We have some catching up to do….

So it’s been three months since my last post and what a three months it’s been!

As always I started out with the very best of intentions to keep you updated with progress on my concave (egg) chair but by the time I returned to Tresithick for my final week of tuition, the deadline for my written research project was looming and I’d done my usual trick of leaving everything to the last moment!! Needless to say, rather than showing you lovely people gorgeous pictures of my chair, I was hurriedly pulling together a bibliography, referencing photos and attempting to print a sizeable 19,000 word piece on the ‘History of 20th Century Furniture Design’. I did it……… but the printer nearly went out of the window.

I should add that despite my self-induced stress the written research project was actually a really enjoyable thing to do – the sheer quantity of written work wasn’t actually a requirement but instead it was a result of how much I was learning. I felt sorry for Richard who had to plough through it!

So we have a lot to catch up on don’t we? The chairs, the assessment and a few other things that I’m not sure I can share with you just yet…..

The egg chair continued to be a joy to work on although I wouldn’t want to give the impression that it was a walk in the park. Once you’ve created your tailored cover for the shell, you’ve got to fit it – and this is the tricky part. Imagine trying to put a coat on a child who under no circumstances wishes to wear a coat. It was about that easy. Naturally you want to create a cover for the shell that is as fitted as possible, but as you have ‘wings’ at the top of the chair you’ve somehow got to stretch the cover beyond the point you fitted it in order to settle it into place.

The shell with its new tailored cover. What you can’t see is me in a little crumpled heap of exhaustion behind the camera.

This is where having a fabric with stretch is essential, the last thing you want to hear is the sound of ripping fabric as you’re wrestling the cover into place. I’d love to do another of these chairs, but if you ask me to do it in anything other than super-stretchy wool you’re definitely off my Christmas card list.

With the shell fabric wrestled into place it was time to tackle the inside cushions. bring on the teal! It’s not always easy to tell from samples exactly how a colour combination will work, but boy was I pleased with this one. My confidence was also boosted by the lovely comments from my colleagues in the work room who seemed to fall for these colours in the same way that I did.

Each cushion had to be carefully tailored to fit the space
Final button positions and colour took a little while to decide

New cushions were made to replace the bio-hazard originals (which had a final flourish as padding to protect fellow student, Josie’s mammoth leather armchair as she worked on it) and the covers were again, tailored to fit. The big decision that remained was that of buttons. To match or to contrast? With a short discussion in the work room, matching was a clear winner – a more sophisticated design decision we all thought.

With my final week at Tresithick drawing to a close it was clear that I would still have a little work to do on both of my Diploma chairs to get them ready for final assessment and verification in May. The good news was that the remaining jobs were easily achieved back in my own workshop and both chairs were ready in time.

Returning to Cornwall for verification felt a little odd. This was the first occasion that I’d spent time down there without having a project to work on, not that it was too much of a bind to while a way a few days in sunny Cornwall of course.

The other odd feeling was that this felt like a bit of an end of an era. I’ve been coming to Tresithick for 6 years now and it feels like a part of my world, not just a course I decided to take. Richard has been the most inspirational, patient, generous and supportive teacher and mentor that I could have wished for.  The confidence that he has given me has been phenomenal. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere in the workshop at Tresithick without using the words fun, laughter, energy and inspiration – it really struck me as all of the Diploma candidates joined for a celebratory dinner that I’ve made some brilliant friends over the last 6 years (you know who you are!) and that certainly includes Richard, Sonja, Zoe and Bella the dog.

The last 6 years has flown by and I enjoyed every week at Tresithick as much as my first back in 2011

The achievement of my level 3 Diploma means that there are no more levels for me to achieve and strictly speaking, no need for me to return to Tresithick. I’ve decided not to accept that. There’s always something new to learn, right?

Oh, and the good news is……. I passed! 86% no less, almost a distinction and much more than I had hoped for. Officially chuffed.

So here are the finished pieces – what do you think?

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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 Victorain Nursing Chair – Day 6

I’ve never done 2 consecutive weeks at ‘Chair School’ before so I wasn’t quite sure how I’d feel starting back today. The fact that I bounced through the door and got straight into it suggests that I’m quite a way off saturation point!


Today’s starting point. There’s a whole load of springs in there you know!

I really wanted to feel like I’d made progress today and somehow the time just flew by, leaving me at a place where I felt like I’d achieved very little. If last week is anything to go by I really shouldn’t worry as the next steps are likely to pass in quick succession. As ever, time really needs to be spent on forming the basic shape and structure of the seat pad, after all, everything else rests on these foundations.


At this stage I do wonder how I will ever produce something refined!

Today has mostly involved packing almost a kilo of coir into the seat by rolling it tightly into, well, rolls! These are held in place by loops of twine only to be broken up again into something that makes the chair look like it’s having a bad hair day. It’s at this stage you need to think about where you want your coir to be so that you have enough at the edges for your firm stitched border and not so much in the middle that the first person to use the chair will require a seatbelt.


Bad hair day?

Once you’re happy, this mass of coir needs to be encapsulated in scrim, and despite the fact that it seems like an impossible task, little by little you adjust the scrim and the coir within to form your basic pad shape.


And a few hours later it starts to look like it might just resemble a seat!

So while this is happening there’s been a niggling issue in the background in the form of buttons. It’s my intention and also the norm to add some form of buttoning to the back of the chair. Being concave, it’s not only decorative but also functional in that it helps to accentuate and maintain that lovely ‘spoon back’ appearance. However, there’s an issue.

Regular readers of my blog will know that velvet has caused me issues before, and once again it’s thrown a velvety spanner in the works. I should say that my lovely House of Hackney velvet is in no way faulty, but the nature of velvet means that it won’t always do what you want. Velvet has a pile to it, a bit like a tiny brush – now that’s fine when it’s flat but not so great when you try and wrap it around a tight corner as the pile separates and the cotton backing cloth is revealed. In this case the cotton backing cloth is white and the dyed velvet is much darker, so when you wrap it around a button, the pile separates and the white backing is revealed. Not much good for my top-notch chair!

Over the past week and with the support of my course colleagues I’ve explored lots of options from shocking pink accent buttons (quickly vetoed by numerous people!) to brass coat buttons (which didn’t really look right) and a very experimental ‘colouring in the White bits with a green marker pen’ approach which somehow didn’t feel appropriate!

The offending button complete with white halo ….. and the green leather that might just save the day

Anyway, I think Sonja has come up trumps by finding me a scrap of dark green leather that seems to match pretty well ……. and I think it adds a further edge of opulence 😉 We’re going to give it a go and see how it looks before committing but I’m optimistic. I need to do the buttons so that I can put the back of the chair on!

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 – 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