Keeper of tradition: Joanna Heptinstall and the historic profession of upholstery
The historic hands-on profession of upholstery is being passed on to a new generation. Emma Clegg met master craftswoman Joanna Heptinstall who is teaching her skills to others.
In the midst of this challenging time it’s uplifting to read about a local success story in the world of traditional crafts. The Traditional Upholstery School in the leafy Wiltshire countryside near Bradford on Avon has settled into an impressive new home, surrounded by rolling farmland. And it coincides with the Traditional Upholstery School being recognised as one of Britain’s top craft training centres.
As soon as the virus crisis is over the school hopes to be offering upholstery and lampshade courses for everyone, from one-day hobby classes to the latest professional training for prestigious Association of Master Upholsterers diplomas.
These prestigious new AMUSF courses start in September 2020 and are only available at a few locations in the UK, one of which is the Traditional Upholstery School, which is less than ten miles from Bath. If you are stuck at home at the moment, dreaming of future plans, now is a good time to find out more. Despite the virus emergency, bookings are already being taken for the autumn. Visit traditional upholsteryschool.co.uk to find out about these inspiring professional standard courses. Of course if the national situation means that a course doesn’t run, students would get a full refund.
What is the school actually like? Visitors will find old chairs lined up on benches in a spacious, light-filled, airy workshop. Around the room, students might be being shown a specific technique of how to restore furniture amid a row of industrial sewing machines, big rolls of fabric and sacks of stuffing. You’ll spot trays of wooden handtools, and catch the scent of natural hessian and maybe coffee brewing in the corner.
The school was set up in 2016 by Joanna Heptinstall, who has been a professional upholsterer for almost 20 years. Previously she worked as a magazine editor in Bath and a freelance writer for Homes & Gardens. She also a member of the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers. She runs the small friendly school with a team of expert tutors. Joanna has also written a successful book about lampshade making and been a regular upholstery teacher at the prestigious Denman College in Oxfordshire, the WI’s national school of learning.
“We are very proud that the Traditional Upholstery School is now one of only a handful of centres approved by the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers,” she says. “The AMUSF has been responsible for promoting and maintaining the skills and heritage of the British upholstery industry for more than 70 years.”
The national body has approved Joanna and the Traditional Upholstery School as a training centre for the AMUSF Diploma, recognised as the most comprehensive upholstery qualification in the UK.
This is an expert course covering both traditional and modern techniques to a very high standard. It starts with the basics of upholstery, like drop-in seats and footstools, and eventually leads to learning complex skills like restoring an iron-framed armchair or a hand-tied sprung seat edge.
The school offers training one day a week across the academic year to allow students to fit the three stages of AMUSF training round other commitments. Note that this nationally recognised professional training is so sought-after that the School is already taking bookings for courses starting in September.
“Other than the fact that we’re friendly, well equipped, with plenty of free parking and a lovely countryside location, our class sizes are small and our tutors are excellent: they are highly experienced, professional, friendly and supportive,” she says. “There is a limitless supply of chairs in the world needing repair or complete makeovers. Once you are trained as an upholsterer you’ll never be short of work.”
Each class has a maximum of eight students – an excellent tutor-student ratio – ensuring that no-one should have to wait for attention. “As a team, we aim to give every student the perfect level of individual attention,” says Joanna, “allowing each to thrive and get the best of the training. As well as covering core skills of upholstery, we actively encourage individual creativity, helping students develop their own style.”
In addition to formal training, students can join upholstery-related tours including outings to trade shows, exhibitions and professional workroom tours. Students are also encouraged to take on work for friends and family at early stages in the courses to build their confidence.
The Bath Magazine readers are being offered a chance to join fun, friendly and industrious one-day upholstery workshops in May, June and July.
Students who go on to book a place on a diploma course after trying a Saturday workshop day will have the cost of the workshop day deducted from the cost of the diploma. And if the virus situation means that the course cannot run, TUS will re-imburse students the full amount paid.