This blog series has been borne from my own curiosity for how things are made; from my love for traditional crafts and admiration for people who dedicate their time and passion to create things in traditional way. Our first and opening guest of Meet the Craftsman is Amanda Neat, the Upholsterer .
Amanda Neat in her Workshop, Teynham
I found Amanda through Google, searching for an upholsterer in my area. I was looking for someone who could restore two quite old armchairs that I was given free (I understood pretty quickly why!).
We named the armchairs Betty & Bert because when I took them out of my car and placed them in my courtyard, they looked like two elderly people having a conversation. I knew the restoration wasn’t going to be easy or cheap. Their joints were tired and the guts literally full of living moths! I did not let them anywhere near my house!
Then I met Mandy. She understood my need to restore these two! We started with Betty. And here she is in her full glory waiting for her husband to catch up…
Preserving an old piece is more than just having the job done. It is more of a rescue mission, requiring skill and patience. It’s like pouring a new soul into the object that otherwise would end up in a skip.
I present to you Amanda, the Furniture Whisperer:
Amanda also kindly agreed to keep the record of different stages of the renovation, to show us the entire process!
1. Has upholstery always been your career? If not, what else did you do?
Upholstery hasn’t always been my career. Over the years I’ve had many jobs ranging from factory work to Nannying. One of my best and most interesting occupations was helping to restore Sarre Windmill, which my father and brother owned. Once it was restored, it was run as a business, producing flour. I then became a Miller!
2. When was the first time you thought you would like to become an upholsterer and why? Has someone/something inspired you?
Having come from a family of restorers of Mills, Steam Engines and Shepherds Huts, I was itching to get into something that I felt I could do. I happened on upholstery when I came across some beautiful fabric at a flea market and needed to do something with it. My husband bought me a footstool kit for my birthday and it all evolved from there.
Chair in original state
3. How did you learn?
After having done my first footstool, I investigated having some lessons in Upholstery. I initially had a one day a week, for four weeks lesson on how to do traditional upholstery on a dining chair. I then took up another evening class course for six weeks, where I completed a Victorian armchair. The rest is self-taught. Any Upholsterer will tell you that no matter how long you have been upholstering, you are always learning as every piece of furniture is different.
4. I know you mastered both: more traditional technique and the modern way of upholstering, what are the differences and when would you apply each of them?
There are two types of upholstery, traditional and modern. Traditional uses time honoured traditional methods, skills and materials to create a comfortable and long-lasting seating. It is the more expensive way to have furniture upholstered. There are many stages to the traditional seat, webbing, springs, hessian, 1st and 2nd stuffing (with a lot of hand stitching) hair, cotton wadding, calico and finally the chosen finishing fabric. Modern upholstery is a cheaper way to upholster more modern furniture. It is mostly foamed based, using webbing, hessian and Dacron to produce a cheaper version of upholstery and is used on mostly post 1950’s furniture.
5. What would you say is the best and the worse part of your job?
The worst part of the job is the stripping down of all the old layers to reveal the frame. This is a very dusty and dirty job and you never know what you are going to find, not all of it is pleasant! The best part is handing the completed piece back to its owner and seeing their delighted reaction. Knowing that a treasured family heirloom or a second hand find has been given another chance to be a part of family and history gives me a great sense of satisfaction.
6. What was the most extraordinary job you were ever asked to do?
My most extraordinary piece of furniture to do will be in my workshop soon and I’m excited to be doing this project. It is a 1920’s dressing table from Chicago which will be covered with fabric.
7. What is your favourite furniture style?
I quite like the simplicity of pre and post war furniture. It is very utilitarian but can be made to look fantastic with modern fabrics. Also, it tends to be of a convenient size, not bulky like todays modern furniture.
Stripping down, taking off all the layers to reveal the frame.
8. It is often easier to throw old furniture away than to rescue it because of the cost and work involved. Where is the fine line would you say?
The cost of upholstering and sentimentality obviously play a big part in saving old furniture. However most old furniture is better made than modern. Old frames tend to be made from Oak, Beech and Ash, whereas todays modern furniture is mostly MDF and other pre-formed woods. Another example is in todays climate where there is a lot of flooding, traditional wood furniture can be saved whereas modern always ends up on the kerb side waiting for disposal.
Re-webbing the chair. This is an important 1st step as the webbing is what takes all the weight.
9. Best and worse find in old furniture...any treasures or dead bodies?
I haven’t found anything nice when stripping furniture. Nail clippings and moth are the most common finds. It’s not all glamour!
Tieing in the springs. The springs are sewn to the webbing and then tied in on top. This process stops the springs from moving from side to side but allows them to move up and down.
10. What is the best way of looking after our old furniture to make sure your newly upholstered piece survives as long as possible.
My tips for looking after your furniture would be not to have old pieces too close to a source of heating, like radiators. This tends to dry the wood out and shrink the joints. Always wherever possible pick a heavy chair up from the base and not the arms. By picking up and moving by the arms, they are taking the full weight of the chair and can lead to damage. Once or twice a year give any show wood a nice polish with a good quality wax. Make sure any fabric is protected as wax stains cannot be removed.
The seat has had it's first stuffing and a layer of hessian has been applied ready for stitching which forms the shape of the seat and firms up.
11. Can we also have some tips on how to get rid of moths and woodworm? I remember bringing home old furniture from boot sales or antique shops completely unaware of the risks of contaminating my entire house.
The best thing for Moth infestation to be honest is a complete strip down. Moth have a way of getting deep into the furniture and laying their leave, which eat away at material and fabrics. Woodworm – if live can be treated with an application of woodworm treatment available from any DIY store. To tell if woodworm is live, tap the area where holes are and if a very fine, powdery sawdust comes out then it is active. If nothing comes out, then it is most probably old and dead. If in doubt, treat.
The seat base has been formed.The back rest has a rolled edge to help create the shape of the back. The arms are ready for covering.
12. What are the most important things to look at when choosing a fabric for an upholstery project?
Make sure the fabric you choose can withstand the use for which it is intended. Fabric for upholstery will have a rub test called a Martindale test which refers to the number of rubs the fabric can withstand before wear. General domestic fabrics have a Martindale of 25,000+ rubs. Anything lighter is usually classed as light domestic use i.e. curtains, cushion etc.
A layer of coir is added to shape the back The dogs are tired out!
13. Any tips to people who would like to pursue an upholstery career.
Upholstery is not a get rich quick career. Learning Upholstery can involve a fair bit of expense and time. Invest in good tools and if possible, opt for a walking foot sewing machine, it will make your life a lot easier. Net work as much as possible, tell people what you do. It’s surprising how many people say they want a job done or know someone that does, once they know what you do.
The top fabric being applied.
Betty fully restored in our Tribes Narrow Stripe fabric in Wheatgrass colourway.
You can contact Amanda for your own upholstery project at:
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
Amanda works from her workshop in Teynham, Kent