So here I am, back in Cornwall for what has become my annual trip to Tresithick. While my experience and confidence grows with each new project (and even the most experienced upholsterers tell me that will always be the case) I love coming back down here to top up my formal tuition – there’s just so much to learn.
This week I’m working on a wingback armchair belonging to my friend Chris. It was always my intention to bring a wingback to “chair school” after my first practice run so that I could learn the correct techniques in more detail. Chris loved the last one I did and wanted something similar, so it dovetailed quite nicely that he sourced a chair just in time for this visit. It has the added bonus that I don’t have to find a space in our home for yet another project chair!
My main focus this week is arms and wings; I know with my last chair that although the end result was good, the journey wasn’t quite right. With the chair stripped and ready (boy did this one put up a fight – I’m keeping Elastoplast in business) I set to work on the arms today.
I’ll not bore you with the detail, but essentially as a modern chair the construction will be mostly foam based and stapled rather than loose stuffings and tacks. This chair in particular has quite a simple construction and is likely to have been mass produced. This doesn’t mean of course that it will look any less stylish at the end, but it does mean that the wood used might not take kindly to hammering and tacks.
If I’m honest, I was thinking gat by the end of this week I’d be happy to have completed one arm and one wing, but based on today it looks like this will be fairly quick build. Working with foam really does give you instant results as far as depth and shape are concerned although it’s still not as simple as I might have once thought. The fabric chosen is already fire treated so this means we don’t have to add a fire-resistant interliner – this means that both wings should be completed by midday tomorrow. Exciting!
So, today’s processes have involved building up the shape of the arms with jute webbing, a tarpaulin hessian base and various grades and densities off foam to create the desired shape. One slightly unusual feature of this chair are the front legs …… unusually made from plastic! These were painted an attractive shade of gold (not by my friend I hasten to add) and come complete with tell-tale moulding seams. I suspect this chair may not be an original Chippendale. I’ve been working on sanding the seams in my spare time today and have secured the right shade of Annie Sloan chalk paint to give them a little make over. No one will ever know.
Darren and I are staying at ‘2 The Court’ again, owned by Chris and David of Spring Cottage. It really is a home from home. I brought with me a couple of simple drop-in seats that I rebuilt for Chris and David; out went the traditional tapestry covers and in came the contemporary grey weave. Good for a few more years I think.
It would be fair to say that my relationship with wool and velvet has got off to something of a rocky start. My first two projects of 2014 (I can’t quite believe I’m moving into my 4th year) both involved box cushions, a tricky undertaking at the best of times as I’m sure many upholsterers will agree. The thing is, I completely failed to take into account the properties of the fabric that I would be working with and the added complexity that would come with each.
My first project, the Ercol armchair and settee acquired from Hopper and Space last year was to be started in earnest. This is going to take pride of place in our recently converted cellar/TV room and to compliment our mid 20th century room scheme I opted for a really tactile grey wool with a lime accent for the piping. Perfect!…… well, this wasn’t what I was saying as I sat unpicking the first cushion for the 5th time. Try as I might, each time I put the cushion pad in the completed cover it just didn’t sit straight; wonky piping and a twisted border seemed to blight every attempt. “I’m following all the rules” I kept thinking to myself, “this should be working!” …..but it was not.
A cup of tea and a one-man brainstorm later, I had a theory. Wool is stretchy, so how is that affecting my cushion? Well seemingly quite a bit, especially as I’m sewing the top and bottom of my border from opposite directions – the top of the border is stretching clockwise and the bottom anti-clockwise, no wonder it’s twisted! The solution? Account for the fact that it’s going to stretch and make sure that it’s stretching equally – sew everything in the same direction so that it all lines up. And hey bongo! It worked!
Fortified by my problem solving abilities, I turned my attention to the next project; a series of box cushions and upholstered panels for a local customer’s media room. Striped velvet was the order of the day and I was feeling confident that stripes were really going to help me with the geometry of a box cushion. Perfect!……but, after 17 hours of sewing, unpicking and sobbing in the corner of my workshop I really wasn’t thinking this. It would appear that when you place 2 pieces of velvet face to face and try and stitch them, they take on a rather unique quality akin to sewing a wet bar of Imperial Leather to a live eel.
The cut pile of a velvet fabric, while looking great, also means that the fabrics won’t enjoy sitting together. The nap means that the fabric pieces will slide away from each other in one direction and lock fast in another. In addition, they have a tendency to pucker when machined as the moving pieces struggle against the foot of the machine. Did I mention I had 6 large box cushions to make? At this stage, I had a couple of options which included finding a solution, becoming an upholsterer that doesn’t make box cushions and at the more extreme end, leaving everything as it was a moving to Fuengirola.
The internet as ever revealed a few good ideas which I put into action. Pinning the fabric helped to a degree, but this involved pinning every 2cm and was very time consuming on cushions of over 1m in width. Lifting the machine presser foot every couple of inches to allow the fabric to ‘relax’ helped to prevent puckering, and keeping the fabric taught also made things a little better. Sadly, despite these small breakthroughs, once I had 2 pieces of fabric with piping in between, all was lost. The stripes just wouldn’t match, minute puckers occurred everywhere and I was close to giving up.
Enter my buddy and accidental Mentor, Jonathan Taylor (aka Father’s Shed). Feeling my pain, Jonathan invited me to spend the morning with him to work out a solution in his Far Forest workshop. Reassuringly for me, Jonathan with his extensive experience found the same issues as I did when working with the fabric on a similar machine to mine. A standard ‘flatbed’ industrial machine and velvet stripes don’t mix well. So we tried something different, Jonathan’s ‘walking foot’ machine; a machine that has a 2 part foot that walks along the fabric (unlike most standard machines that press down on the fabric and cause drag as the fabric is pulled beneath it) – and guess what? Success!
So at least I had options; it could be done, albeit on a different type of machine which I could rent or borrow.The second option was to alter the design a little by wrapping the fabric around the top, front and bottom of the pad and sewing panels into the sides to complete them – no sewing across stripes, clean lines maintained and I could manage it all with my machine. Jonathan showed me how to construct this (Boy can he sew!) and a conversation with my customer later that day revealed that she actually preferred the amended design idea – something of a win/win situation.
So what have I learned? Firstly, (and it’s something of a recurring theme) we’re back to the old adage of having ‘the right tools for the job’. Right now, I can’t afford a second machine, but at least I know what it’s capable of and hiring one is always an option. Secondly, I’ve learned the hard way that not all fabrics are the same. Wathching the sewers work with velvet on the ‘difficult fabrics’ episode of The Great British Sewing Bee this week gave me further comfort …..I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little pleased to see these expert sewers having the same problems! Speaking to other upholsterers, they’ve all had similar moments in their early career which I find very reassuring, and Jonathan was keen to prove to me that this was perfectly normal – doubting your abilities is all too easy to do and in no way helpful.
Everyone needs a Jonathan; a mentor. Our mentoring relationship has evolved gradually over the past year and that’s why I describe him as my ‘accidental’ mentor – I don’t think he ever signed up for it! I have to say though, the generosity he has shown in sharing his experience with me has been overwhelming and I do my best to reciprocate by bringing biscuits and never taking his time for granted. I hope that one day, I can offer the same support to someone else.