When I embarked on my upholstery journey over ten years ago, I hardly knew anyone who was an absolute beginner like me. Since I launched my online guide to getting into upholstery – Virtual Vintique: Upholstery Uncovered, with its own private online community, I’ve loved hearing all the stories of people just starting out.
This week on the blog, I catch up with Paula Johnson at Treasured Upholstery. She’s worked on some of the UK’s most well-known food magazines but has recently discovered a new taste for upholstery…
Hi Paula. Tell me a bit about you…
“I’m a wife, mum of two boys and ex Food Editor for M&S and Slimming World magazines. I’d always wanted to work in magazines from the age of 16 – I started out on BBC Good Food and Olive. I went freelance after having my second baby, but when my contract came to an end and after working almost solidly in the same field for 18 years, I realised my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I’ve always been a strong believer that work should be something that you love. So, at the age of 40 I found myself at a career crossroads, totally unsure of what to do next. I briefly spent some time as a teaching assistant, then lockdown happened and as the months ticked by it gave me the space I needed to think about what to do next. That’s where my new chapter in upholstery began…”
Why did you choose upholstery and what most appeals to you about it?
“I suppose I’ve always enjoyed creativity, whether that’s through food or some form of arts and crafts. I have a GCSE in textiles and an A-Level in Art, but after choosing food as my career path, crafts became more of a hobby via a variety of short courses – from embroidery, screen printing and crochet to vintage bag making and painting. Alongside that, I have always enjoyed watching programmes like The Repair Shop and Money for Nothing and the stories of battered old chairs being lovingly repaired and restored. With upholstery on my radar, I started to think that it could be a great option for me too.”
So tell me, how did you go about it and where are you at with it all now?
“I first searched online for my nearest AMUSF course a while back. Then, during lockdown, when I had time to really think about what I wanted to do I found myself searching for the upholstery course again. Within a few days of research, I’d phoned, visited the school and booked onto one of the remaining sought-after places.”
“I’m now studying Level 1 of an AMUSF course at the British School of Upholstered Furniture, which has just moved to larger premises outside of Henley. The course is run by Gareth Rees and Greg Cupitt-Jones who are both brilliant, fun and knowledgeable teachers. I was drawn to the diploma as it’s delivered in three stages with each stage being a qualification in its own right and certificated separately. It’s a big financial commitment, so after one or two years you can stop or complete all three years to gain the diploma.”
Is it what you thought it would be?
“It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be, both physically (on hands and arms) and mentally. I hadn’t fully realised what went under the top cover on a chair or appreciated how much skill and expertise is required. I think that’s a fairly common misconception. It’s easy to see the finished result and mistakenly think it’s simply putting pretty fabric on a chair – it’s not! And it’s certainly given me an appreciation as to why furniture is so expensive.”
“It’s easy to see the finished result and mistakenly think it’s simply putting pretty fabric on a chair – It’s not!”
“The course is really rewarding. I feel a sense of pride as my work progresses at each stage and it’s amazing how you lose yourself in each task. As well as the learning process, I’ve also met new friends through the course and we run our ideas past one another and help each other out within a WhatsApp group.”
What have you learned about upholstery so far? Perhaps even about yourself? I know I learnt loads in those early days!
“At the time of chatting today, I’m only 12 lessons into my course and boy has it been a bit of a rollercoaster. I’ve had good days and a few hard days, where I’ve felt like bursting into tears – I haven’t yet! Just last week I gave myself a bit of a talking to. I tell my children that the way you learn is from your mistakes and it’s true. I’ve learnt that I can’t expect the first time I spring a chair or cut hessian around a leg for it to be perfect or easy. I’ve had to undo my work and redo it, sometimes several times and that’s okay. It’s been 20 years since I studied, so I’m re-learning that side of it too, including writing a project on 20th Century Furniture. It’s such great fun and each week is different, so it never gets boring.”
I’m totally with you on all of that. It’s such a steep learning curve, but so worth it when you get to the top! What are your hopes for the future?
“My plan is to complete the AMUSF course and to get some work experience during the second and third year (fingers crossed). Ultimately, I like the idea of starting my own flexible business, but I’ve heard it’s hard to take the leap from being a student to taking on paying customers. The sensible part of me would work for someone else to gain more experience. But who knows, in three years I may be raring to go!”
Knowing what you know now, if you had to give any top tips for anyone else thinking of upholstery, what would you say?
“With hindsight, I would have taken a short day or weekend course first. Although I visited my training centre before signing up, I jumped straight in without trialling anything else. Thankfully, I am really enjoying my course, but it was a bit risky. By trialling a cheaper short course, it will help you decide if it’s a fun hobby or a potential career.”
“By trialling a cheaper short course, it will help you decide if it’s a fun hobby or a potential career.”
“If you go down the AMUSF route, try and visit a couple of places to get a feel for the course. It’s a great opportunity to meet the tutor, other students and ask any questions you might have. Some AMUSF courses are once per week and others offer a shorter more intense block of lessons, so it will depend what works for you.”
“The ‘In stitches’ podcast by upholsterer Robbie Richardson is worth listening to. He interviews other upholsterers and it gives a real insight into the careers of many experienced upholsterers and their top tips. And, finally, honestly, I’d say sign up to the Virtual Vintique: Upholstery Uncovered Guide. It’s packed full of useful information and tips, which is perfect if you’re considering upholstery as a hobby or career. The videos and PDFs are fantastic and the private Facebook group is invaluable as an ongoing place for support.”
Thank you so much Paula. Looking forward to seeing where your upholstery journey takes you.
If you’d like to follow Paula’s upholstery journey find her on Instagram – @treasuredupholstery.
You can also still sign up to Virtual Vintique: Upholstery Uncovered here. Enjoy a special price of just £99* with the following code: 99special and take the first step towards seeing if learning upholstery could be for you.