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A Conversation with Polly Waite

June 25, 2023 10:36 AM | Laura Archer

A Conversation with Polly Waite

This month we had the pleasure of asking Polly Waite, a classically trained upholsterer, member of the AMUSF and instructor of our CWC Pre-event French Mattress Class, a few questions about our trade and her background. Since Polly is across the pond in the UK, we chatted via email and her insightful answers provided a window into the pride she takes in the tradition of the upholstery trade and the possible negative implications the on-demand culture can have on a skilled trade. 

Can you tell us about your experience as a classically trained upholsterer and furniture restorer? How has your background in design and family history in antiques influenced your work? How did you get started in the trade? 

I have been a classically trained upholsterer for around 15 years now. It has been such a rewarding career for me. The sense of pride and achievement you get when you restore something to its former glory days is pretty awesome. And with the huge variety of furniture out there, it never gets boring and I never stop pushing myself to reach perfection. I think I've always been creative but I've never found the right outlet for it until I started down this road. My family used to work in antiques so I'm used to going to auctions and house clearances to try and find treasure hidden amongst the tat. I think that just made me always appreciate and admire the craftsmanship that went in to antiques so the fact that I've fallen into an industry that helps restore those pieces and involves the same level of skill and craftsmanship makes perfect sense but it was never planned.

As a member of the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishing, what role do you believe professional organizations play in promoting high standards of technique and customer service in the upholstery trade?

I strongly believe there is a huge need for organizations like the AMUSF. They promote and help uphold a high level of standard and training. We have valuable pieces of history put in our hands and if people don't know what they're doing then those wonderful antiques will be ruined and won't be there anymore. Sadly, I hear the phrase "oh I've done some upholstery" all too often, people think they can pick up a staple gun and watch a YouTube video and then become a professional upholsterer. Don't get me wrong, we all have to start somewhere but if you want to be a professional in any trade you should seek proper training. I certainly wouldn't let a doctor operate on me just because they'd watched a few YouTube videos and thought it was pretty simple. I know I'm not a doctor but you get my point.

Could you share some of your most creative and challenging upholstery commissions? How did you approach these unique projects?

I once had to make 2 cloud sofas for a festival. Someone I know is the art director for a festival and she asked if I could come and help out, I said yes as I love doing fun, random, creative projects. One day I was spray painting baby dolls gold and making wings for them to turn them into cherubs and the next I was asked to knock up 2 cloud sofas. In 2 days, this was a bit of a tall order but I do love a challenge and with the help of a carpenter, we did it. Luckily, they turned out just as good as the image I had in my head and they were super comfy too.

Being a trusted member of The House Of Upcycling and a mentor to future upcycle designers and upholsterers, what advice do you have for aspiring professionals in the upholstery industry?

The best advice I would give to anyone would be to get some good training and practice, practice, practice. Upholstery is a big craft, there is so much to learn, which is great but don't beat yourself up just because haven't learnt everything or mastered it all in a year. Practice and take your time with it.

We understand you were a specialist restorer on Channel 4's show, "Mend It For Money." How did this experience contribute to your expertise in upholstery restoration? What were some of the most memorable restorations you worked on during the show?

Oh god TV work is strange. I'm used to working for as long as something takes but on a TV set with a tight schedule you don't have that luxury. You have to do things a bit differently due to time constraints but you still have to make sure things are done to high standard. You certainly don't have the time to agonize over every detail like I normally would. You kind of forget you're being filmed after a while. I do remember on the last day I was rushing to finish as they were literally packing up and closing the set as it was the end of the show and they had to be out of the studio that night. That felt a bit stressful and of course everything was going wrong.

The National Upholstery Association aims to increase the health of the upholstery trade. From your perspective, what are some of the current challenges or opportunities facing the industry? How can organizations like the NUA address these?

Years ago, upholstery was a highly respected and valued trade but sadly that isn't the case anymore. Quick fix tv shows making things look like they take a fraction of the time they do, people stapling on some fabric to make something look good on an Instagram post and churned out cheap factory furniture have made people think what we do is both simple, low skilled and quick - it is none of these. I think we need to get out there and show people what we really do, to show the real skill and craftsmanship behind upholstery. On the plus side it's a perfect time for that. Craft fairs and farmers markets are hugely popular. People are wanting to learn more about what they eat, drink and put in their homes. They want to learn about artisan crafts and to see how things are created and to sometimes give it a go too. This will then in turn lead to more people wanting to seek out good ones when they have something they want upholstered and some will want to learn to become upholsterers themselves. People need to know that it's a career option, most people don't. So, for me I think it's about spreading the word, upholding high standards for your members and making sure there's good training available for those learning.

Upholstery is a highly skilled craft that requires continuous learning and improvement. How do you stay updated with the latest techniques and trends in the field? Do you have any favorite resources or educational opportunities that you can recommend to other upholsterers?

Well pretty much the only people I follow on Instagram are upholsterers! I like to see photos of things and then work out how they did it. Sometimes you see something done a little differently and you want to try it out. The English way of upholstery is a bit different from the French and then Swedish is a bit different from them and so on and so forth, every country will have a slight variation on things but the main basis is the same. I was taught how to do things a certain way and then I've picked up a few things from other upholstery teachers I've worked with over the years and the odd advanced course I've been on but some of what I do are things that I came up with myself because to me they make sense and work. I think every craftsman is a bit like that. So, you never stop learning and wanting to try new things.  Armand Verdier is one to follow and he does some training courses on traditional French stitching techniques and Gareth Rees from the British School of Upholstery is another one... 

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