Learning the hard way (or working with wool and velvet)

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.

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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!

A sneak peek at the Ercol duo - there's still some finishing off to do
A sneak peek at the Ercol duo – there’s still some finishing off to do

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.

17 hours to get to this point - with 6 cushions to make it was going to be a slow process!
17 hours to get to this point – with 6 cushions to make it was going to be a slow process!

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.

Introducing the saviour of my sanity, Jonanthan Taylor of Father's Shed
Introducing the saviour of my sanity, Jonanthan Taylor of Father’s Shed

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.

The Finished Installation - Check out that vaulted ceiling!
The Finished Installation – Check out that vaulted ceiling!
The finished Installation with the complimenting backrests - they were a lot easier to make!
The finished Installation with the complimenting backrests – they were a lot easier to make!

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.

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8 thoughts on “Learning the hard way (or working with wool and velvet)

  1. Hi Jonathan, how I feel for you!! This was exactly my experience for many years because I didn’t have a walking foot machine. I’ve seriously had those unpicking blues!! I still don’t have one, I have to borrow for awkward fabrics, but my industrial machine seems to cope with other less complex fabrics. It needs to be my next investment though along with a button press, but they are so expensive ! All your work looked amazing in the end though. It can be a tough life being an upholsterer, always learning, even 15 years after I started. But balanced out with lots of pride and satisfaction when it goes right. Keep it up Jon, you have the gift 🙂

    1. That’s really kind Heather, thank you. The sense of satisfaction when it was done was overwhelming – and it’s been such a valuable learning experience too. I guess there’s no substitute for learning the hard way sometimes?

  2. Hi Jon,
    Box cushions are the bane of my life too as I’ve never had any tuition. Good old ‘You Tube’ helped alot. I’m doing linen stripped box cushions at the moment and have discovered the wonderful double sided tape. I use this instead of pins and it has saved me alot of frustration, unpicking and pricking my fingers. I place it on one the facing side and then line up the strips and stitch – perfect. It comes in different widths and when you peel the backing off it’s clear. I don’t know if it would work with velvet but it’s worth a try. You can get it in most D.I.Y shops or even some of the cheap ‘Woolworth’ type shops. Cheaper than buying a walking foot machine! Love your work, it looks absolutely fantastic. You should be very proud of yourself.

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