Monday, 30 December 2013

the 2013 diy christmas card... (or how ideas gain a life of their own)

you know how one minute an idea is just a bubble of creative energy that brightens a waking moment.. and the next it has burst forth, gained momentum and requires practical action such as speedy car journeys, frantic phone calls, prayers to the god of sunny days… 

well, the inaugural @theFarm Christmas card idea was a bit like that.

to put you in the picture…
@theFarm is the lovely venue across the fields where i spend a few hours each week as Upholstery Tutor-at-Large. since @theFarm's launch in summer 2013 it has been my task to 'do' the photography. this all came about when i quite naturally opened my big mouth and suggested that as our marketing budget was £0, and begging favours from smart friends' photographer husbands was too fraught with dilemas to contemplate, we should just do them ourselves. hence my other @theFarm role as Official Creative Director-in-Chief.

so, there was i one early December morning loading a towering pile of pre-loved lampshades into the car ready for an @theFarm photoshoot (peep here)when I spotted their promising potential as a Christmas tree…

this simple little idea bubbled along quietly on the 3-minute car journey yet when mentioned as a potential 'extra shot' to @theFarm's lovely Emma Allen it burst forth so strongly that it barely required a moment's discussion. (much praise here, i feel, goes to Emma).

within an instant tweedy jacket sleeves were rolled up, a handy brother was brought in to help lift things, bunting was draped over walls and hens tempted over to peck lovingly at our wellied feet. the towering pile of lampshades was positioned centre stage, two tweedy jacketed lovelies (me + em) were smiling and posing our best poses and the afore-mentioned handy brother (matt) was pressing the camera button.

here are a few close-ups to show what what happened when a Very Good Idea allowed to bloom…

glaringly bright winter sun and sinister black shadows…? pah!

teamwork... emma and handy brother matt arranging the bunting
i know you can't see but… smile, em, smile
the theory is, if i stick out my hips, my tweedy skirt won't fall down
chicken in a basket, dearie?

…and, o looky look!…

… a star is born.

 happy times and a wonderful 2014 one and all. xxx

Sunday, 20 October 2013

the upholsteress ventures forth

it has been weeks since my last blog post for which I blame two things: all my lovely customers for keeping me working well into the night; and the fact my mission to one day become Proprietor of The Traditional Upholstery School came a teeny step closer with my FIRST EVER OUTING as a tutor for NFWI Denman. 

(a word: this post breaks records for being the longest ever. it’s ok to just look at the pictures)

2-4 October 2013
TUTOR: Joanna Heptinstall

in a brave moment last winter I had contacted the Head of Denman to volunteer my services as an upholstery and traditional lampshades tutor, having spotted that they had neither. that is how at the start of this month i set off to oxfordshire for my very first teaching stint at the Women’s Institute’s flagship HQ, Denman College.  

Denman, flagship HQ of the WI, was founded in 1948 by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes at elegant Oxfordshire 17th century manor house Marcham Park. 
its purpose - in that era of optimism and new independence for women - was to “assist us to do the things we want to do…read books, enjoy music, grow flowers or vegetables well, decorate a house, do needlework, bring up children, understand engines or the stars, or the laws of health and much else.”

these days it’s doing the same, offering day schools and residential courses in craft, cookery and lifestyle from ‘state-of-the-art’ purpose built studios. Denman’s tutors include some of the best in their fields: food writer (and TV chef) Mary Berry, interior designer (and TV personality) Linda Barker and the BBC’s British Sewing Bee’s May Martin. 
and now me.

what was i thinking????????

admittedly, as the event grew closer i’d occasionally catch myself marveling at my chance to shine as WI Lampshade Expert Extraordinaire. then i’d wonder what possessed me to think I could turn up at WI HQ to teach a tricky sewing skill to an older, smarter generation of ladies who could probably beat me bound and blindfolded in a stitchery contest.

and, if that wasn’t enough to set butterflies loose, as a first-time tutor apparently i would be ‘observed’. crikey.

as it turned out, i had a fabulous, creative, sociable, happy and utterly exhausting time. i was expecting strict curriculum, clipboards and high expectations. i found Boarding School for Incurably Crafty Girls

indeed, Denman has all the best bits of boarding school and none of the bad ones. it’s optional for a start. the grand main house sits in beautiful landscaped parkland. the informal cheery girly atmosphere (chaps are welcome but thin on the ground), hearty menu, days of time-tabled industriousness, and lively intelligent conversation (“family history? fascinating!...”) create a cohesive togetherness which you don’t find in a mere country hotel, where smiling at strangers is a no-no.
and at the end of the working day (9.30pm), instead of being hustled upstairs with a mug of milk and a custard cream, everyone heads to the bar. indeedy.

WI Lessons in Lampshades

the WI Craft and Cookery Schools are a short stride from the main house. the modern building includes three dedicated teaching studios, a large airy conference space and its famous Cookery School kitchen, all arranged around a sociable foyer.

as my inaugural class was just two students and myself and we needed little special equipment, we were designated the Ferris Room, the conference suite. despite this bizarrely huge space we created a busy working atmosphere and thoroughly appreciated the natural daylight, privacy and views of the flower beds.

my lampshade lovelies Jill and Nicky were kind, jolly, skilful, appreciative and good at learning. we discussed the fine art of pinning, favourite fabric haunts, how sewing machine feet affect accuracy and the time when Nicky (whose idea of weekend me-time is a goldwork masterclass at the RSN) found her well-stocked sewing basket handy when repairing a sheep’s badly injured shoulder.

over 10 intensive teaching hours, starting on wednesday evening and finishing at friday lunchtime, i explained how to:
strip back and bind shade frames; how to create a pattern for the lining and top fabric for each unique frame; how to accurately pin and sew seams and then stretch the fabrics over the frames, lining up every seam accurately and perfectly with the skeleton frame within. Nicky and Jill were a joy to teach, understanding phrases like ‘seam allowance’, and ‘on the bias’ and asking intelligent questions.

tubes of UHU scattered about raised a few eye-brows among visitors to our class, but as WI Lampshade Expert-in-Charge i stood firm: “UHU is speedier, more accurate and likely to give a more polished finish then stitching.” Jill chose UHU and Nicky stitching.

with such skilful company, i was bound to take away a few tips.

1.    John James’ curved beading needles are three times finer than a 2in curved upholsterers needle. This, I noted, makes them ideal for finer stitching of silk fabrics and antique braids while upholstering.

   2.    When using a washable transfer pencil to draw around a template it’s best to tack the important marking places BEFORE rinsing off the ink.

Obviously. I knew that.

Denman Dress Code

as i didn’t feel i could ring up while packing and ask ‘what are you wearing?’ i plumped for fail-safe flowery vintage frock, fave turquoise cardi and trusty mary jane clogs to get through the first evening’s introductory talk (mine was incredibly short). the rest of the time i wore my favourite seamstress-y apron. I got it right with the cardi. 
indeed, comfy slacks, comfy cardis and comfy shoes, albeit chic ones, are the Denman look.

despite the WIs recent revival, the majority of those who book quality time at Denman are likely to be silver-haired and curly. this is less a reflection on the menu which is strong in contemporary crafts (millinery, papercutting, feltmaking) than the fact that scant few working women and/or mums these days have the time or money to slip off for a mid-week lampshade covering class. however, this crowd are bright, jolly, intelligent, industrious and polite. hooting with laughter is part of their day. and considering the day’s activities spanned 12 hours, WI ladies sure have stamina. 

Staying at Denman

guests can choose to stay in the main house or in one of the purpose-built chalets dotted among the trees. The modern chalets are popular as they are cosy and convenient for ground level dwelling, but rooms in the house are inevitably grander.

it was no pokey new girl’s dorm for me. i was ensconced in ‘Surrey’ on the first floor, one of the prime rooms when the house was just a house. many of the bedrooms at Denman have been kitted out by the WI’s county groups, and the Surrey lot must be quite competitive. 

over my fireplace was a gigantic banner celebrating 90 years of WI busy-ness. my wardrobe was kitted out in floral padded coathangers. Surfaces were dotted with books on local knowledge and handwoven coasters. I had a choice of three beds (including one in an adjoining room) and several armchairs. and just like boarding school, there was no telly and no mini-bar either. (i did find a television eventually – in the tutor’s private common room which is handily between the bar and the dining room and has access to a back stair case straight up to the bedrooms)

my favourite thing was my gigantic sash window with views over the sweeping lawns down to the lake. it was indeedy the ideal room for a midnight feast and was certainly big enough to be called a dorm. in reality however, it was all i could so to crawl into my single bed and turf out the half-a-dozen extra pillows before lights out.

End of term report. (So how did i do?)

well, i think. the most important thing is that my lampshade lovelies Jill and Nicky were full of smiles on the final morning and both went home with a gorgeous lampshade, plus the skills to make many more.

and I’ll be back, next time tutoring week-long course Immerse Yourself in Upholstery, from 25th to 29th November. 

hooray! i'm really looking forward to it.

to find out more about my courses at Denman, which include upholstering, traditional lampshades and drum lampshade making, plus dozens of others, visit

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

a brand new use for wax crayons

you'd think that traditional upholsterers have little need for wax crayons, but this week i discovered a brand new use for them, which i think is well worth sharing as a 'handy tip'.

in the shed this last week was a sweet little footstool which a very lovely lady needed 'smartening up'. i do believe it had probably been covered by the lovely lady herself the previous time as it was baggy and wobbly and looked charmingly homemade rather than 'upholstered'. 

once i'd stripped it back, what was left was a tiny very old table, beautiful but sadly pockmarked all around the top edge with large tack holes from the previous recovering. indeed some holes were quite low down and couldn't be re-covered over. they would have to be filled.

usually a traditional upholsteress with a well-stocked shed would be prepared with a few bars of Liberon solid wax filler sticks for just such a purpose. they last for ages and work a treat. 

however, mine were nowhere to be found!!! at the very end of the summer holidays every shelf and drawer in the shed was haphazard and untidy. there was no time to shop for new filler sticks either: not only was the lovely lady was keen to have her stool back the very next day, i had no time to lose if i was going to go on an end-of-summer camping trip.

what i needed that very minute was a wax filler that i could melt to create a paste, stain just the right shade of brown, use to fill the holes and, once set solid again, would stay solid even on a very hot day. 

it was time to get inventive. happily, a 10 year-old's art cupboard is stuffed with jars of wax crayons and there's always a surplus of boring brown ones. this is how i came up with a method for brewing 'wax crayon filler'. Here's the 'how-to':


1. choose three or four crayons from the art cupboard that, when mixed, would be the right shade of brown.
2. unpeel the paper wrapping and chop the crayons up with a veg knife. (an enthusiastic assistant potion maker is handy for this bit)

3. put them in a glass bowl, stand it in a simmering pan of water. watch the wax melt, which doesn't take long. the smell is just like being back at school (before they had laptops)

4. then take your waxy brown potion off to the shed (still in the warm water so it doesn't set too quickly) and use just like wood filler.
5. once set, it is easy to wipe off the excess wax from the surface of the wood. then all you have to do is polish up the woodwork, going over the filled holes too, with a lovely quality furniture wax, just as you would normally. bingo... no holes! while maintaining the original character of the old wood (which was already pitted and scarred) the wax-filled holes blend in unobtrusively. 

here's what the lovely lady's little stool looked like in it's new fabric, complete with double-piping trim. 

next week in the shed is a pretty bedroom sofa and a 1950s armchair. i also begin teaching morning and evening upholstery classes at the very fabulous @theFarm, lampshade classes at The Marmalade House and will launch my Splendid Little Lampshade Shop on Etsy (it's just starting to take shape so you can take a peep). 

Friday, 23 August 2013

in the shed this week

(and the previous week)… has been a very pretty set of dining chairs. here they are all finished and delivered.

they arrived in rather a sorry state. wobbly frames needed to be re-glued and pinned, and the seats re-webbed and re-sprung. the original hair pads were in good shape, though, so they were recycled. this is what i got up to...

re-webbing and springing

tieing in the springs (re-using the original hessian, hence the random circles from old springs)

re-tacking on the original stitched hair pad, with a bit of extra horsehair for good plumpness

skewers holding wadding in place ready for the calico layer.

they were covered in a tasteful combo of striped Romo linen teamed with something vintage for the back panels, plus about 13m of handmade double piping. they all are lined up ready for the trip back home.

…so that's a typical The Traditional Upholstery Studio week, albeit a particularly time-consuming one. 
i have been meaning to keep up a regular post along the lines of 'what's the shed this week' ever since i began this blog, but it's been a big year and house building work, family and new work adventures have got in the way. i'll catch-up with a 'gallery of highlights' at some point, but for now - hooray! i have made a start 


'in the shed next week' is a sweet little footstool full of holes plus a good tip for creative use of wax crayons. xx

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

an upholsterer's 'can do' attitude (or how it pays to say 'yes')

up until very recently i have been happily ignoring drum shades, finding them a bit too clean cut and papercraft-ish. but these days, not only am i rustling them up for interior designers and their grand clients, i am also teaching crafty-minded souls how to make them too.

how did this happen? 

the truth is, my newly acquired skill came about because i cheerily said 'yes, i can do that' when actually, i couldn't. not yet anyway.

there i was, tapping away in my shed, when a very lovely chap called to ask if i could re-cover his lampshade. 
'yes, of course... i shall be right over,' said i.
it was only when face-to-face with the lampshade in the lovely chap's interior design shop that i saw that what he wanted recovering was in fact a drum shade. o dear. i can cover every shape of traditional shade frame, but drum shades are not the same at all. they are bafflingly smooth-sided. they seem inpenetrably card-ish. they don't even have proper sewn seams. 

'crikey', i thought.

'ah, lovely,' said i. 'i'll bring it back finished very soon'. and trotted off with a bag of the lovely chap's very expensive James Hare silk under my arm with which to cover his shade.

oh lordy...

and so how to teach yourself to cover a drum shade very quickly began in earnest. happily i discovered that it is very easy indeed to create a professionally flawless drum shade the very first time. (there's no wonder craft workshops are bursting with folks keen to have a go).

i bought a kit which happened to be of exactly the desired size from needcraft, cleared the kitchen table of crumbs, and set to work. the kit came with a very handy 20+ stage photographic walkthrough of instructions, so i skipped the You Tube lesson and went for it. 

two hours of serious concentration, snipping, smoothing and careful re-reading of the instructions and the job was done. despite misbehaving on the ironing board, the precious silk stuck to the sticky-backed card with no bubbles or wrinkles. and it was far easier than one could imagine to roll two sticky wire hoops along the edges of a fabric covered panel and end up with a perfect seam at the end. 

and the result?
the lovely chap was thrilled with his perfectly-finished James Hare silk-covered drum shade. yay!

indeed, he appears to have spotted my adventurous spirit and is brewing a 'rather bespoke, sculptural and unusual concept' for his forthcoming christmas window, which will, of course, require an upholsterer's 'can-do' attitude towards lampshades to accomplish. 

'yes indeedy... i can do that!'

oh and here's a little tip to share with novice for drum-shade makers everywhere: 
one thing the needcraft instructions didn't point out was that you will achieve a smarter joining seam by folding the fabric over the edge of the card, instead of having a raw edge on show at the overlap. happily i'd worked this out before snipping the very fray-ish silk fabric. 

tame fraying edges and use tape to fold over and
stick down the raw edge at the overlap

Friday, 26 July 2013

animals in the shed

Miss H and our guest Poppy Dog

i feel quite sure that lovely ladies and lovely gentlemen don’t really approve of their dear upholsterer keeping a possy of animals in her shed, ahem, workshop.

truth is though, for a shed dweller there is nothing nicer than the company of a cat draped over a chair purring its approval at your work, or a little brown hen wandering in to see how far you’ve got.

it is company. and animals are really quite polite when asked their opinion on handiwork, they don’t laugh when you jog around to the theme tune of the Archers and are very sympathtic when listening to a soul rattling on about life in general.

but this week we had a guest: Poppy Dog. it was most exciting as we don’t have a dog and we have been musing for some time about the wisdom of such a thing, even though we’d all quite like one. Poppy came to stay for three days and was sweet and funny and fitted in quite well, but perhaps not with the cats.

i had visions of Poppy dog sleeping on the floor of my shed, listening to me warbling on and keeping me company along with Tom Kitten and Jammy Dodger. But my imaginery menagerie wasn’t to be. Poppy chose to spend her visit keeping Mr H company in his Man Den across the garden. in truth, this is probably a good thing as sharp tacks would be nasty things to stand on in bare paws. they are a little trickier to excuse should a lovely lady or gentleman turn up unannounced. and perhaps dogs prefer the tippety tapping of key boards and quiet rustling of paper to the far noisier tapping of a busy upholsterer’s hammer, mallet and chisel.

so there we were: one large wooden shed with an upholsteress, one cat, one hen and the quiet musings of Radio 4; and one large garden office with a Writer of Some Note, dozens of guitars, one doting dog and the rowdy sounds of 6Music.

Poppy Dog... a man's best friend