostly foam of varying grades), you need to make decisions about sizing and relative quantities of said products. Sizing will, of course, vary according to the size of finished cover, the desired aesthetic outcome, the final destination for your cushion (wood window seat? Sprung deck? Eating area with a table?) and OH! Don’t forget about personal preference – cushions are incredibly subjective. So, you know . . . good luck.

But I never get the post written, because I start thinking about all the different variables and considerations and combinations. I mean, really, we don’t give cushions enough credit – they can make or break your upholstery project. Use the wrong foam, and it will disappoint in a hurry – by being uncomfortable, or by breaking down too soon. Miss the sizing by much and you can have a seat that’s too high or a cover that’s too loose.  If you want happy, comfortable, clients, you gotta understand CUSHIONS.

And they are a subtle art.

So instead of waiting until I have 180 hours to write the 30 page mega ebook post about cushions A-Z, we’re going to try something new: I’ll occasionally post about a specific cushion or two I’m tackling.

This could be the least read blog post series in the history of the world. 

But if cushions are something you struggle with, I hope you’ll find this informative. . . .

Introducing: Stale Dale

Our first cushion is from a current sofa project. The client named this musty mid-century fellow, “Stale Dale.”

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Given the age, and the fact that this was a Craig’s List garage find, we knew right away that new cushions were a given.

With the low arm and lean style, I selected a 4″ core foam. The seat foam I use, almost without exception is an HR 3.1# with an IFD of  33 from Fabric Supply in Minneapolis.

Here’s a super super quick explanation of those numbers: 

3.1# is the DENSITY/WEIGHT. In short, it is the best quality foam they carry, because it is the heaviest. The denser the cushion, the longer it takes to lose it’s support. 

33 is the IFD (or sometimes, ILD). This tells me how firm the foam is. Mid 30s is standard for sofa cushions, inasmuch as we can call anything standard. While FSI doesn’t carry DENSER cushioning foams, they DO carry firmer cushioning foams. That’s the tricky bit- don’t confuse firmness and density!!!!! They are two very independent attributes (more on that in a future post?????) 

SO we have our core, is that all??? 

If these were smaller cushions, perhaps. Mid century cushions are traditionally very lean and very square.

(But you can’t actually make square cushions. Sorry architects.)

In order to keep the cushion cover full, we have to oversize the insert – a little, or a lot.

It depends.

Of course, it depends.

Stale Dale came in with 3 seat cushions, or rather NONE seat cushions. But we want him to leave with 2 seat cushions. I LOOOOOOVE two seat cushions. I’m on my two cushion sofa right now, with room for my legs to extend out on The Island of Cushion without falling into the Canyon of Crack.

But the longer we make a cushion, the more likely it is to be a bit naughty. If you’ve ever seen a REALLY long cushion (window seat, single seat sofa) you know what I mean – long stretches of fabric tend to misbehave. Maybe good in this longer cushion scenario to add a little extra height to our insert.

In addition to our core, I added 1/2″ top and bottom of an HR2.2# with an IFD of 19.

Remember those numbers folks? Still relatively heavy (2.2#) but SOFT (19)

Here’s a photo of foam, isn’t it exciting????

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This is my favorite way to make cushions, actually – it’s like a freaking amazing mattress topper situation for your tush. Your lucky, lucky tush.

In addition to all THAT, we’ll add a standard layer of polyester batting. This gives us another layer of loft, and if protects the foam and fabric from premature wear as they move. Cushions without batting tend to break down faster – the foam, or the fabric, or both.

Finished cushion insert

So after all that foam and wrap, who wants to guess how wide my finished cushion boxing is?

(drum roll, please)

3.25″

Now that may seem ridiculous, but check it out:

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(Oh, that’s Lindsay from A Chick and a Chair. She’s a nerd. But she’s our nerd  <3)

Not so crazy plump as one might expect, right???? You’d be amazed how much can fit in a cushion cover, especially when you start creating really crowned cushions. Maybe we’ll  do a blog about THAT sometime soon . . . . .

In the meantime, go to Instagram and search #staledale to see how he turns out!

Hey everyone, I’ll be blogging weekly this year, starting with the launch of our #reupholsterauntbea project next week – want to stay in the loop on lots of upholstery education tidbits? Follow my blog so you’ll be sure to see new posts! 

What makes an heirloom chair an heirloom?

I have two rowdy boys at home (three, if you count my husband)

Occasionally, they get railroaded into delivering furniture, or making buttons or carrying home a freebie that mom spotted on the curb.

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But in general, upholstery is my thing, not theirs. They don’t care what color the sofa is, or whether it has coil springs. They stubbornly refuse to get excited about the 3# foam in our cushions (how can you NOT be excited about 3# foam????)

But recently, I noticed that my son had dragged a chair out of the attic (um, we all have have chairs in the attic . . . right??) and kind of made it his own.

Now let me tell you about this chair:

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This chair is the most unremarkable piece of furniture we own. It’s possibly the most unremarkable vintage chair in the world –  which is partly why I bought it.

This little skirted, attached cushion number is EVERYWHERE. I don’t know if they were breeding when people weren’t looking, or if you got one free with every marriage license in the 1960’s or WHAT but it seems like everyone owned some variation of this chair at some point.

So you see them all the time at garage sales and thrift stores and they tend not to get much love. So I bought it for two reasons:

  1. ‘Someday, I’m going to reupholster that, maybe change the back style, just to show consumers that ANYTHING can be updated, you just need a bit of imagination.’
  2. It was the last day of a rummage sale and this sad, lonely chair had been marked down to $2. I knew darn well that it had a 99.9% chance of ending up in a landfill if I didn’t adopt its ugly arse.  Every upholsterer must eventually learn that you cannot personally save all the furniture . . . but I was new in the trade, and didn’t (yet) have a house stuffed with projects.

So I dragged it home, stashed it, and forgot it. . .

. . . Until my giant teenage son dragged it out.

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Now this was very strange. It’s way too small for him. It didn’t have a cushion (who knows where THAT went??) so he used a random scrap of foam for the seat. And the very groovy orange velour was dirty and utterly threadbare.

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But HEY! Sometimes, love is blind.

So for whatever reason, he’s suddenly kind of sweet on this chair. And I’m kind of sweet on him being sweet on this chair.

I don’t know how other moms of teenagers feel, but I realize my days with Noah are slipping away. He’s racing towards adulthood, and all the adventures that begin at 18. And I’m super excited for him. Of course! But also . . .  I miss him already.

In the blink of an eye, you go from shoulder back rides in public to “can we just meet in the parking lot after the concert?” (I had the audacity to KNIT at his choir concert – OH MY GAWD parents are so embarrassing)

I showed both my sons a Facebook article stating that women need to be hugged daily for their health. Now, along with my morning allergy pill, I get a very obligatory “hug for my health”

Shameless, I know.

And this year’s been extra tough with my opening a new shop. The biggest sacrifice has undoubtedly been less time with my kids, time that is all too fleeting under the best of circumstances.

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So what can I say? I got kind of excited about a project with my teenage son.

“Noah,” I said. “Do you want to pick out fabric and we can reupholster that over the summer?”

“Yeah, that would be cool” (COOL!!!!)

Then he picked out a super soft, super green, super VELVET fabric from Barrow:

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I haaaaaate working with velvet. Hate, hate, hate. You can’t fold it. Can’t regulate it. You can’t steam or hammer the heck out of it (two things I rather enjoy doing.) It misbehaves terribly at the sewing machine. Basically, you can’t look at it wrong or say mean things to it without regretting your decision.

Velvet is a princess.

So I tried to talk Noah into something else, enticing him with photos of bold weaves or crazy geometrics. Nope!!!! He’d picked his pony.

Some clients just insist on being difficult.

Noah has torn back plenty of projects for me, so he had the chair apart in no time. After Steve Cone and I dragged it around to a couple upholstery masterclasses, we got to work!

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In addition to tearing back, Noah webbed and burlaped the frame, put in buttons, cleaned up the mess, and moved the chair whenever I needed it moved. Mostly, I worked on the chair, and he worked on other shop chores.

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You may be wondering why I didn’t painstakingly guide my teenager through doing this project for himself. Good question! Good reasons: 

  1.  Princess velvet. If he’d picked any of the fabrics MOM advocated for, he would have sewn welt cord and done some cutting, stapling, etc. But velvet is not a good learning fabric for a 15 year old student (or anyone in their right mind)
  2. Attached cushion??? Mitered nosing??? Curved T-cushion from scratch??? Tough project!!! I look forward to helping Noah upholster his first chair. But this ain’t it, kid, this ain’t it . . .
  3. Noah didn’t want to REUPHOLSTER A CHAIR he wanted A CHAIR REUPHOLSTERED. And would-be students take note: those are two VERY DIFFERENT THINGS. I like teaching students who come ready to learn. It’s awesome, and I think I’m pretty good at it! But making my kid learn something he’s not especially interested in learning? Ugh. We do that at home.  I’ll fight about math homework and how to load the dishwasher –  I don’t feel a pressing need to pick a fight about easement cuts.

And really, I was cool with it.  At 15, I had no interest in learning upholstery (or anything else, actually) from my mom. Maybe someday he’ll ask to learn . . . and maybe he won’t. When he’s ready, I’m ready.

In the meantime, it was a huge help to have him tear back my next client project and knock out a bunch of shop chores.

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It was a long, lovely day in St. Paul.

Noah gets dragged into helping with all kinds of things at the shop, and into more things at home BECAUSE of the shop – and he’s surprisingly good natured about most of it. He’s helped me make instructional videos, and create a YouTube Channel. He’s my number one go-to for getting something torn back quickly and properly. He does more housekeeping than me, keeps the lawn mowed, takes his little brother to the library, and helps out his grandparents and aunts. When I go for a run, he often greets me outside with a glass of water as I stagger home. I’ve never asked him to, he’s just nice. I didn’t mean to go Full Mom on the blog, but what can I say?  He’s a good kid: Funny, thoughtful, empathetic. He reminds me that teenagers can be really great.

Before Noah put on the burlap, we left a note inside the frame.

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I don’t know where this orphan came from, but I quite like the idea of Noah playing video games in some little old lady’s (now green) chair – bet she didn’t expect that!  I would never have chosen this chair for him – but to quote a book you should read:

“… isn’t it always the inappropriate thing, the thing that doesn’t quite work, that’s oddly the dearest?”

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Who knows what will happen to this chair? I’d love to think that Noah will cherish it for decades, dragging it to his first apartment, fighting with his wife about whether it should stay or go . . . Very probably, he won’t – it might just have been a fun summer activity, and I’ll consider that  time well spent.

But maybe, just maybe, there will someday be bedtime stories in Grandpa Noah’s scruffy green chair.

An heirloom is defined as, “something valuable that is passed from generation to generation”  Furniture is usually considered valuable because it is old, rare, or exquisitely crafted. But what chair is more more valuable than one infused with memories?

Sometimes, the strangest things become heirlooms. Those are my favorite kind.

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And what about my other son? Did he feel left out? Well, as luck would have it, he’s laid claim to the little love seat we carried home last month – and if you thought green velvet was a wild selection, just wait until you see what Ian picked . . .

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But THAT is a blog post for another day . . . .

The velvet we used on Noah’s chair comes in a wonderful selection of colors – you can browse them all on Barrow’s website, or at the shop. (And if you want me to reupholster your chair with it, I promise to only say bad things about velvet in my head)

If Ian’s fabric is more your style you can see the full repeat online at Greenhouse Fabrics 

Self Employment: Year One

IN case you’ve just tuned in, I opened a business last year. It’s a little upholstery shop in St. Paul that focuses on education (though I also offer services)

In that year, I’ve tried to fill my online presence with confidence and optimism, with enthusiasm for the journey, and gratitude for the uncertain future.

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But if you know me in person, you know that reality was a lot more complicated.

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A high school friend once told a story about his childhood dog. They put in one of those invisible fences, and every day the dog would test it, just to see if it was still there. Then, one day, he got a running start and barreled through, full steam and howling, hellbent for freedom, whatever the cost.

That’s how this year has felt for me. For years, I’ve tested the boundary of self-employment, gauging the danger before stepping back into the familiar. Are all my fears still there? Yup. All the reasons not to leap?? Yup. Scary scary scary. Better hang out in the yard.

But MAN I could see the other side, and it looked pretty good.

So last spring, I finally put my head down, got a running start, and barreled forward, yowling and wide eyed, hoping like crazy I could make it to the other side.

Self-employment is not for the timid or meek. I knew that this year meant getting up every day and doing something scary, meeting someone new, solving a different problem. I knew that all the planning in the world wouldn’t fully prepare me for The Unexpected. I knew that once I started, I couldn’t easily change my mind. To stand any chance of success, I knew I needed to be as visible as possible . . . and that I might fail anyway – not in obscurity, but with everyone watching, everyone knowing I’d tried my hardest and come up short. Who wants to do that?????

Let me tell you a couple things about Cynthia.

#1. I hate 4 way stop signs. I mean HAAAAATE. Like, I can occasionally get myself worked up a full day in advance about having to go through one, and will find ridiculously convoluted ways to avoid them. Why? Because I DON’T TOTALLY KNOW what will happen when I get there. What if I’m turning left but the other driver doesn’t see my signal? What if we get there at the exact same time? What if I wait too long and the other driver gets annoyed at me? What if they run it? What if I think it’s my turn but they think it’s their turn??? Do you see how stupid this is? And I know it’s stupid, but the heart wants what it wants, and my heart wants to know EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN ALL THE TIME AND TO AVOID POTENTIALLY AWKWARD SITUATIONS LIKE THE PLAGUE.

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#2. I love pizza. Especially free pizza. But if someone says, “I’ll pay if you call it in” then there will be no pizza. Because Cynthia hates the phone. And Cynthia REALLY hates talking to strangers. What if they can’t understand me? What if they ask me a tricky pizza trivia question I can’t answer? What if I just burst into flames and die right here?

#3. I studied classical music in college. Want me to memorize 5 Italian arias, 3 German art songs and a French folk song? No prob, Bob. But do not DO NOT ask me to scat or improvise in any way. Seriously. Not one bloody measure or I’m going to change majors immediately. Show me exactly what I’m supposed to sing, when I’m supposed to sing it, and we’ll all get along just fine.

The point is this: Cynthia is not a risk taker. I like my comfort zone and my well-laid plans. I despise uncertainty. If you need me, I’ll be hiding in the corner, hoping to avoid all confrontation, embarrassment or unstructured human interaction. (People are scary)

That would be why I spent 15 years trying to achieve my goals from the shelter of other people’s businesses.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t work that well.

Eventually, I had decide: keep hoping my goals would come to me. . . or put on my big girl pants and go meet them.

You guys, I still don’t know what happened.

One day I was reading, “You are a Badass” and the next thing I know, I’m giving my notice and typing up a business plan.

And like the initial climb and inevitable fall of a roller coaster, I spent a fair amount of time wishing fervently for a way to abort mission. Most days, my inner voice sounded like Edvard Munch’s, “The Scream.”

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I always thought the right path feels intuitively, you know. . . RIGHT. But it’s hard to listen to your inner voice when your Fear of the Unknown is on full-volume banshee scream repeat.

But as the Anais Nin quote goes, ”

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”

There simply came a day when I had to admit that I desperately wanted more.

Fortunately (or not) I’ve known enough self-employed people to know what I was in for. And I knew myself well enough to appreciate that this decision would stretch my absolute limits. I warned my husband that this year would be rough: for me,  for us, for our family. I repeatedly consoled myself: ‘It’s a two-year lease. Worst case scenario, you crash and burn for two years and then you quit.’ I battened down the hatches and dug in my heels.

This year took a super conscious effort, an act of will I hope never to repeat.

I called up SCORE and got a business mentor (she rocks)

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I read and listened to motivational and inspirational books.

I drowned myself (and everyone else) in motivational quotes.

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I listened to songs like, “Confident” and “Firework” and “Superwoman” at full volume on shameless repeat.

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You guys: I made a vision board.

I was seriously intolerable. Whether you care about upholstery or not, I talked your ear off. I exhausted my list of phone contacts, calling mentors in a panic when the shop was quiet. I constantly checked my bank account, doing the math on how many months until I was flat bust broke.

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One morning in September, when everything seemed to be breaking and the universe was almost certainly conspiring against me, I sat at a stoplight, gripping the steering wheel and screaming, “LISTEN UP UNIVERSE!!!!!! I’M NOT F@#&*NG AROUND HERE!!!!!!”

I’m sure I looked as crazy as I felt.

Then I stopped by Workhorse Coffee and bought a Pfeffer.  Congrats on surviving another day, scared out of your ever-loving mind. Yay!

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I never planned on owning a business. I’ve heard these wonderful stories about born entrepreneurs who always knew they wanted to own a business, even if they weren’t sure what that business might be. Maybe they own one business for awhile, and then go try some other completely unrelated business.

I’m sorry, WHAT??

I’ll tell you right now: If I close up shop at the end of my lease, I’m never owning a business again. I opened this business because I wanted THIS SPECIFIC BUSINESS to exist. And I wanted to work there.

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And even for this business, it’s been a stretch. This year, employment has been all-consuming.

I’ve been a mediocre wife, a disconnected mom.

I’ve been a terrible friend and a completely negligent housekeeper.

I stopped sleeping, threw up, and lost weight.  Then I stopped working out, started eating garbage and gained weight. Even when I DID make it out for a run, I spent most of the time mentally balancing the checkbook.

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I kept a stress journal and downloaded guided meditations to my phone.

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When my mom retired, I cried behind her shop, feeling scared and alone, ashamed that I’d put my family at financial risk by chasing such a foolish dream. . .

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Why am I sharing this?

Because I think transparency is gift that we give to each other.

It’s so easy to pop onto social media and think that everyone out there is braver and prettier and richer and happier than us. It can be so demoralizing. I think the truth is empowering.

I’m sharing this in case someone out there needs to read it.

In case someone out there is thinking they’re not brave enough or extroverted enough or smart enough. In case someone out there is scraping together enough courage to run at their own invisible fence, whatever that fence might be.

I want to tell you: You’re braver than you think. You can be scared and do something anyway. You can learn things, you can meet new people. You are who you choose to be.

Maybe I’m sharing this because I need to admit how scary this year has been. By business standards, the risk was tiny. By Cynthia standards, it was almost insurmountable. I ran through fire to get here.

And you know? I’m still standing.

Not just standing. DANCING. Because I’ll tell you, it’s pretty good on this side of the fence. My teeny, tiny business is doing okay! I’ve met all kinds of awesome people!! I no longer wake up in a panic (most nights) and I’ve started to run again, woo hoo! I’m restoring balance in my home life (though my house is still a mess).

Most importantly, I’ve learned that so many of my limiting beliefs were a mirage. I’ve cultivated strengths in myself that I never expected to possess. 

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I don’t know where this road will take me, but I like the view looking forward. . . And no matter what, I’m glad I started traveling this strange new path. It’s changed me and I like this Cynthia better. She’s still afraid, but her fear isn’t running the show. One day at a time, she’s struggling to be the person she really, wants to be. . . And she’s getting there.

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