Talking about upholstery this week with Sarah Jane Hemsley who had a desire for more creativity in her life and this led to an interesting transition from working in hospitality to retraining as an upholsterer. I caught up with Sarah Jane to find out more about her work, her training and her career change desire! Hi Sarah Jane!
Hi, I’m Sarah Jane Bustin, founder of Sarah Jane Hemsley Upholstery – Hemsley is my middle name – based in St Margarets Twickenham, south West London.
I’m originally from Isle of Bute, west coast of Scotland and have been living in the south for 20 plus years now but go back to Bute several times a year.
What inspired you to become an Upholsterer?
During my previous working life, I’d always done some kind of evening class in life drawing, sculpture etc.
10 years ago, whilst doing the daily slog into London I decided I needed to try evening classes in something… anything a bit different! Plumping eventually for upholstery as I love interiors and thought of myself as quite hands on. Well within five minutes of the first task of stripping a grotty, smelly drop seat pad I was completely and utterly smitten.
You offer a bespoke service to restore, revive and reupholster antique, mid-century and modern furniture. What has been your favourite or most challenging piece of furniture you’ve upholstered?
Goodness, well the challenges are often the larger or more complex pieces. There’s always a frisson of excitement when you get a proper antique or mid-century designer piece but probably the most head scratching was an upholstered porthole for a teenager’s bedroom. The client had seen one in a magazine and had a joiner build the ‘porthole’ into the cabinetry in her daughter’s bedroom, it was only then we were contacted to upholster it. It took many hours of working out how to pad and cover (in red velvet) this 1.5 metre circle to make a usable comfy seat!! The cushion elements and backing circle were made in the workshop and then it was assembled on site over a few hours. Think we managed to achieve it pretty much bang on!
You have recently launched a lovely range of fabrics and homewares featuring illustrations by Isle of Bute artist Lyn Bulloch – who also happened to be your art teacher when you were growing up there! What fabric designs are proving popular amongst your customers so far?
The Waverley design seems to resonate most with people. We can’t believe how many folk have recognised the ship when they see the fabric, even in West London!
Lyn’s illustrations are technically brilliant resulting in the ink drawings being so representative of the landscape in and around Bute.
The pretty colours of Dunagoil & Shore Road also appeal but my favourite is the bold linear horizon of mountains and fields of the Sleeping Warrior.
As you are based in Twickenham, are your products available to purchase overseas?
Currently the products are sent within the UK only. I would love to send overseas and will be looking into that over the next few months.
How long does it take to train as an upholsterer?
I trained in intensive chunks of time – 1, 2 and 3 weeks at a time – over a few years to gain my certificate and advanced certificate through the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers. My training took placed in the most beautiful setting of a converted barn in Cornwall with fantastic Master Upholsterer Richard Hooper Home | Tresithick Upholstery Training (tresithickrestorations.co.uk)
There are many evening and part time courses all over the country and the AMUSF website is a great place to start looking The Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers – Upholding the past – furnishing the future
Have you always wanted to be an upholsterer or did your career aspirations lay elsewhere?
Becoming an upholsterer was a total career change. Previously I worked in Facilities and Operational Management for universities and hostel accommodation. It was very business focused with lots of people management and customer driven. Certainly nothing like the creative area that I now work in.
What aspect of being an upholsterer do you enjoy the most? Any downsides?
Being an upholsterer ticks so many boxes for me. It’s creative, requiring continuous problem solving and interpretation, it’s keeping alive traditional craft skills and ensures furniture continues to be useful and loved and not discarded.
Running your own business means you’re in control of everything which I relish! I find I have ideas bursting out of me and just not enough time in the day. On the downside it does mean I work long hours and can get a bit over consumed in what I do. I need to stand back and put perspective on things every now and then.
Do you ever get a chance to advise, select or suggest ideas of materials, patterns, styles to customers?
I love fabrics and have developed a wide knowledge of designs, suppliers and trends which allows me to advise my clients. Technology has moved on so much that there are amazing stain resistant fabrics suitable for family life and of course I like to seek out the smaller design companies for something special.
I can offer advice on colour schemes, practicality of cloth and pattern scale. I particularly like sourcing fabric for clients’ one-off statement chairs in period houses… that can really get the creative juices flowing! Oh, and there’s my own Bulloch Collection of course!!!
Several times a year we have stalls at fairs and markets locally where I sell restored pieces such as the ‘Bliss’ chair.
When you are not upholstering, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Well, this last year has been an odd one for all of us and I’ve found myself working longer hours than usual. When I do get time away from work I love walking in the countryside – the New Forest and Surrey Hills especially. I’m also desperate to get back to galleries and museums and perusing antique fairs and car boot sales.
Personal now – what outfits and shoes would you normally be found wearing?
I’m usually dressed for work… all comfort and practicality! But I’ve really missed dressing up over the last few months. I adore dresses!! It was my birthday the other day and I wore a vintage dress made from a 1940’s housecoat to the pub beer garden for a boozy lunch! Super long earrings and knee-high suede boots and it felt great.
Do you have any favourite shops or online sites?
I love vintage clothes and regularly trawl vintage and charity shops. During lockdown I found a great British sock maker Pittch. I’m also determined to shop more local and independent where I can. Instagram has been an eye-opener for what’s out there.
What’s next on your clothes/shoe wish list?
Always on the lookout for the next perfect dress. I’ve also got several skirts that I’m planning to alter… bespoking my wardrobe!
Boots or Shoes?
Always, always boots of all varieties (both for work and leisure) and then Fitflops in the summer. Arch support is essential as I’m on my feet most of the day – it’s definitely worth spending on looking after your feet.
Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook/twitter etc so that readers can find out more about Sarah Jane Hemsley Upholstery
More information and insights about Sarah Jane’s work and the Bulloch Collection ….
Such beautiful work from both yourself and Lyn Bulloch – thank you for sharing your experience with us!
All photographs have been published with kind permission of Sarah Jane Hemsley Upholstery