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

Too Much Stuff – a decade of decluttering

I recently read back through all my old blog posts (on this and other blogs) and was rather embarrassed to find a theme, going back almost a decade.  From 2011 I have, at regular intervals, been writing about decluttering.  Not decluttering in the abstract, but my own attempts at achieving a simpler life with less Stuff.

Since then, I have moved house no fewer than five times, and am about to move again.  Each time, I have spent days, weeks, months, sorting through Stuff.  I have benefited my local charity shops to the tune of many hundreds of pounds worth of donations.  I have made a lot of people happy with my cast-offs.  I have spent much more than was necessary on house moves, because of the amount of Stuff which needed to be packed and moved each time.

I have read a lot of blogs and books on decluttering (I even have a friend who is a professional declutterer, and if I’d met her earlier in the process I might well have engaged her services!).  I have internalised Marie Kondo’s principles (I even rolled my socks up for a while).  I have read books on Stuff, agonised about Stuff, packed up boxes of Stuff, and driven countless carloads of Stuff to charity shops and recycling centres.

What have I learned?

I had a shocking amount of Stuff.  No, really, I did.  It’s obscene.  After nearly a decade of active decluttering, I still have a home that is far from sparsely furnished and which contains plenty of books, art, clothes, kitchen and tableware, and sentimental items.  I think I’m just about there, though, finally.  This is probably an acceptable amount of Stuff for a woman of 50 in the UK to own.  I’m just acutely embarrassed about how much Stuff I had.

I am ashamed of how much money I spent on Stuff.  There have been many things I have not done in my adult life because I felt I couldn’t afford it.  But the purchase price of the Stuff I have decluttered would have paid for all of those ambitions, with plenty to spare.  I appear to have chosen Stuff above Life.

I have a powerful emotional attachment to Stuff.  This takes two forms:  firstly, I feel responsible for it – I can’t just dump it, it’s my responsibility to make sure that it is rehomed/recycled/sold on to someone who will use it.  It’s partly an environmental thing, and partly something I haven’t quite got to the bottom of yet, which is around a kind of anthropomorphism of Stuff, whereby each item is something I have called into being and now it’s my duty to do right by it.  Odd, isn’t it?!

Secondly, I have discovered that I feel really uneasy about not having much stuff.  Reading books on minimalism makes me feel acutely uncomfortable.  How can having only a few clothes, and sleeping on a mattress on the floor, be something to aspire to?  It just evokes images of refugees, and living in squats, and I can’t imagine how somewhere so Spartan could ever feel homely.  A lot of thinking, and long conversations with my long-suffering partner (who has never in her life had Too Much Stuff, and is rather bewildered about the concept – why would you want to have more Stuff than you actually need?!) has made me realise that the Stuff is, for me and for many other people, tied up with a lot of complex emotions.

A lot of my Stuff relates to creative projects, which get mixed up with issues around identity.  If I decide to do or make something, I first get “every book ever written on the subject” (I quote my partner!), and every bit of kit/materials/tools I might conceivably need.  When (as is often the case) life moves on and I don’t get round to completing the project (or, all too often, even starting it), the Stuff is a silent reproach.  It’s not just about the wasted money, but it’s about mourning for the project that never happened – and for not being, after all, the kind of person who would have done that project.  If I get rid of my wool and my loom, I am also getting rid of my identity as an aspiring textile artist.  Stuff and identity become intertwined.

The unhappier I am, the more I crave being surrounded by my Stuff.  It needs to be my own stuff – not just clutter, but things that I have chosen to have in my home.  Even if there are far too many of them for the space available.  Somehow, it makes me feel safe.  This has made decluttering even more difficult, as it’s usually initiated by stressful events (moving house) which are precisely when I’m likely to be more emotionally dependent on my ‘shell’ of Stuff.

Whilst the last few years of my life could hardly be described as peaceful, they have nevertheless been years of growing happiness and contentment.  And I have recently discovered that I have reached a tipping point.  The burden of having all this Stuff – paying to have it moved, paying to store it, keeping it clean and in good repair, and generally having it take up brainspace as well as physical space – has finally outweighed the emotional benefit of having my Stuff around me.   I no longer need my ‘shell’.  No, I’m still not going to sleep on a mattress on the floor if I can help it, but I’m finally able to follow William Morris’ dictum: “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

So, where does that leave me now?

We are preparing to move house (again).  This time, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, the only things I’ll be moving are things that are either useful or beautiful (or, in a few cases, family Stuff of which I am currently the custodian).  No “but I might still do that project” Stuff, no “but it might come in useful” Stuff, no “but it took me ages to track that book down ten years ago” Stuff, no “but that was really expensive, I can’t get rid of it” Stuff.  Less Stuff, more space.  Less Stuff, more experiences.  Less Stuff, more life.

The new old home

So – the move is done.  I have been in for a few days, the unpacking is almost completed, and I am (after many years of living in 1960s and 70s houses) reminding myself of the joys of living in a 150+ year old house, with not a straight line in it!  Almost every piece of furniture upstairs has had to be sured up with wedges to make it even vaguely level.  My miscellaneous vintage home wares and country furniture actually look like they belong here, rather than being an anachronism. The cat has moved in and seems to approve of her new abode.

What have I learned, as the detritus of my life has emerged out of boxes?

I have too many shoes.  No, really, I do.  Because I have never seen them all out at the same time in the same place, I never realised just how many pairs of very similar shoes I have.  I haven’t depressed myself further by counting them – I just know I have too many.  I understand why – I have difficult feet to find shoes for which are both stylish and comfortable, and therefore I tend to stockpile when I do find suitable ones, even if I don’t actually need shoes at the time.  But this is ridiculous.  I would have ample for most eventualities even if I gave half of them away.  Which is what I shall do.  The hospice shop at the top of my street is in for a surprise!  I have already sent half my handbag collection their way…

I have too much stuff relating to projects which I shall never finish.  Freecycle is helpful here – gifting my stash of fabric which I know I shall never make clothes from, and the things which were in job lots which I purchased for one or two pieces which I have used.  More challenging will be the process, which I must undertake, of getting rid of a proportion of of my yarn and fibre stash – realistically, much of it is in colours I now know I am unlikely to use.  I can make a couple of nice bundles and donate them to my local Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers for someone else to enjoy.

For the moment, I must set aside training as a traditional upholsterer. In this much smaller house, I do not have the room for the supplies, beyond my toolbox, or for pieces of furniture waiting to be worked on, and in a mid-terrace house it’s not realistic to do the amount of hammering involved, without seriously annoying the neighbours.  If I can find a workspace away from home, I can re-visit this, but for the moment I must leave it, and not beat myself up about it.

I have too many books.  I must admit this is a surprise – as I had already culled several boxes of books (to Oxfam) over the past few weeks, I didn’t expect this to be an area that would cause me problems.  But I have realised that as well as the books on the shelves, I had nearly as many again lurking in piles beside my favourite armchair, under the desk, under that pile of magazines that I never seem to get round to finishing, on the windowsill…I need to assess whether it is realistic that I will read them in 2015.  If not, it’s Oxfam again…

It really is possible to declutter, even things that have been around for years through umpteen housemoves, without feeling bad.  I have always had guilt about getting rid of things which were, long ago, gifts or which have some association with someone or some event.  I’ve been able to ask myself, as things emerge from the boxes, whether I am keeping something just through habit, or whether I am making an active decision to have it in my home.  Things (of no great value, but nice, and often recollected from my childhood) which I have inherited from my beloved grandparents, I have kept – a vase, a rug, the child size chair which they brought back for me from a holiday in Spain in 1973 and which now provides a suitable home for my very grown-up bear.  I have allowed myself, also, one small storage box of ‘nostalgia’ items.  Interestingly, it’s only half full.  The one area where I will have to put in some time is my office – I seem to have reams of paper and piles of files kept in case it ‘comes in useful’.  Going through several years’ worth of work output will be tedious, but should free up several shelves as I think it’s likely that very little of it will be relevant in the future (and most of that is probably on computer/backed up anyway).

Moving to a much smaller house has been a great discipline.  There simply is no argument with not having anywhere to put it!  The world really won’t come to an end because I only have a few tupperware food storage boxes rather than twenty.  If I can’t store it, I probably don’t need it.

I stockpile things as if I am expecting a siege.  The reasons for this, I know, go back to my childhood, but I must accept that in 21st century England it is unlikely that I need to stockpile groceries, ironmongery or toiletries.  At all costs I must avoid multibuys.  Any possible financial saving must be set against the costs in terms of my tranquility at home as I struggle to find houseroom for things I won’t need or use for ages.  What price turning my home into a warehouse for things I can buy any time I need them, just by walking up to the shops?  Is a few pence of saving really worth the aggravation of the item falling out every time I open the kitchen cupboard?!

Fitted kitchen cupboards hide a multitude of sins. Or, in this case, stuff.  My kitchen here has few cupboards – four small wall units, one base unit plus a corner unit with a carousel for pans.  But it does have three open shelves running the length of the kitchen, which I have used to display/store my crockery (including vintage tea things) and vintage enamel bowls and jugs.  I now know exactly what I have got.  Duplications have become apparent, and have been weeded out.  I can see that I have enough – plenty – and will not be tempted to acquire more.  The cupboards contain only consumables, and some cookware.  I only have what fits comfortably in the cupboards (less than half of what I had before).  So far I have managed to cook a range of meals without feeling the lack of any vital piece of kit.  My surfaces are largely clear, and the kitchen feels very tranquil.

At the end of the first week in my new home/olde worlde cottage, I am keen to pare down my possessions even more.  I want to have even more space around me, to reduce the visual noise of my stuff.  I realise that I only really tolerate the ornamental in my home if it also fulfills a function – my ceramics are bowls or tea cups, regularly used and not merely gratuitously ornamental.  Even the cat is a vermin-control operative!

Blogs and websites on sustainability, mending etc

Recently I met up with a good friend whom I have not seen for a while, and in between exploring the lovely vintage shops in the St Catherine’s area of Frome and enjoying a little something at the Diva café at Black Swan Arts, we were talking about issues like sustainability, mending, visible darning, ethical fashion and various related topics, and she wondered who was blogging about things like that. So, naturally, I asked on Twitter, and a deluge of responses came back to me! So, just in case anyone else is wondering the same as my friend, here are some of the blogs and websites I have come up with.

http://scrapiana.com/

Based in Bath, Scrapiana offers what she describes as ‘scraps & scribblings on sewing, thrift, upcycling & vintage haberdashery’.  She also has a comprehensive Blogroll with links to lots of relevant websites.

http://mymakedoandmendyear.wordpress.com/

Jen, based in Wiltshire, blogged about her year of making do and mending, rather than buying new.  This brought her quite a bit of publicity!  Her blog now continues to explore sustainability issues.  She also has a helpful Blogroll of links.

http://tomofholland.com/

Tom, who is originally from the Netherlands, is based in Brighton and is a leading light in the visible mending movement.  He writes and runs workshops on darning (I had no idea there were so many types of darning until I read his website…).  He is also an accomplished and innovative knitter.

http://thedressdoctor.co.uk/

Based in London, Jo has an impressive background in historical and theatrical costume.  Her website is the shop window for her alteration/conservation service and commissions, and her workshops.  Lots of titbits about looking after your clothes, mending, alterations etc.

And today, this blog post from Donna Druchunas in Vermont, USA http://sheeptoshawl.com/buried-alive-in-stuff/ on making things, materialism and the future of the planet.

That little lot will probably keep you going for a while, but meanwhile, if you know of any other good blogs or websites on these themes which you would like to share, please use the comments box to suggest them.

Right now, I am off to do some more knitting on a project which is re-using yarn salvaged from an old jumper – the ultimate in recycling!