Guardian Saturday 11th January
The Do Something hobby: upholstery
Desperate to break out of her office routine and find a new creative outlet, Caroline McGivern discovered upholstery was the perfect choice
I've always enjoyed my day job as a graphic designer, but spending eight hours a day sitting at a computer drove me to look for an alternative creative outlet. I felt like something was missing – I wanted to do something physical and hands-on. I loved cooking, but already knew how to do that: I didn't need a course to teach me.
I've always had a love of design and interiors, so I decided to look for a course in traditional upholstery. I was fed up with coming across old chairs with their stuffing hanging out at Portobello market, and not being able to fix them myself. I wanted to bring them back to life, but in the traditional way: no foam or staple guns, it had to be horsehair, tacks and webbing. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of 18th-century craftsmen and women.
That was seven years ago, at a time when there were no evening courses in traditional upholstery, so I approached the London Metropolitan University and they said that if I could find 10 people who would join an evening course, then they would consider teaching one. It wasn't difficult to find people and now, seven years on, they have three thriving evening courses, with a fourth being added this year.
There has been a real return to learning to make things in the past few years, and, in part, I think it has to do with the economic climate – I see a lot of people in their 30s joining the course and many of them say they're doing it to learn a new skill alongside their full-time jobs. There's a lot of uncertainty and job insecurity around these days and having a skill is viewed as a good fall-back plan.
I think it's important to have a balance in life, to have something else to focus on outside of an office environment. Upholstery is still creative, but almost the exact opposite of what I do sitting at a desk all day. It is three-dimensional, very real and tangible. From sourcing and finding a chair, to fixing the stuffing and choosing the top fabric, it's a process. People tend to wince at the cost of having furniture reupholstered, but when you think about how long it should last (a well-upholstered chair should be good for 30 years) there's nothing throwaway about it.
I never thought I would feel a sense of pride at seeing my fingers bleed after three hours of hand-stitiching, and I often find myself holding back from tapping the last tack into a piece of furniture for fear of finishing the project. It takes dedication to work on a piece, and there are definitely weeks when I'd rather be spending the evening watching television. But then I have to remind myself that the chair I'm sitting on – which I inherited from my aunt – is the one I've upholstered, with horsehair, and covered in a fabric of my choosing.