Molly Whittaker explains how San Diego Continuing Education helped inspire her passion for upholstery and where she’s going next.
First, tell me a little bit about your job history.
I’ve been working as a professional opera, jazz, and choral singer for the past 15 years, but I’ve always needed side work to support myself. I tried to stay in the arts, working in theatres as a ticket rep, costume assistant, stage manager, production assistant, and ultimately a scenic carpenter.
And what led you to San Diego Continuing Education?
Although I enjoyed building sets, the gigs were feast or famine, just like the singing world. The starving artist lifestyle was wearing me down. I had put in some time helping a former partner with his upholstery business about 10 years ago. I found out about the upholstery program at SDCE through one of his apprentices, who had attended the program. I decided I wanted to go into the upholstery business for myself.
How did you end up getting interested in upholstery?
It started with an obsession for 60s vintage dresses and housewares. Then I got into mid-century modern furniture and design. I bought a space age dining set from a yard sale and got my former partner to teach me how to reupholster it. The set came out great, and I knew I had a talent for upholstery.
Tell me about the upholstery program itself.
The upholstery program has three components: basic is 250 hours, auto/marine is 350 hours, and furniture is 250 hours. Class is Monday through Thursday from 7:00 am to 1:15 pm. The structure of the class is mostly lab, so you get a lot of hands on time, which is really the only way you can learn upholstery. There are also some writing requirements in which you must describe upholstery procedures.
What is it that you love so much about it?
The instructor, Mr. Romero, is a master craftsman with over 40 years of experience in the trade. You can move at your own pace in the class. Mr. Romero will meet you at your level. The facilities and campus [in the Mountain View area of Southeast San Diego] are very nice. I enjoy the diversity of students and the environment of collaboration in class. Oh, and did I mention it’s free?
What kinds of skills are necessary to be a good upholsterer?
Patience is the first thing that comes to mind. Like when it takes you over five hours to figure out how to put that crazy looking recliner mechanism back into the La-Z-Boy. Patience. You also need to be a good problem solver, have an artistic eye, and a nearly OCD-like attention to detail. Being good with your hands and having knowledge of tools and how to use them is also necessary.
And what are the challenges?
Every job is different. There is no set way to do upholstery.
How far into the program are you? And what are your plans?
I’ve completed the basic and auto/marine parts of the program and I’m about 50 hours into furniture. I plan to open up a one-woman, high-end, custom, upholstery shop. I want to be an independent tradeswoman, an expert. I want to lose myself in work that is genuinely useful and has integrity to it.
What will that require?
I’ve already moved into a place with a two-car garage to use as my workshop. I’ve purchased my industrial sewing machine and about half of the other tools I will need. I’m writing my business plan, attending marketing seminars, reading sales books, and applying for permits and licenses. I’ve got appointments with my tax lady to set up bookkeeping, my graphics lady to design a logo, and my web lady to create a website. I’m launching an indiegogo.com crowd-funding campaign to raise money to cover the remainder of my start-up costs. I’ve got customers lined up and I hope to open in October.
What kind of advice would you have for someone interested in trying their hand at upholstery?
Take the free upholstery classes at SDCE.