Making a career in upholstery

Upholstery is not top of the choices when it comes to careers these days. Over the past four decades, with the increase in cheap, mass-produced furniture, the stuffing has been knocked out of many traditional skills, crafts and trades and upholstery is no different.

A return to favour

The good news is that upholstery has steadily been making a come-back. A rise in the price of living, a realisation that we can’t just keep throwing things away and an increased interest in arts and craft has meant a surge in business. It seems that there is a trend towards spending a bit more on quality pieces with hardwood frames that are built to last. And if something needs renovation or repairing, then the upholsterer is the first port of call.

So how do you go about becoming a skilled upholsterer?

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.

Key qualities

Qualities the would be upholsterer should possess include: an eye for detail; a sense of colour and design; and you need to be good with your hands. Add to that patience and great people skills and you are all set to learn the craft.

It is worth mentioning that if you suffer allergies, then upholstery may not be the career for you. In an interview with the Independent newspaper, one upholsterer passes on a rather disturbing thought: "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!"

History at your fingertips

Like any job, upholstery has its tedious tasks, such as pulling out staples. But it also has its moments of real discovery and interest. As you strip back the furniture, you reveal a whole myriad of social history: what fabrics were being used, old newspapers might be contained within the stuffing. An old piece of furniture is a link back to another era.

Also, for the naturally curious, some interesting things end up down the backs of sofas. Finding old money or old pieces of jewellery is common and can be a real treat, but on the negative side, the natural fibres used in old stuffing make attractive nesting-places for mice, and it is not unknown for an upholsterer to find a furry presence as he or she fishes down the back of a sofa.

Steps to success

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.

It is definitely worth getting some experience with an established upholsterer – both before you even enrol on a course and again once you have qualified. The added experience of dealing with customers, dealing with business matters and finance, and working in the upholstery environment will be enormously helpful later in your career. Having a mentor as a reference point is invaluable, because as every upholsterer will tell you, no two pieces of furniture are identical. 

Rich pickings?

And what about earnings. This is a long continuum. A skilled upholsterer working with a top designer may well be in the £50-60,000 bracket, while at the other end of the spectrum, an apprentice or someone starting out could be on as little as £300/week.

The career opportunities are varied. You might work with a top designer, you might be self-employed with a few regular contracts. The message is you may not get rich as an upholsterer, but at least you'll never be short of a comfy sofa.