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Editorial blog

Joanna Heptinstall - Putting your craft into the shade

12 Jun 2018

When did you learn to sew?

Right at the very start! All the females in my family were sewers, some professional dressmakers, wedding dress makers, glover makers… so sewing was part of our everyday language. It was so deep into my family’s culture to sew - and with professional skill - that I just believed I could do it too. As a toddler, my mother would give me a pair of small sharp thread snipping scissors and old magazines to clip up. I’ve never had a problem cutting straight lines!

Did you enjoy it as a hobby or did you see it as path to future employment?

At school I remember having careers advice, aged about 14 or 15. I expressed a wish to find a career that included my love of textiles and sewing and was firmly told there were no real jobs with sewing and I wouldn’t be able to earn a living. Of course I then went on to spend years training and working in publishing and magazine journalism - which was quite fun - but came back to fabrics in the end and, am pleased to say, am earning a living too. How wrong were they!

Where did you train to be an upholsterer and how much did you enjoy it?

I discovered upholstery almost by accident. I was a freelance journalist in my mid 20s and was sent by Homes & Gardens to write a piece about upholstery courses at the Traditional Upholstery Workshop in Wales. I fell in love as soon as I walked into that shed. It was the earthy smell of hessian and balls of twine, the fact that upholstery is so traditional and practical and creative all at the same time. I knew at once that I wanted to do it and felt so relaxed and happy. It was an epiphany! I stayed the whole week, loved every minute of it, was good at it - then came home and enrolled on what was to be one of the last City & Guilds upholstery courses.

What led you to making and restoring lampshades?

Lampshade making is a very specialist corner of upholstery, requiring many of the same skills. I absolutely love lampshade making. It allows me to exercise my upholstery skills and sewing know-how to a high standard of finesse. Lampshades are smaller and more portable then chairs - very important when juggling shed-life with family life.

It all started when I walked passed a shop window in Bath and spotted a tatty 1950s lampshade frame in a shop window. I bought it, took it home and spent several evenings - and several attempts - trying to recover it. Back then, there were were no books on lampshade making, no-one was running any courses and there were few people who could remember how to do it. But I had memories of my aunt making silk shades for her wall lights when I was little, so I knew it was possible.

There were great similarities with stretching fabric over an iron-framed chair, so as an upholsterer I was well-armed with the skills. It took a few goes but I worked it out. After that I started collecting old lampshade making books, some written as early as the 1920s.

Whereas with upholstery I was usually working to a customer’s brief, making and restoring lampshades became my creative outlet.

Did you think you could then make this a large part of your career and how?

I knew from the start that there was a huge market for traditional handmade lampshades because I was never ever short of requests to make them. However, I was already established as an upholsterer, and working on the launch of my upholstery school, so I deliberately chose to make lampshade making my creative outlet rather than something commercial. I’m pleased I did because I’m having a lot of fun breaking the rules!

Why did you start teaching upholstery?

Right from the very beginning, I’ve always thought how wonderful it would be to run an upholstery school - just like the one I trained at all those years ago. Of course, you have to know your craft inside out and do many years of bench time before you can start passing on these skills, but that dream has always been there. When the opportunity arose about eight years ago to run a little evening class locally, I took it. Happily I loved teaching. It was hugely rewarding, great fun and very sociable. From there I went on to teach at Denman, the WI craft school in Oxfordshire, which gave me great confidence in my teaching abilities.

How did this lead to the setting up of the traditional upholstery school?

I knew I was ready when some of my students asked me to teach them a diploma - enough core skills for them to work as upholsterers too. So, I had some students (well, three!), and all I needed was premises. The rest I knew would be sorted as I went along.

What difficulties did you face in setting it up?

Finding premises was the trickiest. At the start you have no money, and few customers, but you have to find large premises with plenty of natural light. I’m sure this presents the greatest problem to most start-up creative businesses. In my experience rental workspaces are very often hugely over-priced and targeted at high-tech businesses which need computers and phones, not hammers and workbenches. I was very lucky to find my top-floor warehouse space in a village near me. I can afford it because it’s a little bit leaky when it rains, however daylight floods in and it has so much personality no-one ever complains. That said, we do wear a lot of vests and hats in the winter months.

What tips would you have for anyone thinking of launching their own business?

Plan and sort as much as you can first. Sort out your website, organise your premises, get your insurance sorted - everything. Because once you get started actually doing your job, you’ll have little time for these things.

How do you come up with your designs? what gives you inspiration?

For my current lampshades, I am inspired by the very nature of the handmade technique, so the stitches and structure are at the fore of the design, not hidden behind frills and braid. I am making them for myself - so no commercial pressure - but that gives me the freedom to play. I strongly believe that you need to give yourself freedom from commercial pressures in order to come up with something innovative and creatively courageous. The shades for my book were completely different. They were chosen to explain core techniques, each one building on the one before. Aestheticaly I aimed to please as many people as I could and offer ideas which readers could make their own with their choices of fabrics and trimmings.

Why did you decide to write a book and how did you set about it – the process involved?

At the time there wasn’t a good modern book on lampshade making, so I decided to do one. I contacted Search Press who said yes and then off I went. My many years working on craft magazines stood me in good stead, so I knew what was required from me.

What changes have you seen in the industry over the last few years?

Since I trained 20 years ago, upholstery has become a female craft. Whereas it used to be mainly men in sheds, more than 90 per cent of newly-trained upholsterers are now women, many coming into the trade as their second career, so they are bringing a lot of business confidence and creativity with them. It’s making upholstery a very vibrant craft.

What trends do you see coming up this year?

A continuation of rule-breaking and experimenting with fabric mixes, paired down trimmings and exposed stitches. Steam punk is in their somewhere, so I am expecting to see more exposed frames and visible tacks.

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