How often do you say “I love the chair but hate the fabric, I wish I could recover it myself”. Well you can. The art of upholstery takes specific skills and tools but with the right guidance a motivated person can learn to reupholster a chair themselves, even kids!
Shelly also teaches an upholstery bootcamp where students bring in their own pieces of furniture and learn to the steps to reupholster it.
We asked Shelly a few questions about what she does and if she could share a few tips with us. Don’t forget to read her mini-profile at the end!
DIY Upholstery is on the upswing but still remains a mystery to me. Where did you learn this skill and what motivates you to share it with others?
A neighbor (and friend) of mine was starting her own upholstery business out of her garage and upstairs sewing room. After our kids went to bed, I would go over to her house to chat and unwind. Eventually, I started helping her with the teardown (removing old fabric, staples, tacks and padding) of furniture she was working on. She suggested that I take the same upholstery classes she did at a local adult education program.
I was an experienced seamstress, so I thought about it and soon thereafter, my own upholstery business was born. Working alone in the basement and garage left me longing for some interaction. I took a part time job as the director of a sewing program at a women’s shelter. There, I taught women and their children how to take donated garments and fabrics and turn them into something useful and jazzy. I saw how excited and proud they were when they were able to design and create something for themselves. It provided a place for creative thinking, planning and problem solving. After that, I knew I had to transition my fifteen year old upholstery business into a teaching business.
My first upholstery class had three students and we met in a small storage house in the back yard of one of the students. Today, my classes fill to capacity and I have a fantastic studio in Indianapolis. I could have never foreseen that I’d be doing this.
Recovering a chair seems like the most basic project. Is this something a child could do with their parents?
Absolutely. Depending on the child, I think a five year old could begin helping with a chair project. I’d start with a small chair for their room, so they have a vested interest in the project. Children at that age love to help their parents with any project. Throw in the fact that it’s for their room, and it should be successful.
My advice would be for the parent to plan out the project ahead of time and then look for those tasks their child could help with, even if it’s as simple as handing Mom or Dad the tools. It’s the perfect time to teach about tool safety, explain how important it is and let the child hold the tools.
This is also the best time to start emphasizing how important safety glasses are. Once the project is rolling, there are many things a child can try for themselves, like giving some tacks or staples an extra pound with the hammer, adding little mounds of stuffing where needed, talking about the fabric design and placement. As long as the parent pays attention to what the child is interested in, there are plenty of opportunities engage them in the project.
Just think how excited they’ll be to have a piece of furniture they helped transform. (Another good teachable moment—saving old furniture instead of throwing it away).
Any tips to how you raised three independent do-it-yourself children? How soon did you introduce them to tools and building projects?
My husband grew up on a farm and I think they must have been out bailing hay when they were about 1 year old. I’m kidding, but age was never a barrier for him to get the kids working with him out in the yard, fixing fences, fiddling around with anything that was broken. I let my daughter and both sons try sewing on the sewing machine when they were around four or five. Of course, I was right there watching closely.
Besides learning how to operate machines, use tools, and fix things, they were seeing how our DIY actions had a practical benefit, immediately. Sometimes it would take a while to go get a part, or to finish a project, but the follow through was one of the most important aspects of the job. On the low end, I would say they were out in the yard helping their dad dig holes to plant trees around three years old and they were doing some very simple hammering around four or five.
Their first project was a monstrosity of a fort they built back in a scrubby little woods when we moved to this house. They LOVED it. They still refer to playing The Wilderness Game which centered around their little shack. Their dad and I never made one alteration to it, which let them have 100% ownership in the whole endeavor. No matter how bad something looked that they worked on, if they were proud of it at that time, we stepped back and let it be.
Tell us about your Chair Rehab classes? What do I need to know before taking it and what will I learn?
What I want my beginning students to understand is that learning how to upholster well comes with years of practice and training. What they can learn in our classes is the fundamental process of tearing a fairly simple upholstered armchair down to the bones and building it back up again. The tricky part comes with attaching the new fabric. That is the finesse work that takes lots of practice and familiarity with fabrics. However, for the first time through, 95% of my students do an exceptional job on their chairs.
I’m so impressed with how focused they get and what perfectionists they can be. Many of my students have high pressure 9-5 jobs that they say depletes them of creativity. They decide to take upholstery to blow off stress, listen to good music, meet new people and leave with a new piece of furniture they can brag about.
Reupholstering a chair in class, with others, talking and laughing is really quite therapeutic.
You don’t even need to know how to sew for the Beginner’s class. I take them through the entire process, one step at a time. When it’s time to sew, I teach them how to operate the industrial sewing machine.
One of the all time favorite things students love about my class is something as simple as making covered buttons with the industrial button maker. They shriek with glee when they see their custom covered buttons pop out of the dies.
If I were to follow the tutorials on your website and reupholster my own chair, what additional tips would you give me before attempting this project?
Be patient, take notes and take photographs of each step of the teardown process. The chair goes back together in the same way it’s torn down. I won’t go into it here, but there is a method to furniture teardown.
I would also warn not to over obsess about some minute little wrinkle. Most people who walk in a room barely notice the chair, let alone a wrinkle. If something really is driving you crazy, take it out and do it again.
I got a note from a former student yesterday. She said she finished her second chair at home, but as she was working, she kept hearing my voice saying, “No, take it out and do it again”. Then, she said it was always much better the second time. By the way, I don’t think I’m really that strict. I like to let students work at their own level, and unless it’s really bad, I let them proceed. If they ask what I think, I’ll always tell them, nicely, that they can get a better result if they try again.
Shelly Miller Leer Mini-Profile
Shelly Leer has been taking apart furniture and restyling it for close to 20 years. Her familiar voice and easy-to-follow projects have worked their way through the hands of creators from novice to professional. The directive to “teach what you know” led Shelly to teach sewing at a housing facility for women and children seeking refuge from domestic abuse. There, she witnessed firsthand how the process of creative planning and expression can be therapeutic tool in confidence building.
She spent two years on the faculty at The Indianapolis Art Center where she taught creative design and sewing to youth and teens. Shelly spent three years as a featured writer for curbly.com and contributed to ApartmentTherapy.com Chicago. Her tutorials have been featured in ReadyMade Magazine, Country Living Magazine as well as Grace Bonney’s book, Design Sponge at Home. Her expertise in furniture rescue and redesign has landed her blog features on StylistHome.com, GoodHousekeeping.com, The HuffingtonPost.com, Craftzine.com, ApartmentTherapy.com, DesignSponge.com and more. Her own DIY designs can be seen every Saturday in The Indianapolis Star and Indystar.com. She owns ModHomeEc, a dedicated teaching studio where she teaches upholstery and other DIY classes and workshops. She also runs the ModHomeEc.com. blog.
Favorite furniture to work with? material? form?
I love ottomans. I think every ottoman is like a blank canvas that can be transformed into a piece of upholstered art. There are infinite possibilities.
My favorite tool is my trusty orange pneumatic staple gun, “Orangey”. It’s been with me for over fifteen years. It’s nice and weighty and never fails me. Secondly, I love my regulator. It looks like a long pointy needle, but with an angled plastic handle. You use it to poke under fabric and “regulate” the stuffing. It’s also used to tuck fabric in nice and tightly around posts and to make nice folds and pleats.
Shrimp Tempura Sushi and a side salad with soy ginger dressing at our favorite local restaurant, Kona Jack’s.
I’m not really enamored with hot cars, but since I’ve been driving vans and SUV’s for so long to haul furniture, I wouldn’t mind having a BMW convertible. I think that would suit me just fine.
I would have to say one of my favorite books is Slaughterhouse Five by Indianapolis native, Kurt Vonnegut. My mom went to high school with him. A few years before his death, I was volunteering at The Indianapolis Art Center where he was speaking. We all talked to him, my son had him autograph his copy of Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut went outside for a smoke while I was sitting at the volunteer’s table. He looked at me through the double doors and gave me the finger! He was a cranky old cuss.
It may not be up there with quirky, artsy cinema, but I never miss Shawshank Redemption when it’s on. Morgan Freeman’s dialogue and expressions are perfect.
Ultimate travel destination?
I would love to travel to Australia, but I yearn to go to Wimbledon sometime soon.
First thing you ever built?
I had forgotten about this, but when I was about 8 or 9, my mom inherited a ratty old rectangular footstool from someone. I was intrigued with it because the lid came off, revealing a storage area. Unbeknownst to anyone, I built a little dollhouse in there. It was like looking down on top of a floor plan, room dividers, furniture, everything. I loved it that nobody ever knew what was inside that grubby stool they were using for their big, smelly feet. (I had three older brothers.)