GUILDING THE LILY

The Guild of Traditional Upholsterers was formed in 1987 by a group of former college students determined to preserve and promote the traditional skills of upholstery. U&SF spoke to chairman and founder member Steve Chivers to find out more about the Guild and its role today.

With a number of AMUSF members among its ranks, the 35- 40 strong Guild of Traditional Upholsterers (GTU) shares many of the same aims and values as our own association. Determined to uphold traditional skills and encourage more young people to choose upholstery as a career path, the Guild’s aims have changed little since it was formed 27 years ago. Even back in the mid to late 1980s, traditional upholstery was a dying art and it was thanks to a government scheme, which even then recognised this dilemma, that Steve Chivers met up with the colleagues with whom he was later to form the GTU. “There was a government scheme at the time that was designed to protect rural skills – traditional upholstery being one of them” said Steve who set up his own business, Chivers Upholstery, in Newton Abbot in 1988. “All the people on the course at COSIRA in Salisbury came from small towns and villages which had to be under a certain size for them to qualify. “I was living in Ashburton in Devon and worked for a small local upholstery company, mainly doing contract work. I was one of the lucky ones to be selected for the upholstery course and for about two or three years I was sent on two week block release courses, three or four times a year. “Our tutor at the time, a David Edgar, was passionate about traditional upholstery and encouraged us to set something up to promote and preserve the skill. We drafted up a letter and sent it out to mainly trainees and it all started from there really.” From the outset, the founding group of seven students was determined to accept only upholsterers of a proven standard into their ranks. “Back then our early members were mainly City and Guilds students,” says Steve. Today, anyone wanting to join has to first submit photographic examples of their work and, if that looks to be satisfactory, is required to go through a two-stage exam process.” Once through the hoops there is a small annual fee to pay and successful candidates are rewarded with the right to display the GTU logo – a right reserved for the upholsterer themselves and not any company they may work for. Member activities include an AGM with a chance to network and socialise with colleagues, the annual get-togethers often being combined with a visit to an historic building with furniture of interest. Each year there is also an opportunity to enter for a challenge trophy which, along with a £250 cash prize, is awarded to the upholsterer judged to have submitted a particularly outstanding piece of work. Then there’s the interestingly named ‘Strippers and Stuffers Gazette’ – the official journal of the GTU, published once a year with the help of sponsors. Said Steve: “As with everything we do, the idea is to promote traditional upholstery and encourage the future of the trade – otherwise there are not going to be many of us left! There is very little left in the way of specific training in traditional upholstery in colleges any more – it has largely been absorbed into wider furniture and furnishing courses. So it is down to groups such as ourselves and the AMUSF and the Worshipful Company of Upholders to encourage people to enter the craft in any way we can. “We may only be a relatively small group of people but we don’t regard ourselves as elitist in any way. It’s just that traditional upholstery is our love and our passion. There are some excellent traditional upholsterers who don’t belong to the Guild – it’s not everybody’s thing. “But there are also some people out there who don’t truly understand what traditional upholstery is about and just rip things apart and whack in a piece of foam. “They are the people we want to stand apart from, so yes, our standards are high and we’re passionate about doing anything and everything we can to encourage the true and proper art of traditional upholstery.”