Upholsterers: If the stuffing's been knocked out, call me

As the anti-waste movement continues to grow, there's more work for upholsterers. By Caroline Roberts

Are you sitting comfortably? If not, you may be in need of an upholsterer. In recent years, the glut of cheap, mass-produced furniture on the high street has knocked the stuffing out of this traditional trade. But now it's making a comeback.

Helen Reynolds, a self-employed upholsterer, has seen a surge in business. "People have realised that throwaway furniture isn't good for the planet. There's a trend towards spending a bit more on pieces with hardwood frames that are built to last, and renovating them when the need arises. That's where I come in."

There are two main categories of upholsterer: production and craft. The former are usually engaged in unskilled, poorly paid factory work. Craft upholsters tend to be self-employed or work for small businesses. Their work is far more varied and can range from working with a designer on bespoke pieces or renovating antique armchairs to re-covering office furniture.

Like any job, it has its tedious tasks, such as pulling out staples. For Reynolds, the chance to restore old furniture more than compensates. "You get a real sense of the history of a piece when you strip it down and find shreds of cloth and bits of old newspaper used as stuffing, and smell the wood fires it's sat next to for 50 years," she says.

Some interesting things end up down the backs of sofas. She sometimes finds old money, and once found a silver tiepin. There can be unpleasant surprises, too - the natural fibres used in old stuffing make attractive nesting-places for mice.

It's also perhaps not a job for allergy sufferers. "I was working on a Georgian armchair and the dust that came out was incredible. Dust is mainly skin particles - I could have collected enough DNA to clone my own Georgian gentleman!"

So how do you become an upholsterer? Many local colleges offer City & Guilds courses that can be taken full- or part-time over one or two years. For a taster, City & Guilds runs three-day Time to Learn courses.

"You need to be good with your hands, and have an eye for detail and a sense of colour and design," says Mike Spencer, chief executive of the Associated Membership of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers. As with any business, you need good interpersonal skills and financial acumen.

Spencer recommends that the newly trained work for an established upholsterer first before trying to go it alone. Reynolds agrees; for 18 months she worked for a business specialising in antique restoration, gaining the confidence to strike out on her own. "No two pieces of furniture are alike and there are quirky hand-stitching methods that you can't get from books. You need someone as a reference point, and upholsterers tend to be a secretive lot who are reluctant to divulge trade secrets."

But it's not impossible to be self-employed from day one if you're prepared for a slow start and take simple jobs to build up experience, Spencer says. "You wouldn't want to take on a Chesterfield and mess it up as the customer would sue you like a shot."

And what of earnings? Spencer says a skilled upholsterer working with a top designer can make up to £50,000 a year. At the other end, someone starting out in a small workshop might have to settle for a weekly wage of about £300.

If you're self-employed, there are ways to supplement your income, such as entering into a contract with a fabric house. Offering clients a choice from their range means you take a cut.

Reynolds works from her garage, transports most furniture in her Volvo estate, and has never advertised as more work has come in through recommendation. "But," she points out, "it's slow, painstaking work and there's only so much you can do in a day. To earn more, you have to employ people, which means taking the business to a different level."

So you may not get rich as an upholsterer, but at least you'll never be short of a comfy sofa.

The Furniture, Furnishings and Interiors National Training Organisation lists training providers on its website www.ffinto.org. See also: www.cityandguilds.com; www.timetolearn.org.uk

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