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Friday, June 22 Living

Artful comfort: Upholsterers still needed in era of disposable furniture

Ana Matias rests her hands lightly on the wooden frame of an antique armchair. She is quiet as she admires the artistry. In the weeks to come, it again will be transformed into a comfy, beloved object.

“These woods are perfect,” she says on a recent morning as it sits on a worktable at Bethel Upholstery. “With this one, we needed to go to the frame. It had horsehair and was dusty, so we completely gutted it and will re-do it.”

About 10 feet away, a vintage loveseat awaits to be stripped. Nearby, an elegantly carved sofa is down to its springs. They await the touch of Matias, who runs the 40-year-old business, and her crew. As with houses and faces, these heavy, solid-wood pieces have good bones, and can stand the test of time. It’s the softer layers that need a lift.

It may be a rather disposable era, with online retailers, furniture outlets and bargain chains offering customers more chances to trade that tired sofa for a new one, relatively cheaply and quickly. For instance, a custom, reupholstered chair could cost as much as $800 or $900. However, Matias believes they don’t make them like they used to, at least the hardwood chairs and sofas that make their way into her shop from customers who have inherited them or struck gold at consignment shops, flea markets, online or at Goodwill. Matias, who started out in the business in 1987 sewing slipcovers and covers for pillows (something she still does), remains busy.

In the same breath, however, she says it is dying, just not in the way people think. With fewer and fewer formal degree programs and apprenticeship opportunities, the pipeline for new upholsterers could become a trickle. It can take years to become truly proficient and small shops do not always have the time to foster up-and-comers, when customers expect an expert job with a quick turnaround.

“We always have work,” she says. “It’s just that there are not that many people out there who can do the craft.”

The art of upholstery goes back to the 1600s when those with money began to dream about settling into more comfortable furniture. Frames were filled with feathers or animal hair and covered with canvas. These days, upholsterers work with metal springs, jute webbing, foam, polyester batting and fabric, but the basic skills remain. Springs must be put in place, material must be stretched and shaped for maximum look and comfort, and expert decorative touches make that tufted loveseat the talk of your living room.

“It’s like being an artist,” Matias says. Trading brushes for screwdrivers, drills, hammers, wire cutters, pliers, wrenches, shears, sewing needles and staple guns, and canvases for wooden frames, upholsterers need manual dexterity to install springs, a deft touch to create elegant piping and decorative touches and an artistic eye to drape the fabric just so.

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“It’s not just about putting fabric on top of something,” she says. “You can look at two chairs, the handcraft being perfect on both of them. You will look at one and say, hmmm, and then look at the other and say that looks amazing.”

Today’s aspiring upholsterer, particularly in this area, would have to turn to online courses or pick up a class at a continuing education program, which fill quickly. Or, he or she could head to New York City where well-known upholsterer and author Matthew Haly runs classes at his shop, The Furniture Joint.

Cynthia Bleskachek, an award-winning professional upholster has been tracking the changes in the industry since 2001. “It has changed so much in the past few decades,” she says.

Bleskachek runs The Funky Little Chair in St. Paul, Minn., which appears to be the only state that has a professional upholstery association. Her store doubles as an educational workshop, where she provides aspiring upholsterers the practical skills and networking resources to land a job in the shops that need them.

“This also teaches people to appreciate upholstery,” she says. “We have to be more visible about what we do.”

Bleskachek is well known on the web through her online upholstery class, “Getting Started with Upholstery,” which runs on Craftsy, a Denver-based online platform. More than 6,000 people have taken the course. “The way we used to get people in the pipeline is no longer available and, arguably, no longer applicable.”

Over the years, Matias has struggled to find qualified help, and would love to see more people consider the trade. She is grateful for her small crew, some of whom have been working for more than two decades in the trade. Experience is the best education, she says.

“You learn from the job, because every job is different.”

chennessy@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @xtinahennessy

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