A career in furnishings
Is it important to pass on craft skills? Wendy Shorter, founder of an upholstery and soft furnishing training centre, says it's imperative. She explains how she came to teach and why.
Wendy has had a celebrated career training others in soft furnishings skills. Despite this, she started out in an entirely different creative sector
"I used to work for Stanley Kubrick in a film production company. When I had a daughter, I realised that film and parenthood didn't pair well.
"I always loved sewing and often took evening classes in upholstery for fun, so I decided to move forwards with an Advanced Furniture Studies in Upholstery course. This was an old-style city and guild qualification."
Wendy gained a distinction and a host of awards, including a prize from the Worshipful Company of Upholders.
Getting started in upholstery
"I rented my first workshop, on a pig farm – it was smelly at times."
"I soon rented my first workshop, on a pig farm – it was smelly at times. I then moved, built my own workshop and started taking on private commissions.
"Wanting to engage in further study, I went to West Herts College."
Wendy was asked by the college to take a class, which led to her teaching 10-week evening classes. This opened doors to teaching opportunities in a range of institutions, including London Metropolitan University.
Starting a training centre for crafts
When her post at West Herts was hit by funding cuts, the students had other ideas.
"They started joking that they were going to come over to my house so that the classes could continue. What started in jest turned into insistence.
"I warned that their fees would double if I set up independently, but they weren't dissuaded.
"So I hunted for a space, which had to be 1,000sq ft at minimum, and ended up renovating a barn. It didn't even have walls when I started with it!
"I launched with six students doing evening classes. By the end of that year I was running two sets of day classes and two sets of evening classes, and it's just built from there."
Preserving craft skills
Wendy is passionate about passing on craft skills to the next generation, a passion which has been recognised by the sector.
In 2015 she was shortlisted for a Creative & Cultural Skills Award, while in 2013 she won a Craft Skills Award for Encouraging Crafts Skills in an Informal Setting.
She sits on a Furniture Industry Group for the Materials, Production & Supply National Skills Academy.
"If craft skills are not passed on, we could lose them altogether.
"For apprenticeships to be successful, students need basic craft skills to start with."
"If there was another fire at Windsor Castle, for example, we could be in trouble. Only a few businesses now deal with high-end historic work.
"We need young people to come forward and we need upholsterers to be more willing about taking people on.
"But employers need help – without assistance, a one-man band will shut up shop when they retire."
Wendy is also apprehensive about the role of mass-produced furniture as an alternative.
"There is no comparision. Even at a high-end level, it only lasts for 10-15 years.
"Traditional, hand-crafted furniture will last for a generation – depending on how many kids end up jumping on it!"
Training a new generation
Apprenticeships are one area that the government is focusing on to help preserve craft skills. But the model doesn't fit the craft sector perfectly.
"If you are in craft, you are likely to be a small business, so overseeing an apprentice leads to your production levels dropping.
"For apprenticeships to be successful in the craft sector, students need basic craft skills to start with. So I focus on teaching level 2 craft skills, so that apprentices can be well equipped when they start.
"It's so important that we nurture the next generation, or the industry will die out."
Tips for a career in soft furnishings
1. Choose your course carefully
"There are lots of 'trainers' out there who haven't done much themselves, which can be a rip off.
"This is a particular problem in a time of declining government funds for training centres and colleges.
"Visit The Association of Master Upholsterers & Soft Furnishers. They assess training centres annually and independently, so find out who they approve of."
2. Ask to share a workshop
"If craft skills are not passed on, we could lose them altogether."
"Getting work experience is invaluable, but craftspeople are often wary of losing productivity.
"I encourage my students to start by asking upholsterers if they can bring their own work to their workshop.
"This not only builds trust, but the students can call on their expertise in a more informal way, without taking too much of their time."
3. It takes years of practice
"Qualifications will get you so far, but a craft takes years to perfect.
"You can only become a member of The Association of Master Upholsterers & Soft Furnishers if you have at least two years of experience."
Find out more about the courses and opportunities offered by Wendy Shorter Interiors.
Are you involved in the crafts sector? Share your experience of how craft skills are taught and learned.