The art of transformation – meet the upholsterer!

I am fascinated by the skills of artisans and craftspeople, and knowing that my next door neighbour is an upholsterer, I simply had to interview and photograph her for this blog.  Hannah Spalding’s workshop is in an outbuilding behind her house, which is a converted pub.  Her commute is a few steps across the pretty courtyard, into a realm of fabric and furniture, where wonderful transformations are wrought and sad, tired pieces are given a new lease of life.

Hannah working on a balloon backed dining chair

I visited the workshop on an autumn morning, and was curious to know what brought Hannah into this trade.

How did you come to be an upholsterer?

“I’ve been fascinated by fabric and fashion since I could thread a needle – which according to my mum was before I could speak!  Growing up, what I wanted for my birthday was fabric, sewing kit, a sewing machine.  What interested me wasn’t really the fashion side, it was the making – the trade side of sewing, how to put things together.  I started making clothes – terribly badly, at first! – and I did Textiles at high school.  But it wasn’t an option at A level, so I looked at the College of West Anglia prospectus, and it fell open at hairdressing, so that’s what I did.”

Upholstery tools

Did you actually want to be a hairdresser?

“I hated it!  I left my job, with no idea of what I wanted to do.  I friend of my mum’s needed a cleaner, and by word of mouth I was soon fully booked.  What had started as a stopgap turned into 3 years’ work.  But I was still sewing, moving onto furniture rather than clothes.  Someone I cleaned for asked me to cover some dining chairs, and I said I’d give it a go.  They turned out well, and again by word of mouth I was getting upholstery work.”

Black and white photo of Hannah, framed by the back of the chair she is working on

So how did it become a business?

“My friend Ash said ‘why don’t you do this as a business?’ but I felt it was a big step – I had a mortgage by this stage.  But Ash didn’t give me any choice, he set up a Facebook page for me, and I was soon reaching more and more people.  I cut down the cleaning job by first one day a week, then two, then three.”

What has helped you build your business?

“The support from my husband and my family was the reason I succeeded in building the business.  Their support was unfailing!  They didn’t once say ‘are you sure about this’ – it was ‘yes, this is what you are meant to do’.  My dad went back to Holland to see his family, and it turns out that there have always been upholsterers in the family – the details are a bit foggy, but they definitely had shops selling blinds and furniture.  I am the last upholsterer in the family – and Dad came back with a van full of upholstery supplies from family members!  Even family I didn’t know were supportive, and interested in my carrying on the family tradition.”

Close up of Hannah's hands as she works on a chair. She has a measuring tape tattooed on the inside of her index finger.

Have you always had your own workshop?

“For several years my workshop was my mum and dad’s house, until we moved here three years ago.  I gave up the cleaning completely 2 years ago.  It was worth doing things slowly – I’ve been able to take my time and make sure I’m doing it right.  Mum and Dad have been so supportive – when I was working at their house I took over one room completely, and there was often furniture stacked up in the lounge waiting to be worked on!  At the start, I would work insane hours – 6am to 8pm most days.  They’d just bring me cups of tea…

It was a dream come true when we saw this place, and Mum and Dad helped fulfil those dreams.  When I walked in I thought ‘OMG it’s huge, how am I ever going to fill it?!’ – now I really need a bigger workshop!”

Photo of four pin boards with fabric samples on the wall of Hannah's workshop

How do people find you?

“I get a lot of work from my Facebook page.  It has got my name out there.  I have had a lot going for me:  I’m young, I’ve not been doing this for 40 years so my prices are appealing, but my work is just as good as anyone else’s.  I used to have days when I panicked because I only had work for the next three weeks.  Now, I’m already booked up until mid-January.

It’s amazing how things have grown over the last three years.  I have excellent relationships with a number of antique dealers (again – word of mouth!) and they are a constant source of work.  I can be cost-effective for them as they often use their signature fabric, and there’s no home visits involved for me.”

Hannah using an industrial sewing machine

So – I’m someone who wants a piece of furniture re-upholstered.  Talk me through the process.

“You ring me up.  I always try to be extra lovely to people when they phone, as it’s often a stressful experience for people who’ve not done this before, and who don’t understand the process.  I ask people to send me photos, so that I can give an initial estimate, and if they are happy with that I will do a home visit and quote.  If it’s, say, an elderly customer who would struggle with emailing me photos, of course I’ll visit and have a look.   I like to keep things quite informal and friendly – I like people to be my friends, not just customers!  Having a piece of furniture re-upholstered is exciting – I want to involve them as much as possible.”

I imagine you meet some interesting people!

“A small number of customers are, shall we say, trying, but you get that in any business.  Most people are great, you get to meet the nicest people, and the houses you get to see are amazing.  The customer base is so varied!  Some, yes, have a lot of money.  Others will contact me, get a quote, and I don’t hear from them for a year.  Then they get in touch, they’ve been saving up, and they want me to re-cover Grandmother’s chair.  They will only ever have that one piece done, but they are so excited and appreciative, those are my favourite jobs.”

Arty black and white shot of Hannah's sewing machine

So, what is the range of services you offer?

“I make bespoke curtains – all hand sewn, they hang better and look better.  I make custom-made pelmets, and Roman blinds (but not roller blinds – they are too expensive to hand-make).  I re-upholster window seats, dining chairs, arm chairs, sofas, wing-back chairs, stools and footstools.  I HATE doing iron-framed tub chairs, but I do them!  My favourite is a wing-back chair.

I don’t do loose covers for sofas – I don’t think they ever look quite right, and however good you are, loose covers are going to move when your customer has kids and dogs!

When I started out, I did both traditional and modern upholstery.  But around here [West Norfolk] there are a lot of amazing traditional upholsterers, and it’s not cost effective for me to compete.  I now say I do ‘mixed’ – springs, tied down, webbing, Cocolok [rubberised coconut fibre] as well as foam.  I don’t supply fabric, it’s not economical, but I advise customers about fabrics and suggest where to buy it.

Don’t be surprised if I’m more expensive than a machine!  But, unlike a lot of retail furniture, what I do will last 20 years.”

A re-upholstered arm chair, covered in blue fabric

And finally – what do you love about your job?

“I love my job, I don’t need to prove to anyone that it’s doing well.  I’m not planning to grow the business.  I love working on my own.  My mum gives me a hand sometimes, and friends pop round for coffee, so I’m not alone, but I will never employ anyone.  I didn’t want to go to college to do fashion to go into the fashion industry – I wanted to be a tradesperson, the person actually making it.  I love it!”

Hannah seated on a re-upholstered settle in her workshop

Contact Hannah on 07557875759 or hannah.sews@outlook.com or follow her on Facebook.com/hannahsews or Instagram @hannahsews

Family life – the swans of Oxburgh Hall

As the summer comes to a close, I’m sharing a family saga that’s been unfolding over the past few months.  I am fortunate to have Oxburgh Hall (National Trust) just down the road, and the fine moat is home to a pair of swans.  Last summer, while swan couples in the surrounding countryside reared their families, there were no little silver puffballs for the Oxburgh swans.

This year, however, they had more luck.  Back in June, they were proudly showing off their single baby.  Small, fluffy and grey, they guarded it fiercely.  Any visitor venturing too near was seen off by a hissing parent.  As an adult swan can easily break your arm if sufficiently cross, visitors wisely left well alone!  We got some nice pictures though.

Cygnets (baby swans) are quite vulnerable.  As well as having the usual youngsters’ talent for getting into life-threatening scrapes, when they are tiny they are also vulnerable to predators such as foxes, herons and raptors.  Prolonged wet periods can cause them to get waterlogged and chilled, and in hot weather they can easily overheat.  They can also be targeted by parasites, which weaken their system.  About a third of hatchlings don’t make it past the first two weeks of life.  They are not fed by their parents, but feed themselves from the start, so they have to learn quickly how to find enough suitable food to fuel their rapid growth.

On my next visit to Oxburgh, in July, I was thrilled to find that the lone cygnet was not only surviving, but thriving!  The parents were a little less protective now that the crucial first couple of weeks were past, and our little cygnet was growing well.

Much less fluffy, s/he (too early to tell if it’s a cob or a pen) is a sturdy little thing, and seems to have mastered the art of hoovering food up out of the moat.  It was actually quite hard to get a photograph, as the cygnet spent most of its time upended, feeding!  I got dozens of pictures of its backside, but not many of its head…

Fast forward to late August, and there was a heart-stopping moment as we couldn’t find the swan family.  We walked all round the moat, searched the fields, but there was no sign of them.   Just as we were about to go and find a member of staff to enquire what had happened to the swans, we spotted them in the river beyond the moat.  The cygnet is now HUGE!  It is rapidly growing to be as big as its mother, and is confidently swimming off by itself.

I stood on the little footbridge to take this photograph, but had to move aside when the flotilla headed my way, with the parents hissing loudly – they wanted to swim under the footbridge, and objected to my presence!  I obediently made way (I don’t argue with swans) and they ducked under the bridge and headed off downstream.

It’s been lovely to follow this youngster’s progress, and it’s great that the pair have finally managed to raise young – even if it is just the one.  Maybe they are an inexperienced pair and they’ll be more successful in future years – it’s a good excuse to keep going back to Oxburgh Hall to find out!