The Victorian Nursing Chair – Day 5

I think I qualify to become a Boy Scout after today..


I’m pretty good at knots now.

The seat has been started and we have springs in place. Again, a process that requires a great deal of though and a great many questions. How high do you want the seat to be? What shape do you want it to have? How firm do you want it to feel? How many springs will fill the space without clashing against each other? needless to say I’ll be seeing knots in my sleep, but I’ll sleep soundly in the knowledge that my springs are well placed and secure!

Think we’re off to St Ives tomorrow and a bit of a coastal walk on Sunday. Can’t wait! More updates on Monday….. Have a great weekend


The Victorian Nursing Chair – Day 4

It may not look like I’ve made all that much progress today, but when your top fabric goes on, it has to be right!

I started today by adding a little wool to the bare edges of the stitched pad and a thin layer of polyester Dacron that helps the fabric to move freely without pulling and rubbing on the pad below. Then came the grand reveal of my House of Hackney x William Morris fabric – so clearly a little time was taken to admire it before I decided where to place my cuts!

A couple of finishing touches to prepare for the top fabric

You really have to think about how you cut fabric with a pattern. It’s not just a case of measuring the area and getting stuck in with your scissors. A couple of questions came my way from Richard, “what feature do you want as the focal point?”, “what part of the pattern do you want to run down the centre?”. Add this to the fact that your seat will also need to match the back and the outside back also needs to mirror the inside back, your cutting plan starts to become a little more complicated. Needless to say, when it comes to expensive fabric, you check your measurements more than once!


once I plucked up the courage to make the first cut there was no stopping me!

Working with this luxury velvet was really satisfying and the finished feel was very appealing – my fellow course members just wanted to stroke it. Naturally I checked they’d washed their hands first 😉

Lots and lots of very careful tacking filled the rest of the day before I was satisfied with the tension and position of the pattern. The last step? To take a sharp knife and trim the excess from the edges……. A good time to concentrate.

I think this looks pretty cool – what do you think?

It seems that William Morris is popular this week – I wanted to show you this little beauty completed by my fellow upholsterer, Nikki, today. Isn’t it stunning?

The Victorian Nursing Chair – Day 3

This is so satisfying! I’ve found before when I’m using traditional methods that I reach a point where there’s a real beauty in what you’ve produced, so much so that it seems a crime to cover it up. That’s where I am today.

Still on track, today I’ve added an edge roll (a final row of stitching that ‘pinches’ the leading edge of your pad so that it’s firm and defined) I’ve filled the well with hair, added some soft cotton wadding and covered all of this with calico.

An edge roll completes the stitched pad and gives it a firm, defined edge


Lots of hair now fills the well, it’s packed pretty tightly to give enough ‘spring’ when compressed


A layer of wool helps to add softness

The calico has been hand-stitched to the edge of the pad as I don’t have oodles of space for tacks on the frame. Plus, with a frame of this age, the more holes you add, the greater the risk of weakness. Using this method has left plenty of room for the top fabric to be tacked, and believe it or not I’ll be doing that tomorrow…. on the back at least.


One or two pins are needed for this …….


Ladder stitched into place to give an almost undetectable join. even the smallest knots could show through the top fabric

I had homemade pasties for dinner and lunch. Living the dream……..

The Victorian Nursing Chair -Day 2

I feel like I’ve caught up a bit today. I was probably always on track, but when you start to see a chair take shape you can’t help but feel you’re taking a huge stride forwards. I may live to eat those words. Clearly in my excitement I was unable to hold a camera steady, so please accept my apologies for today’s shoddy pictures!

Today has been about shaping using traditional methods, something that I’ve been really keen to learn more about. At the end of yesterday I had a basic platform to work from and my parcel of gathered fabric – so today started with lots and lots of coir! Nice firm edges require a decent amount of stuffing, which through clever stitching and regulating you tame into shape.


Let battle commence! This little lot needs to be wresteld into shape

The rest of the day was spent getting this mass of coir to sit in the places where it is needed. You do this in stages, firstly by skewering the scrim into place, then gaining the basic shape with a regulator (a massive blunt needle that you push through the scrim to move the fillings into place) and then Finally with stitches to pull the stuffings toward the edges to give you a firm border.


Can you see what we’re doing now? Skewers are perfect for temporary fitting

New to me today were ‘oblique stitches’ which flattened down the inner walls of the well, giving them the required slope toward the outside of the frame. This angle means that the soft fillings that sit within the well won’t all of a sudden finish where the firmer pad begins, instead there will be a gradual move toward a firmer feel as you work from the inside toward the edge. Clever eh? Working these stitches was incredibly satisfying as it changed the shape instantaneously.


The irony of a blurry photo showing a sharpening shape! These oblique stitches changed the shape immediately

The one downside of this kind of work is the physical strength required. Each stitch needs to be pulled tight with some force, often around parts of the frame which can make it quite uncomfortable – and that’s without the constant pull of twine on your fingers! I’m pleased that the next bit of stitching will now be tomorrow. I’m a delicate soul.

Today’s end point – all achieved with traditional methods

Darren’s made a batch of pasties today while I’ve been doing this, so Cornish treats await me in the cottage – I do hope my sore hands can hold them 😉

Thanks for the velvet tips

I’m clearly a glutton for punishment as I’m contemplating another velvet project. You may remember my first attempt with velvet but if you dont, let’s just say it turned out fine, but there was some pain along the way! I’ve been given this gorgeous little 30’s chair and I can’t help thinking that a rich yellow / mustard velvet would look simply amazing (and bang on-trend too). What do you reckon?

30's chair

Anyway, as I brace myself in preparation I had to share with you a short email that dropped into my inbox the other day….

Date: 11 August 2014 16:42:12 BST
Subject: Thanks for velvet tips

Hi Jon,

I just wanted to say thanks heaps for sharing your despair when you were sewing striped velvet seat cushions. I was in that same place, frustrated and close to tears when I googled and found your blog. I laughed lots and quickly went to buy a walking foot. Velvet, though still temperamental, is sewing beautifully now. Thanks again.

From Australia

I was so delighted that someone had taken the time to let me know that my account of working with the world’s most volatile fabric (I’m being slightly dramatic) had helped them in their velvet hour of need (which sounds equally dramatic) …… and not only that, on the other side of the world!

This certainly put a big smile on my face and made me feel like I’d done a good deed for the week. I’d say it’s also helped me to feel 20% more brave (not a scientific measurement) and ready to give velvet another go …… thanks Coral!

Growth Spurt

Back in January I received a delivery of materials in preparation for the striped velvet project that was due for completion in March. Nothing unusual about that, in fact it was all very straight forward, but it did highlight something that I’ve been increasingly aware of – a distinct lack of space.

This particular delivery included 3 rolls of foam, and these are no small rolls. Each one when standing measures just over 6 feet and they’re pretty wide and heavy too. There was no room for them in the workshop (not if I wanted to be in there too) and the garage was already packed to the gunnels…. so that left the spare bedroom. It was like having 3 large house guests. I then needed to measure and cut my fabric. 11m of velvet can be pretty unwieldy in a tight space and trying to manoeuvre it in my little workshop was out of the question. That left the living room floor or the dining room table. I plumped for the latter. Velvet when cut tends to shed little bits of the cut pile; these stick to everything – clothes, carpets, cats…… and will merrily travel around the house. Needless to say, my presence as an upholsterer was being felt.

You may notice that the backdrop of my progress shots is increasingly messy!
You may notice that the backdrop of my progress shots is increasingly messy!

I really love my little workshop, but the time had come to think big. As luck would have it, an opportunity to share a large studio with a couple of my friends came about at roughly the same time. Dean, a painter and Nikki who has her own Fair Trade toy business, were looking for a studio buddy or two to occupy the space with them. This Friday I’ll be packing up my shed and moving to Titan Studios, a large Victorian industrial building on the edge of the canal in Stourbridge. I won’t be the only newbie either as Liz, a jewellery designer, will be joining us too.

It’s safe to say I’ll miss the ability to work at home, but this will be replaced with an environment that’s creative and stimulating – the opportunity to be with other creative people is really exciting and I also think there’s something in ‘going to work’ that can add a bit of focus. I’m really looking forward to having a little elbow room and keeping our home tidy too – I just hope that my hammering doesn’t drive my studio buddies mad!

This weekend, hot on the heels of his presence at ART 14 in London and The Affordable Art Fair in New York, Dean is holding an open studio weekend. I’ll be looking productive in the corner in the hope that a few of these art lovers might also need a bit of upholstery!

Why not come along?
Why not come along?

Of course, studio space is one thing, but how do you move all of your stuff from one place to another? When the velvet striped job was completed, it was a little like the Krypton Factor trying to squeeze all of the components into my car without damage. At the moment the size of project I can tackle is limited by the size of project I can fit in my small hatchback, either that or I have to pay for vehicle hire. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a bit of a retro-car nut, so contemplating the sale of my current pride and joy is tough (I balance it out with the excitement of choosing something new!) but it was time to upgrade to the upholstery-mobile.

The search was on! It had to be a car (not a van) as I need the versatility of 5 seats, and it had to be roomy enough for multiple chairs or even a small sofa, oh, and it had to be a bit of a classic (classic = old and cheap!!). So naturally the perfect choice was an old Volvo. Yes, I’m a Volvo owner. I’ve ordered a flat cap and a tartan rug.

I feel like an antique dealer in this
I feel like an antique dealer in this





Back at Chair School – day 2

I always feel that when I’m at Tresithick that I make fewer mistakes than when I’m in my own workshop and that the quality of what I’m producing feels that bit better.

In actual fact, I’m not sure that’s the case at all. For a start I would never put my name to anything that I wasn’t completely happy with so deep down I’m confident that I’m not a complete disaster unsupervised. What I’ve realised this week is that I feel more confident in my skills here because I have someone telling me that what I’m doing is correct. In my workshop at home I don’t have an expert on hand to offer me this reassurance so I’m completely reliant on my own judgement and of course my own doubts. What a week like this does for me is top up my self belief so that I can go home safe in the knowledge that more often than not, I know what I’m doing!

And so to day 2 of the course and the wingback is starting to take shape. Not as much progress today as I’d hoped for, but an important day learning a new method for covering arms so well worth taking my time.

The aim of today was to make a sewn cover, a little like a sock that will encapsulate the whole arm and then be fixed into place. To start, I attached the arm fabric and the panel for the front of the arm, setting their positions with tacks and pins. Getting the fit right at this stage means that when the two panels are sewn together that same great fit should remain

A much better way of doing things
A much better way of doing things

You then take these two panels from the arm and use them as templates for the other arm… being very careful to reverse them because two right arms isn’t a great look.

The two front panels ready for their piping
The two front panels ready for their piping

Once you have your panels and your piping made up, you can sew your piping to the front panels and then the arm panel to the front panel.

Some super neat sewing even if I say so myself!
Some super neat sewing even if I say so myself!

And there we have it, the completed arm sections ready to be adjusted, tensioned and fitted for good.

Some more fettling will take place tomorrow for a perfect fit
Some more fettling will take place tomorrow for a perfect fit

Now, the eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed something a little different about the chair in the last photo. Yes, as much as they were loved, those gold legs have gone. The funniest thing about them is that whoever did it clearly had the chair against a wall…..they didn’t bother to paint the backs! Economical.

Annie Sloan to the rescue. Graphite looks so much better than patchy gold.
Annie Sloan to the rescue. Graphite looks so much better than patchy gold.

The right tools for the job

At the risk of sounding terribly old, where has this year gone? Those of you who have been (very kindly) following my progress would be forgiven for thinking that I’ve packed in this upholstery lark altogether due to my lack of presence but the year just seems to have run away with me. A bit of a household disaster in the form of a leaking cellar that needed immediate, drastic works has sapped a lot of my upholstery time in the last few months (excuses, excuses!) but things are getting back on track and a couple of commissions have come my way in the last few weeks which have been the gentle nudge I’ve needed.

Cellar Disaster - not much fun taking the whole room back to brick
Cellar Disaster – not much fun taking the whole room back to brick

My post in July talked about the need to clear the decks in order to move on to other projects, namely the lovely Ercol sofa and chair that I’d bought. So the good news is that I completed and sold my little 50’s chair, and while I was sad to see it go (I really did love it) it’s new owner lives in a really fantastic mid-century architect designed home so I think that’s a rather fitting match! The other good news is that I finished the wing back chair and I’m as pleased as punch with the results! Now cast your mind back to when I started it and I wrote this post – the whole idea of doing this piece was as a learning exercise and if the finished article didn’t look quite 100% there was no harm done. Well, while there are certainly some things I’d do differently next time, it turned out far better than I’d hoped, I’ve learned a huge amount and gained a rather stylish armchair for our bedroom in the process. Yet another keeper.

Finished wingback
Finished at last – this project has taught me so much

So what of the Ercol? I set to work on the frame of the armchair with my magic furniture reviver (my kitchen looked like a chemistry lab making this stuff!) and after a couple of days of grubby, fiddly rubbing, sanding and reviving, the frame looked so much cleaner and brighter while still retaining some of the age related marks that give it real character. Full of enthusiasm, I ordered fabric samples and they arrived in all of their bright, felty loveliness. Then I looked at how thick the fabric was and multiplied it by 4, because if I’m making piped box cushions that’s how many layers I’ll have to machine together …….. Then I looked at my domestic sewing machine and simultaneously let out a big sigh.

The cleaned frame and the material that would tip my machine over the edge!
The cleaned frame and the material that would tip my machine over the edge!

The time has come for further investment, and this time it’s in the form of an industrial sewing machine. Try as I might, while the domestic I have is doing a sterling job, it can’t always manage fabrics of medium thickness, let alone the types I’m looking at for this project. A plea went out, and that plea was answered by Tamsin of Curious Upholstery in Harrogate. Tamsin (being way ahead of me in her upholstery career – check out her website) was looking to upgrade her trusty industrial machine for something for really, really tough fabrics and as luck would have it, her old machine is a perfect upgrade for me. Deal done! This little beast will do 2000 stitches a minute and I’ll work really hard to ensure that they’re not through my hand.

If I’ve learned anything in life I’d say that having the right tools for the job has to be one of the most important lessons – I tried to assemble a bedside cabinet at work the other day with a spoon. I didn’t end well. When it comes to upholstery my electric staple gun has made life so much easier, my reviver concoction has worked wonders and my new sewing machine will be just as important. I’ll be able to tackle more jobs now with much more confidence and besides anything it will be far too heavy to throw out of the window if I get annoyed with it (unlike my current machine which has been close to airborne on a few occasions).

So it looks like I have a day trip to Harrogate to look forward to! I’m hiring a van and buying a Yorkie.

You can’t keep them all…..

I think that there’s a very real risk that one of these days you’re going to see me on a programme called ‘Super Hoarders’. They say that we’re a nation of collectors and I’m absolutely no exception to that rule – once something is in my possession, I have to think very hard about whether I’m prepared to give it up.

Normally this isn’t a problem (my Partner, Darren may disagree!) but when it comes to upholstery it’s become clear that I’m going to have to make some tough decisions. Let’s face facts, I’m not making greetings cards or collecting thimbles – these are big lumps of furniture and I’m running out of space.

This came to a head last week when I was given the opportunity to buy a couple of mid-century Ercol pieces from my now friends, Joe and Ben of Hopper and Space fame. They’re leaving their Yorkshire base and moving to ‘that London’ – and in the process unearthed a job lot of Ercol awaiting restoration. Buoyed by the success of my 50’s chair, the prospect of taking a couple of these pieces off their hands was too exciting….. and so it came to pass that a 2 seater Windsor sofa and matching armchair were mine.

A very tempting stock pile!
A very tempting stock pile!

It was at this point that I had to have a little word with myself, largely before anybody else did. As you know, my journey into the world of upholstery is all a part of my grand plan to move out of a corporate role and into something much more creative. You’ll also know that this blog was always here to help me chart that journey, not just in terms of the skills I’m learning but also the thought process behind my approach. This is year 3, and progress has been good – I’ve done more work for other people in the first half of this year than in the whole of the previous 2 years, and that feels really rewarding. Anyway, the point is that I’d set myself a goal for 2013, and that was for The Cantin’ Patch to be self-funding.

After 2 years of this small venture costing me money, I’m very pleased to report that I am currently ‘cost neutral’! The client pieces for this year have enabled me to create a small stock pile of materials and complete a week’s tuition – things that my day job has funded in the past. To know that you have created a little bit of income all by yourself feels great. I think it’s a little milestone in my journey for sure.

That said, there’s still 6 months of 2013 left so I’ve not opened the bag of party poppers just yet. If I’m going to realise my goal then I have to be a bit more ruthless in freeing up space and funds and that means I can’t keep everything – no matter how nice it is to look at! So for that reason, the ’10 please Fred’ chair is up for sale. I made sure I completed all of the little finishing off bits last week and gave the legs a good clean and wax. I think it looks rather smart! What was that? You’d like to buy it? Really?

It's time to say goodbye
It’s time to say goodbye

The other thing I need to do is finish this one off – my little Parker Knoll style chair. I’ve moved it into the bedroom so that each and every morning it says ‘Finish me! Finish me!’ as I get up. I’ve promised myself that I won’t start the Ercol pieces until this one is done.

Finish me! Finish me!
Finish me! Finish me!

Now all I have to do is find a way of justifying why I should keep the completed Ercol Sofa……..

What’s next?

I can’t quite believe that I’ve now been working my ‘old job’ part-time for just over a year now. The fear over making that decision seems like and long and distant memory and the benefits to me in taking back just one extra day have been numerous, not least the ability to say ‘yes’ more often when an offer of paid work comes my way.

Working my day-job for just 4 days has given my life more balance – I often consider myself lucky to have a 3-day weekend, even when a part of that is taken by paid upholstery work – because it doesn’t feel like working. In fact, I have less free time now than I have ever had, yet I don’t feel cheated. The past month has seen me, for the first time, beavering away into the late hours in my little shed to complete projects to tight deadlines knowing that the next project is waiting in the wings for another eager customer. Even my little website has seen a few enquiries….. the word is spreading! Now I’m no Parker-Knoll, but this little bit of momentum feels quite exciting and with it my thoughts turn to what the next step in my journey will look like.

One of the completed 'Princess' chairs
One of the completed ‘Princess’ chairs

Ultimately, my aim is to be able to leave the day job and become an upholsterer full-time, and this may come as some surprise, but this is new territory for me. It’s been great to talk to other people about their own businesses and how they knew when it was right for them to make the leap, but that’s their story and their set of circumstances – so while it provides inspiration and reassurance, it doesn’t mean that what worked for them will automatically work for me.

My gut instinct is telling me that 2013 is not the year for another big leap – I’m quite enjoying the balance right now and the natural growth of my skills, experience and business. That said, I can’t help feeling that a little more direction wouldn’t go amiss to help ensure that one day, whenever that may be, my ultimate goal is realised.

Next week sees me complete another week’s tuition at Tresithick, a week that I am looking forward to immensely. This time to indulge in my ‘new life’ often gives me a taste of how things could be that drives me toward action – so it might be perfectly placed to help me decide on a few well chosen next steps.