Threading the needle with niche upholstery offering

Instructors and students of the upholstery program at Nebraska's Metropolitan Community College. (Photo: MCC)

The idea came in 1981, eight months into her pregnancy while she was staring at a “beat-up old rocker” that was still structurally sound.

“I could recover that,” Kathy Foust thought to herself.

A completely self-taught upholsterer, Foust did such a nice job recovering the rocking chair that her husband bought her an $800 machine for additional projects. She took out a classified ad in the Omaha World-Herald under the “Services” heading and lined up her first paid gig — a six-cushion, skirted couch.

Editor’s note: This excerpt comes from an article in the current issue of Community, the Magazine of Metropolitan Community College (Nebraska). It is reprinted with permission.

Before she was able to collect her $75 payment, she had to redo the cushions on it three times. It taught her an important business lesson on pricing and the value of quality work.

After 35 years and hundreds more upholstery projects, Foust’s initial desire to have a nice chair to rock her baby girl in eventually gave birth to the noncredit upholstery program at Metropolitan Community College (MCC) in Nebraska.

“It’s an art that I have been doing for almost 45 years, and I still love it. There’s a passion to it that you enjoy,” Foust said.

Seeing an opportunity

There’s also a big opportunity. Home economics programs used to have more of a presence in high school education, funneling graduates into upholstery careers. Similar to other skilled trades, established professionals like Foust are approaching the end of their careers, leaving a skills gap that widens with every retirement.

“There are so many more people today who have never sat behind a sewing machine and put something together,” Foust said.

The upholstery workforce is so scarce, when searching the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for employment information, 20% of states lack the data available to report on the industry. Among the 40 that do, supply and demand rings true with employment — fewer workers are driving higher wages. Nebraska is among the group of states with the smallest share of industry employment against the national average. Nebraska is also among the states with the highest annual mean wage ($42,200 to $52,060).

Lyn Ziegenbein, executive director emerita of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, envisioned establishing a dedicated neighborhood where “lost arts” like upholstery could be explored. At MCC Makerspace, the program is hosted within the resurgent New North Makerhood, an art colony north that is an area that once was a commercial center that became blighted over decades of neglect.

Ziegenbein said one of the “first instigations” for the New North Makerhood project came about 15 years ago. It was the result of searching for a new upholsterer after discovering two businesses she had used for past projects were no longer operating. Through word of mouth, she met Foust.

“Having a place like [the New North Makerhood] educates the whole community because there are a lot of people who would not be aware of these kinds of artistic skills, not only in their functionality but also their recreational enjoyment of them. I’ve been to makerhoods in other parts of the country, and they are special, well-known areas in their communities. They really help to enhance the quality of life.”

The New North Makerhood is a nonprofit organization, offering more affordable rent for studio space to artists and craftspeople than privately-owned properties. All work sold in the space is created by the artists who crafted them. More than new 30 studios will be available in the community in the near future, Ziegenbein said. A building that formerly housed a lumberyard is being converted to offer work, community and gallery space.

“There’s so much diversity in the kinds of things that are being done. You have Kathy doing custom upholstery, and then right outside her door is pottery, where MCC has its own kiln. Then you walk a few more yards to the north in the building, and you find a printmaker. So right there, you have three somewhat disappearing arts that are coming back in one space.”

A renewed appeal

One of Foust’s first students, Stephani Keene, is now an MCC instructor. She owns and operates Keene and Daughters Upholstery in Glenwood, Iowa, with her daughter-in-law, Lizz Keene, also an MCC instructor. Stephani Keene said in addition to the lack of business competition, there are several other market conditions that are favorable to pursuing careers in upholstery, with quality being the biggest driver.

“Furniture has changed. You have furniture that lasts only two years and is disposable. And you have this new generation coming up that wants to reuse and recycle. They have an appreciation for craftsmanship. There’s renewed interest in reusing things in grandma’s house because they’ve lasted 50-, 70-, 100-plus years. They’re noticing a big difference in quality,” Keene said.

She also noted that with the shift to remote work instigated by the pandemic, people were at home more than ever before, looking at their furniture.

“It was good for upholstery because people want to redo things, but unfortunately, a lot of the schools have fallen by the wayside to teach it, so MCC has really given us the opportunity to start from scratch,” Keene said.

MCC is one of the only educational institutions in the region to offer an upholstery program. The MCC Makerspace, is a destination to learn the skill. Blocks away from the recently opened MCC IT Express location in the historic Ashton building, MCC Makerspace adds to the college’s footprint in North Omaha.

MCC Makerspace also happens to be frequented by multiple out-of-state students who regularly attend classes in person in Omaha due to the lack of academic-level upholstery training offered elsewhere throughout the region.

Out-of-state students

Over the past year, there have been students who have traveled from the surrounding areas of Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Missouri, to join local students in working on their pieces, improving their techniques, broadening their abilities and developing the confidence to launch their own businesses.

Pat Nagel-Wilson regularly travels more than 150 miles from Indianola, Iowa. She started coming to MCC Makerspace after she retired in 2018 from a career as a special educator for the blind and visually impaired. She has a daughter and granddaughter who live in Omaha, whom she visits on her trips to attend the Upholstery Lab course. The seven-week class meets for three hours one day each week.

Nagel-Wilson said each upholstery project brings an interesting challenge, like navigating the 48 tufted buttons on an antique chair she restored a couple years ago. After the piece is finished, an assortment of memories remain. Every once in a while, the upholsterer finds an unforgettable surprise, like a prize a child finds in the bottom of a cereal box.

“On a chair I picked out from a thrift store and worked on last fall, as we were uncovering it, I found a gold garnet ring,” Nagel-Wilson said.

And sometimes, on the far less glamorous side of restoring other people’s castaway furniture, you get more surprise that you bargain for – like the time Nagel-Wilson discovered a rodent’s abandoned nest while uncovering a chair bought at a thrift shop. Despite that experience, Nagel-Wilson said it’s fun to hunt for items to restore at yard sales, flea markets or on social media sites. The “before” and “after” pictures bring a lot of satisfaction, she said.

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About the Author

Brian Ayers
Brian Ayers is features editor and copywriter at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska.