The Victorian Nursing Chair – Day 8

Short and sweet update today as I’ve been promised fish and chips for dinner! These at is building up nicely and tomorrow I’ll be moving on to the top fabric.

I must admit, I’m not looking forward to fitting the top fabric – the gap between the seat and the back of the chair has closed up pretty tight now, so feeding the fabric through and also finding out where to cut around the frame in such an impossible space is challenging to say the least. It’s one thing to mis-cut with calico but something else when you do it to your luxury top fabric!!


Today’s step-by-step transformation

For those of you who have been lying awake at night worrying about my button dilemma, you’ll no doubt be relieved to hear that the green leather has worked a treat and I have my buttons all made and ready to go.


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 😉

Back at Chair School – fifth day

The weeks I spend at Tresithick always seem to go by so quickly and this week was no exception. I knew from the outset that I wouldn’t be leaving with a completed chair, so that took the pressure off a little and I didn’t find myself desperately cramming at 4pm!

ive learned so much over the past 5 days and surpassed my expectations in terms of exactly how much I would achieve. Today we were able to move on to the seat and look at how to cover the springs ready for the cushion.

Today's starting point
Today’s starting point

Essentially what we were making today was a floating, padded cover for the springs. This enables the springs to move freely while at the same time preventing them from damaging the fabric on the cushion.

By far the most enjoyable part of the day was making the quilted cover for the springs. With a foam filled pocket made of simple platform lining, I set about marking a rather fetching diamond quilting pattern.

Doing my lines
Doing my lines

Then it’s over to the sewing machine, stitching along the lines through the foam. The resulting pad looks so professional I was taken aback! I made this?! Attaching It to the material for the front edge of the chair and anchoring it via elastic tabs at the rear will keep it in place.

Ooh, fancy!
Ooh, fancy!

Clearly there were lots of processes between and I’ve made copious notes, however I’ll save this level of detail for boring people at dinner parties. Needless to say, I’ve left the workshop today with far more than I expected and a very clear and confident plan for completing the rest of this chair.

As ever, the variety of projects happening this week were awe inspiring. A particular favourite of mine was Leigh’s chair – love the square deep buttoning

What a beauty!
What a beauty!

So there we have it, another week at Tresithick under my belt and probably the last until 2015. We’ll be sorry to leave Cornwall, we really do love it down here but we’re coming home via Fowey in the morning. Is 9am too early for an ice cream?

Back at Chair School – fourth day

I went in early today and spent most of that time talking. Best laid plans and all that….

As the end of the week approaches, I’m really pleased to see the chair starting to look like, well, a chair! Today we were able to move on to the inside back, a great use of my time here because it will mean that any jobs left to do once I’m back in my workshop will be the less complicated ones. I’m really hoping that we’ll have the seat springs covered tomorrow too.

I’ve frustrated myself a little this week by forgetting to bring the seat cushion. This is important so that when you’re building up the arms and the inside back you can gauge the amount of space you’ll need for the seat. Richard has a similar cushion on hand to use as a guide and we have a photo of the chair in its original state – not ideal, but I can always adjust the cushion a little if required.

The tarpaulin base goes on the inside back
The tarpaulin base goes on the inside back

The name Parker Knoll is synonymous with chairs of this type, and it tends to be the chair of choice for those following the AMUSF curriculum. The method of build is different to the chair that I have, and as luck would have it Tanya, a fellow course member is working on a Parker Knoll so it’s handy for me to see the difference.

One thing lacking in my chair is any kind of lumbar support. Rather than create an inside back that looks a little like an ironing board, Richard showed me how to add a subtle lumbar profile with a simple foam insert on the lower 3rd of this section. This will make for a more comfortable chair and a better visual appearance.

Yes, this is a photo of 2 pieces of foam. Budding upholsterers might find this exciting!
Yes, this is a photo of 2 pieces of foam. Budding upholsterers might find this exciting!

So, foam cut, profiled, glued and tied in place it was time for the top fabric to go on. With this being such a large panel it really does transform the chair immediately. When the 5pm bell went I was at the point where I needed to cut the corners in, so I’ll do that in the morning (if I’m not too busy talking).

Don't be too sad that the funny head rest affair wasn't lovingly reinstated
Don’t be too sad that the funny head rest affair wasn’t lovingly reinstated

I’ve been trying to think of a great segue for the final picture but I can’t. It’s just unapologetically cute. Bella, Richard and Sonja’s dog loves nothing more that coming into the workshop at the end of the day and stealing old fabric….usually the pieces that are cat scented!

What? You didn't want this anyway, right?
What? You didn’t want this anyway, right?

Back at Chair School – third day

I’ve already decided that I’m going in early tomorrow.. There’s something about seeing a chair start to take shape that can make you very impatient to see the end result, so I’m going to squeeze in as much chair time as I possibly can between now and Friday.

Today I completed the arms and what a valuable learning experience this has been. The techniques I’ve learned are far superior to the methods I previously adopted and have produced a result in which I am fully confident.

A beautiful arm!
A beautiful arm!

This afternoon I was able to move to the wings and I’d say they’re looking pretty good. Again, lots to learn, especially around the join between the bottom of the wing and the top of the arm

The chair as I left it this evening, complete with a second coat of Annie Sloan
The chair as I left it this evening, complete with a second coat of Annie Sloan

There has been much talk this week of my last project, the little cocktail chair that became known as the “10 Please Fred” chair after the inscription I found daubed on its chipboard frame! It’s been remarked that this wingback was likely made by Fred too as chipboard seems to be the wood of choice. This isn’t unusual in more modern furniture and the end result will be just a good

We've decided that Fred should take a break
We’ve decided that Fred should take a break

Tonight Darren and I treated ourselves to a little post-school cinema trip and went to the Plaza in Truro to see The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film was a real visual feast and beautifully filmed, but we took even more from being in a little cinema with big comfy chairs and only 5 rows of seats. No soulless multiplexes here! What a great week this is turning out to be.

A proper cinema
A proper cinema

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.

Back at Chair School – first day

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!

The "before" shot - room for improvement methinks!
The “before” shot – room for improvement methinks!

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!

A few progress shots from today
A few progress shots from today

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.

Keep these away from a heat source unless you want to be tipped out of your seat
Keep these away from a heat source unless you want to be tipped out of your seat

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.

A fun little project for the super-stylish Spring Cottage
A fun little project for the super-stylish Spring Cottage

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.

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.