Real Estate

Local upholsterers part of a dying breed

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO Upholsterer Teresa Wilmshurst measures a chair that she is recovering at her Greenport shop on Thursday.

Cat shredded your favorite couch? Well, don’t despair. If it’s a good piece of furniture, consider having it reupholstered.

But you may need to move fast, as the upholstery profession is dying out, says Dan Heaney of Interiors by Dan in Aquebogue.

“I’m in this trade 39 years,” he said. “But you can’t get the expert help these days. They used to teach upholstery as a trade course until the late seventies but they don’t do it any more.”

Mr. Heaney says he got into the upholstery business initially simply because he needed a job.
“I started at five dollars an hour and in two years I was considered an expert,” he said. But over time he developed something more than a way to earn a living, that is, the love of restoring old things.

Teresa Wilmshurst, owner of Portmanteaux Originals, has been an upholsterer for the past 25 years and operates out of a quaint brick building just off Front Street in Greenport. How did she get into the profession?

“Oddly enough, my grandma in New Zealand was an upholsterer,” she said. “I didn’t learn from her though and I’m not suggesting it’s in the genes. But I do think it’s something you either have a feel for or you don’t, and I have just always enjoyed fabrics.”

Ms. Wilmshurst agrees that the upholstery trade is fading away, observing that reupholstering is something a lot of people today don’t even consider. What’s worse, when customers bring her something to be refurbished, she often finds that many modern pieces aren’t meant to be reupholstered.

“And sometimes I don’t find that out until I take the fabric off,” she said. She laments over the trend toward throwaway furniture “made when the wood is still green and then it dries out and cracks.”

Mr. Heaney says modern furniture imported from China “doesn’t last once we put the heat on in the Northeast. These are disposable pieces. You don’t find hand-tied coils. Pieces coming in for refurbishing are only three years old and already worn out.”
He allows as how some new furniture made in Indonesia looks good.

“They make nice frames but they aren’t really good pieces,” he said. “You don’t get the traditional webbing in the seats. They use old truck tires instead.”

Mr. Heaney has also noticed modern mass-produced pieces often have no cotton backing between the frame and the fabric, and that will shorten the furniture’s life.

“But I do tell people when a piece of furniture isn’t worth the investment they’d have to make,” he said.

Whether to reupholster depends on the quality of the piece, agrees Ms. Wilmshurst.

“Sometimes, too, people have a piece that exactly fits a space in the house and so they’ll make the investment,” she said. “Or there’s a sentimental attachment.”

Even though Mr. Heaney is convinced the upholstery trade is on its way out, in recent years he has noticed an upswing in the number of people who want to preserve old and well-made furnishings.

“A lot of people look for good furniture at yard sales,” he said. “If you have a good frame, the piece can be restuffed and made to look like new with a good quality fabric.”

People choose all kinds of fabrics, said Ms. Wilmshurst.

“Someone might use a luxury fabric for a bedroom piece that you might just throw clothes on but rarely sit in,” she explained.

For furniture that takes a daily beating. Ms. Wilmshurst said certain fabrics are less likely to be destroyed. Some cotton chenilles and acrylics never fade and are stain resistant. Highly durable fabrics, called “performance upholstery,” are widely available.

An alternative for furniture designed to be heavily used is to invest in slipcovers.

“Sometimes we’ll even upholster in muslin and then make both a winter and a summer slipcover,” Ms. Wilmshurst said.
Mr. Heaney urges people to save old, good quality furniture and to consider refurbishing a cherished piece.

“I have customers who have been coming to me for 28 years and I’ve reupholstered their favorite furniture several times,” he said.
Ms. Wilmshurst adds that reupholstering is a good way to keep things eco-friendly.

“Don’t throw it in the landfill,” she said. “Make it look like new again instead.”