How to get into upholstery

September 12, 2020

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One of the questions I’m asked the most is: “How can I get started in upholstery?” Just this week, I had three calls from people enquiring about an internship, and so many people seem intrigued about what the best training course is if you really want to make it. I can’t lie, it’s not cheap or easy (the deposit I’d saved for a house got spent on my training). But for me it’s an amazing, fulfilling career and I always vowed I’d help as many people as I could who wish to follow the same path. So, here’s the advice I’d give if you’re thinking about a career in upholstery…

1. How did you get started in upholstery?

I lost my job in the 2008 recession and after a year or so of trying to get a similar job, I moved to a new rental home to reduce my monthly rent and decided something needed to change in my career. The world of fashion had changed.

I bought a Guy Rogers sofa from eBay for my new living room, sent it to an upholsterer and the rest is history. I found a new love for re-purposing older items with history into new items for my home and loved how unique it made a room; I wanted to do this more.

I completed my AMUSF course in a training centre that was a cold, converted pig shed in Kendal in the Lake District, it’s now closed. I’d make the long journey up and down weekly, in my trusty Nissan Figaro car with an antique chair wedged in the passenger seat. Crazy!

Why Kendal? At the time there were only two training centres in the UK that offered weekly training…two, that’s unbelievable now! And they were both six hours from my home. I picked Kendal as it let me pay per week, so if I hated it I could stop. But once I started, I was hooked. To see a piece I’d worked on come to life was such a buzz.

After I completed that initial course, I begged the Head of Faculty at London Metropolitan University to let me on their very over-subscribed Advanced Upholstery course. This course focused on traditional techniques and it really brushed up my fundamental skills. I completed it over the course of a year while I studied for one day a week. It felt frustratingly slow and I took a bar job in the evenings to make ends meet. Ironically though, it was the bar job that got me my first customers. When the regulars heard about what I was doing, they started commissioning me for their upholstery projects and it got me up and running. Then word of mouth worked its magic.

Drawing pins

2. What upholstery courses do you recommend?

The most important thing to look for is a decent accreditation. The guild I trained under was The Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers (AMUSF). Their qualification is based on acquiring all the practical and relevant skills tailored to people wanting to learn the craft for both traditional and modern re-upholstery.

In particular, I’d recommend:

Shoreditch Design Rooms

Founded in 2013 by Louise Boyland, Shoreditch Design Rooms offers both the AMUSF accredited upholstery diploma, as well as upholstery leisure classes. You’ll learn modern and traditional upholstery techniques, and they have particular expertise in mid-century furniture.

London Metropolitan University

This course at the School of Art, Architecture and Design is a professional qualification that can be completed in a variety of ways over two or three years. At the end of it, you’ll also receive guidance on what to do with your qualification and advice on starting your own business.

Pile of upholstery books

3. Should I do an internship or work experience?

Honestly? Here’s the thing, most upholsterers work on their own or with a small team who have specific roles within the workshop. Think of it as an artist – you have your canvas and your palette and the finished creation is all down to you. When I was starting out, I did a two-week internship with an established upholsterer. Unsurprisingly, I got the grunt work: emptying the industrial bins and stripping back some basic chairs if I was lucky. To put it bluntly, there was no way I was going to be trusted to touch even a scrap of good fabric for at least six years.

“The best way to learn is to get on and ‘do’ what you’ve been trained to do.”

I felt disheartened and frustrated, but what I realised is that the best way to learn is to get on and ‘do’ what you’ve been trained to do. Sure, it takes trial and error, but there’s no better way to get up to speed and learn FAST. For me, on-the-job experience under someone else’s instruction can work, but it’s slow as the upholsterer’s time to stop what they are working on to help an apprentice navigate a corner or a cut is limited. In my opinion, working things out yourself is a much better bet. Many people I trained with were stuck in the cycle of ‘just one more course and I’ll be ready to go solo’. Luckily, I ran out of funds so I had to go solo.

Upholstery fabrics

4. What’s the best way to grow a business after I’ve done my course?

Little steps led me to set up my business. I thought that doing a course and being qualified would mean I was an overnight ‘professional’, but the reality is that it takes practice, practice and more practice.

I’d really recommend getting hold of a double of each piece you work on during your training. That way, you can learn on one piece but practice and hone your skills on the other. Find your own projects and do a variety. Take them apart and start to get an understanding of how things are put together. Big pieces such as sofas can seem daunting at first, but now I really just view them as ‘a big chair’. The principles are the same.

For me, the best test is a Wing Back chair. It requires all the tricky techniques you’ll find in almost any modern project. Once you’ve mastered one of those successfully, you’re good to go.

Don’t forget marketing too – tell people what you do and how you do it. Use social media to grow a following and nurture that following with great content and keep banging the drum for this beautiful craft. There’s no point being the best-kept secret!

Upholstery fabric pinned to studio wall

5. What kit do I need to get started?

Don’t expect to be brilliant straight away. As with anything in life, you’ll get better at it the more you do it. The main thing to remember is that your rate of progress will be quicker once you’re up and running on your own. You don’t need much equipment or a huge amount of space to get started. In fact, you only really need the following tools and sundries:

  • A workbench or station. This doesn’t have to be an expensive piece of kit. I set up using my mum’s old kitchen table in a beer shed at the pub I used to work evening shifts at and it snowed the first few months. But many people use a spare room or their garage.
  • A silent compressor. Note the silent part, very important!
  • Staple gun and staples
  • Tacks
  • Stuffings

Upholstery tools

And that’s it. Go for it! I can’t lie, I’m still learning every day and I don’t think that will ever change. But, be open to new opportunities. If you respect and love this historic craft it’s a job that, I promise you, just never gets boring.

If you’re starting out and want some advice or guidance, you can email me directly at sharon@vintiqueupholstery.com or call me on 07764 182 783.

Credits: Caroline Jones Photography, Shoreditch Design Rooms and London Metropolitan University.

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