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


  1. Great post! Lovely to hear all about your jolly adventure at Denman! Well done. x

    1. thank you BusyLizzie! it really did feel like a 'grand adventure' and i'm very pleased to be going back to teach again next month. i'd certainly recommend it as an ideal crafty retreat. i would love to know if you've ever been?

  2. What a lovely read! I've been to Denman twice (digital photography, and storytelling) and love every minute there; it's great to see it through enthusiastic virgin eyes :) Now join your nearest WI and experience more fun and laughter every month!

  3. Thank you Fiona! I certainly intend to become a full member of The Bath WI next month. hopefully I'll see you at Denman one day soon.


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