Next time you put your bottom on a chair – and if you haven’t got anything more important to think about – you might want to consider the changes in chairs through the centuries. Because, let’s face it, they’ve been around for as long as people have needed to take the weight off their feet.
One of the projects on my AMUSF (Association of Master Upholsterers & Soft Furnishers) training course was ‘The History of upholstery’ but please don’t panic, I’m only going to touch on a few points. Whilst the definition of a chair is ‘a practical, portable piece of furniture, to support and provide comfort’, you may agree there are those we’ve all sat on which do neither of those things.
The early Greeks, who knew a thing or two, tended to use the chair as a temporary resting place, preferring to sit at a reclining angle with couches, beds and divans generally used for longer periods – as I said, the Greeks knew a thing or two.
African tribes used seating as a status symbol, (see above) so only chiefs and elders benefitted. These stools were elaborately decorated with detailed carvings and gold, shells or beading to reflect the heritage of the village and the high status of the sitter.
At a beautifully curated exhibition I recently attended, they had a timeline of upholstery going much further back than I had seen before; the first documented upholsterer, it seems, was a Mr Henry le Uphelder who pursued his craft in 1258.
To me, the le suggests a French origin while Uphelder sounds Dutch or Flemish. On a hunch, I checked that out and found the word was indeed, *Old Frisian, Middle Dutch – which delighted me because of my Dutch heritage. Henry, I like to think, arrived here from France, with his Dutch kith and kin to set up business and practise his craft. He would probably have used locally made available wood frames, padding them with wool or straw or sawdust and a covering of leather or sheepskin, creating seating that was practical, functional and most importantly, comfortable for the rear end of his customers. He and those who followed him must have been successful because almost a century later, in 1346, English upholsterers petitioned the King for protection against unfair competition from France.
Indeed, the City of London, established Craft Guilds to promote excellence in the trades, with upholsterers being governed by the now Worshipful Company of Upholders who can trace their heritage back to 1360, these early Guilds were effectively the first quality controllers of upholstery and by 1474 they had the authority to search and seize ‘All wares in the City pertaining to the Craft that were insufficiently or not truly made’ – a rather early Trading Standards.
These early upholstery craftsmen were variously known as Upheldere, Uphouldesterr, or Upholder and (noted in 1356) produced a wide scope of goods including armour, feather beds and shoe horns. Like the heading, I try to uphold this traditional craft for a modern world.
With thanks to https://upholders.co.uk