MAKING THE OLD, NEW - 1930's DIY

Original Post: Feb 17, 2016

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A simple upholstery project can change the world when it comes to an old piece of furniture or refreshing a dull interior space. Additionally, it can be quite inspiring and gratifying to work on unique pieces, bringing them back to life as they tell their story.

One of the perks of living in a small town is the small businesses and getting to know the owners a little better than you would in a bigger city. One of my favorite places to visit is 'Not Bob's Antiques' on Lower Street, downtown Spruce Pine. It has become a regular haunt of mine for interesting finds to use in photo shoots and for re-upholstery projects.       

Herman, the kind and quiet shop owner (Not Bob!) is unfazed by me scouring every nook and cranny of the shop in search of something unusually special or easy to re-upholster. I've unearthed several great treasures at Not Bob's ranging from a 100+ year old wooden, caned backed chair to a wonderful red velvet Eastlake Settee set, a camel saddle (my favorite!) and most recently, a sweet, yet simply designed vanity chair from the 1930's. A most perfect wintertime project!

Choosing The Piece: This particular style of seat is elegant and understated with clean lines and classic detail. The perfect frame to offset my Khema pattern in Steel Grey.

The Beginning: To get started, wipe down any dust and grime that has accumulated. This will give you direction on how far you will have to take reconditioning the wood. Unfortunatly, there was paint sprayed onto the chair back so I had to sand it out. (Please use a mask when sanding!)

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The Finish: I would normally leave the wood alone and just wipe it down with a restore-finish like stain that preserves the original finish. (Can be found at your local hardware store, Lowes or Home Depot) NOTE: This is not super eco friendly so please take care! It is quick and easy but please suit up with mask, rubber gloves, goggles, apron and a well ventilated space! That said, it does help polish up, fill in and bring out the beauty of the old finish and its colour. It saves time and energy while restoring the original look of the piece as it was intended.

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After sanding, I gave the wood a rub down with the restore-finish and old cloth to bring out the woods beautiful colours and texture. This also uncovered one of the unique features of this particular piece, the two tones of wood and a mirroring technique on the back of the chair.

Keep an eye out for what a piece reveals during this process. These are details that should shine!

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Upholstery Tools: I like to keep it simple. A staple gun (and staples), pliers, small tack hammer, a flat head screwdriver, scissors, (fabric and non-fabric!) and my favorite upholsterer's tool: a tack/staple remover….the screw driver-mini crowbar combo! This is little guy will be your best friend for prying out old staples, tacks, and nails… or new ones that were misplaced or misaligned. It saves time and your hands!

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Fabric - The Chosen One: In this case, the chair was chosen for the fabric. However, the fabric still needed to be ironed, prepped and cut into the right shape to fit the seat. I often use chalk (on the back of fabric) to lightly mark out where to cut, but on this one, it was pretty straightforward.

When cutting out fabric, remember to add extra to all sides. I add about 3 inches to be safe. This will allow some wiggle room for placement and enough to grab onto when pulling the fabric taught to staple.

Another note: when working with a pattern, especially one with a hard direction like Khema here, please take note of how it will lay out. Is it vertical? Horizontal? (in this case, both) Or is it on the diagonal? These are important ideas to have before scissors touch the fabric. Make sure it will maintain its symmetry once placed onto the seat. (Or seat back, or whichever part you are working on).

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If Fabrics Could Talk: Uncovering of the wooden structure of the piece isn't the only part with a story to tell. One of my favorite moments is deconstructing the many layers of old textiles that lay beneath the surface. They too tell such stories of not only the last owners decor tastes, but the decades the piece passed through. This one went through several.  I am going to guess late 40's/early 50's (pale pinkish beige), 60's (green and white) and 70's (the orange). 

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Getting Down To (Brass) Tacks. Literally. - After pulling out every single staple, tack and nail to remove the old fabric, make sure you clean up/sand down any splinters the tack remover might have pulled up. I am all about taking (almost) as much care of the parts you don't see, as the ones you do. As for the seat cushion, I chose not to replace everything but did remove the top two layers of fabric (the 70's orange and 60's green and white) so their colour and textures wouldn't show through the new fabric. 

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Let The Games Begin: Upholstery is often like painting a house. 80% prep, 20% getting down to business. It is also about trial and error. (Note first photo was taken BEFORE I removed the first two layers of fabric!) But the image still illustrates the point. 

Fold about 2-3 inches of fabric over the first side, staple two or three times in the center to keep it in place. Pull the fabric firmly to the opposite side and staple another two or three times in the center. Continue to gently pull fabric while adding two or three staples at a time, alternating sides as you go. This keeps the stretching of the fabric even. 

Staples should be about an inch/inch and a half apart. Give a quick inspection of both sides AND everything underneath and in between. Once the first two sides are finished, make sure the fabric is laying flat, tight, even and with no gaps along the edges. Double check to make sure pattern alignment is straight as well!

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Next! - Repeat the same; staple the centers first on each side (opposite each other), then work back and forth between sides until you have stapled all the way across and close to the corners.

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Turning The Corner: A neat and tidy corner is key. Not only for doing fine work, but also to keep the fabric bulk from interfering with the seat setting into the chair form properly. Once you have stapled all sides, pinch fabric so that it makes a neat triangle, but hold it the bottom part flush to the seat so you can get those last staples into the corners. (Note: You may have to play with the fold of the corners a bit, but try to get them as clean and nicely folded down flat into a triangle as possible.) Then staple to hold corner folds into place.

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Finishing Touches: ALMOST THERE! Now for the cleanup. Cut any access fabric around the edges to get rid of the extra bulk. Not only does this just look more professional, it keeps the fabric from catching on something or getting pulled. I like to leave about an inch/inch and a half away from staples so there is no unnecessary stress on the fabric around the staples and chance of tearing. Once you have cut away the extra, staple down edges so they do not hang down below the seat of the chair. (Unsightly and messy!) Flip seat over, inspect for any adjustments needing to be made and place it into the chair frame.

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See the difference! A little bit of love goes a long way! 

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The joys of before....and after. 

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A Few Thoughts and Basic Fabric Tips For Upholstery:

  • Make sure you purchase enough fabric, especially for larger projects. Fabrics are not always going to remain the same exact color of print, or base fabric color if it comes from a different bolt. So make sure to get what is needed for your project from the same bolt, and then a tiny extra.
  • Carpenters rule of thumb: Measure twice, cut once. And cut with FABRIC SCISSORS. This is non-negotiable folks! Every household should have one pair of scissors reserved for cutting fabric. If you don't understand why…try cutting fabric that has been used for cutting tape, paper (wood fibers!) and other house old weirdness. Yeah. You get my point.
  • If you don't have upholstery experience and it is a large, complicated piece, find a good upholsterer. Unless you are determined to cut your teeth on this thing, take it to a pro. This will save you a TON of time, energy, frustration and cost of materials. Ask them how much yardage is needed, before purchasing fabrics, then see tip #1. I have learned that upholstery is not as easy as it looks! So if you are going to DIY and are new to it, keep it small and simple. Or, if you choose to work on bigger projects, start with less expensive fabrics that won't be a problem to learn with. 
  • Make sure you choose fabrics that are appropriate for the piece you want to refurbish. Choose a woven over a knit or stretchy fabric. (Upholstery fabric does not need to give or it will grow!) Is this piece going to get a lot of wear and tear? Are children or pets present? Is the fabric durable and heavy enough for the amount of wear and stress it will get? Or is the piece what I call a ‘sit proper’ piece? (ie. not appropriate for couch potatoes.) Is it needing to be water/stain resistant? Make sure you think through the use of the piece, who will be using it, how frequently and the setting it will live in.
  • How much wood or spring repair does it need? This could be tricky if one doesn't have some basic knowledge of wood, proper glues, furniture reinforcement, paint, stains, and varnishes etc. Or spring repair. There are so many beautiful furniture pieces out there who need a lot of TLC. But many of them need some serious surgical procedures needing to be done by professionals. Do a little Google research on this one or ask a woodworker or professional upholsterer. There is a method to this madness and the last thing you want is a chair or couch that dumps its sitter!
  • Most importantly, if using any toxic materials or sanding, please wear gloves and a mask. Set the project up in an open, ventilated area. SAFETY FIRST! 

As Leonardo Da Vinci once said: "Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication". Keep it simple. Keep it fun. Keep it real. 

CULTURE SHOCK, SUSTAINABILITY AND ALL THAT JAZZ.....

Original Post: Aug 26, 2015

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When I began this new adventure as a textile designer, I not only reached waaaay back to the beginning of becoming a designer... but found myself faced with the task of deciding on the application and end product. What was I going to do with all of this hand printed fabric?? So I traced back even further to our big move overseas and the practicalities of making due with materials we had available for everyday living.

Upon our relocation to Alexandria Egypt in 1982, we were starting a brand new life and with few possessions in tow. The country was still reeling from the loss of its leader, Anwar Sadat and the economy was struggling. We (my mother and I) had never been out of the US which made for an interesting challenge to acclimate to this new and very different culture we found ourselves in. Though I was raised to be mindful, the Western culture we were used to was, and still is, one of disposable conveniences.

I believe it was my mother and stepdads upbringing on the cotton and peanut farms of Alabama and the basics of homesteading that brought us through those first years in Egypt. Meals were completely made from scratch, food was 'put away' because we worked with what was seasonally on the market (and occasionally, the black market). The original Betty Crocker Cookbook, torn and tattered, became sacred texts of the kitchen. There were no trips to the US Embassy commissary (like an American food store, but much smaller scale) and our mailing system was limited at best. Imported goods from Europe, or rarer still, the US were outrageously expensive and difficult to find. So, much of our home products were made by hand.  

With trips to the fabric Souk and a new sewing machine, my mother began working her magic. Curtains were made to keep the cold out (Yes it can get very cold in Egypt! Especially on the Mediterranean!), dinner parties were adorned with simple but elegant textiles. Alternate sets of tableware were made and intended for less formal and daily occasions. Materials were chosen for longevity in addition to lovely patterns and colours. It wasn’t just something for special occasions...it was also to be practical and durable. 

In many ways, I believe this taught me about ‘sustainability’ and going ‘green’ decades before it was a mainstream movement. When I left Egypt for college, my mother created a stack of hand towels, sets of dinner and tea napkins and other home goods to help make my new location ‘home’. The irony here: I was often mistaken for someone from an affluent family because of such 'luxuries', when in fact, they were intended to cut costs on paper goods and bring comfort to a student thousands of miles away from home. I still have (and use) those pieces my mom made for me more than 25 yrs ago. Though being ‘green' or 'sustainable’, was not quite the goal...bringing our own personal aesthetic and practicality to our home, however, was.

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THE LOTUS: FROM THE DEPTHS OF MUD GROWS PERFECTION...AND TEXTILES

Original Post: Aug 26, 2015

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Geos, Not Florals. As a pattern designer, I fall hard into the category of a geometrics. Many designers are known for their floral or conversational (pictorial, often whimsical) designs. Some are more traditionally rooted in nature, while others lean toward historical motifs. Over the years, I have been known to produce various types of pattern 'styles' when asked, but to be brutally honest and true to my design nature, geos are where I am most prolific and at home.

The lotus flower however, does show up in my work on occasion. In my current collection the pattern 'Champa'  (above), is made up of three lotuses joined at a center point. It was inspired by the lotus in India and created during my yoga teacher training a few years back. Another pattern slated to be produced later this year, was inspired by growing up around Egypt's long history with the lotus. I find this flower to be the most exquisite creature, emerging from the murky waters and mud to bloom into it's perfect self. And because of that, the lotus is one my favorite flowers. Not just because of its beauty, but because its basic function teaches us a thing or two about ourselves and life in general.

My original intention was to write a blog entry that dove into the cultural aspects of the lotus and using them as design for textiles. However, I came across something far more interesting and less known: textiles actually made from the lotus plant itself.

Cultural + Mythological. The Lotus. Have you ever watched one bloom on top of the water into complete perfection? Only to retreat back down into the muddy water at night fall? The eloquence of this flower has left its symbolic mark around the world, and across the ages and I can see why. In South Asia, the lotus has always been considered sacred through out their religious history. For Buddhists, the lotus represents our ability to rise above our conditions or situation in order to reach our full potential. Ancient Egypt, associated the lotus with rebirth, symbolizing the sun and creation.

Lotus Textiles: The Art Form. It is more commonly known for lotus flowers to be used for religious rituals and the dried seed pods sold for floral decorations. The seeds are collected for such things as food, desserts and medicines. The leaves are known to be wrappers for holding food. But the stems, where the lotus fibers are located, are usually left behind creating excessive waste in the lakes were most lotus plants grow. 

At one time, the art of lotus fabric weaving was a highly esteemed craft, well known and created across South East Asia. Unfortunately, this ancient form of weaving began to phase out and was soon forgotten. Only a few villages in Burma have continued the craft and preserved it's heritage. The fair trade company Samatoa, run by Awen Delaval (a key player in the Fair-Trade promotion association), has been working with people around the Lake Kamping Poy area near Battambang, Cambodia to revive this ancient art form and bring employment to its region. What was once worn as sacred robes by high ranking monks is now sparking interest in high-end fashion.

The Process: It is the stems of the deep pink flowers that have the best fibers for weaving and should be harvested when the flowers are in full bloom. The stems are then spliced open so the cream coloured lotus fibers can be extracted and laid across a small wooden table. Once the strands are laid into place, they are twisted and hand rolled into yarns that are washed, dried and wound into skeins to be woven into yardage. It is said that it takes about 25 women making thread to produce enough yarn for one weaver. Keeping the yarns moistened (they did come from the water after all!) they are handwoven on looms in 100 yrd bolts. The whole process, from beginning to end takes about a month and a half and there is no waste. All parts of the lotus are used.  Left overs are made into lotus teas, infusions and flours. 

It would be extremely costly to convert these traditional techniques into modern mass production. Since there is no real way to modify, simplify or speed up production, the process is a laborious one, making lotus hard to come by and one of the most expensive textiles in the world.

Qualities of Lotus Fabric: It is said that the fabric from the lotus plant is like a high bred cross between raw silk and linen. Like linen, it has a slubbed texture with a soft hand. It breathes like linen, tends to be stain resistant and for those with sensitive skin, it is hypo-allergenic. Unlike linen however, it does not wrinkle much and with the plant originating in water, lotus fabric is waterproof! It comes in many different colours: yellow, green, a soft red, chocolate, orange and light purple with a 4 yarn count. Every scrap of this fabric is precious so every scrap is utilized in some way. Scraps of yarns are twisted into wicks for pagoda lamps. Since the 'lotus wicks' are from plants growing in water,  they are thought to 'cool the flames of worries' of those who burn the lamp. Scraps of the fabric are often made into mini-robes for small Buddha figures, decorated with sequins and beads. I would love to have a tiny scrap of that fabric just to see what it feels and looks like. 

Here are two wonderful videos from the company Samatoa which documents the full (and fascinating) process of lotus fabric production. From harvest to the final product. Take a few mins to have a look. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSndEFq3BhU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdDuDKihWh4#t=68