Upholstering with Swede's Den
Who are you?
Cristen Sousa, Upholsteress and collector of Swede’s Den
Why do you do this?
Because Upholstery is the most fulfilling work I have yet to do. Every piece is different from the last and is constantly forcing me to use the techniques I’ve picked up over the years, resourcefulness and creativity. It’s messy, it’s hard manual labor, and is also incredibly detailed that requires me to take my time, stay focused, and be in the moment.
What got you started?
I’ve always had an admiration of antique furniture, the beautiful details in the woodwork and a curiosity for the incredible craftsmanship. Before I moved to Vancouver, I would walk my neighborhood in San Francisco and come across hundreds of discarded furniture out on the curbs. I can’t tell you how many pieces I passed up because I didn’t have the know how or space to take them on. The seed was planted there. Right when my better half Sean brought me up to the northwest, a close friend mentioned he wanted to get his Model A interior re-done and without question Sean said “Cristen could totally do that” ( based off the fact I sew ) I immediately laughed, and said there was no way I could sew someone’s seats for their fancy car.....but after trying to deconstruct and reconstruct it in my head, i thought - “it’s just a modified cushion in a way....I could tear into it and give it a shot! ( Since then, I have done several interiors for local car clubs and has been a huge learning curve from the furniture i was used to ) I immediately went to the library, to try to find some books with how to photos to get a sense of what I’d be getting into but quickly learned this was something I needed hands on, real world training.
How did you learn how to upholster?
I moved from San Francisco, and when I was new to the area ( just a week after going to the library I mentioned ) I was walking downtown looking for a part time job and stumbled upon an antique sign pointing to the basement of Devine consign. As luck wouId have it peeked behind the curtain to see industrial sewing machines, cotton every where, old frames in pieces strewn through out the space and had that “ I’m meant to be here right now” feeling just rush over. I ended up talking with my soon to be mentor and master upholsterer Eliud Grijalva. Having gone to and called a few shops in the area asking if they would take on an apprentice, i realized that this industry is heavily male dominated and very closed off. SO meeting Eliud was just an amazing opportunity, he welcomed me into his space, handed me all the tools and guided me along the way, teaching me all the fundamentals I know and carry into each piece I work on today.
While I was trained on the job, upholstery is always teaching me something. I’m still constantly learning something new or finding new ways through a new piece that I Haven’t had on my table yet.
What the craziest vintage piece you found?
Nothing glamorous or rare by any means, rather a tattered and torn up fully upholstered leather rocking chair from the turn of the century at a garage sale. As I was tearing down all of the crusty leather, boars hair, hay and burlap down I stumbled upon a fully intact Tuesday morning news paper from Spokane WA, Sept. 7th 1937. It’s not as if the newspaper fell through the arm or back rest, but the only way for it to be in the spot i found it is the upholsterer at the time intentionally placed it inside before closing up the back. I often find loose change, candy wrappers, receipts or toy cars...so to see a fully intact newspaper thoughtfully placed inside before closing the back up, was such a crazy surprise. Now I make a point of adding my own time capsule of sorts - nothing that rattles or makes noise when you sit down (Haha!) but notes of current events, about me, and whatever im thinking in that moment. Hopefully as styles are bound to change, someone one day will want to take the time to recover, so they can uncover the little surprises like I did.
What’s your end goal?
My goal is to continue to restore beautiful heirlooms for the community or pieces that still have a second chance for another decade. My larger goal, would be to pass this skill onto others. I’m hoping to offer classes in the future to get other antique enthusiasts restoring their own furniture so we can have more folks fixing instead of throwing away.
What’s special about reupholstering an antique piece?
there are so many special things about re-upholstering any piece. I get to really spend time seeing how they were made and keeping that history of furniture design alive.
Tearing apart the old material to discover how many other times it has been upholstered. I always learn something new from the last upholsterer in ways they choose to secure different parts of the frame and what materials they decided to use. To me, they’re a form of sculpture, each requiring attention in so many different ways. Upholstery also brings a multitude of life lessons all wrapped in one gig, in that it truly requires patience, and resilience to keep going to the next phase of the piece. You just can’t cut corners in this trade, when you do, they show.
Upholstery has become an extension of who I am. IT’s taught me so much about myself, and is constantly showing me what im capable of when at times I question myself the most. It has also become a huge part of my healing through grief. Back in 2017 my dad was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, right in the middle of when I decided to open up my own upholstery shop. I was so busy through just word of mouth but the focus that I really needed to keep the shop going was just not in me. After I closed up, I just needed as much time with family as I could get so I only worked on a few simpler things here and there but was so physically and mentally exhausted, I was afraid I’d never really pick up or have the same spark for upholstery again. We lost our dad Christmas Eve of 2020, and through coming home after the holidays, I decided to try and get back into a piece I had waiting, our friends grandmothers rocking chair. I was honestly so intimidated at what I agreed to take on since I was out of practice, but as soon as I started it was as if I never stopped. AND I think now, I’m even more excited about it than I was when i opened the shop.
How do you pick the fabric you going to use?
Since I primarily work with heirloom pieces, this is usually dependent on the home’s decor and the client’s style. I’ll always give recommendations based on the intended use and if it’s an antique or vintage piece I will will always start with swatches that have textures and colors of what would have been close to it’s time period while also fitting into it’s new home. While I’m a Greenhouse and Anna Elizabeth fabric dealer, I do have other fabric swatches to choose from but if the piece is in a high traffic area or gets a lot of use, performance and higher quality fabrics will be my go to. Most of the time since upholstery is an investment I will typically start with a nice textured neutral since a lot of folks want the piece to go with anything but I get the most excited to work with statement fabrics or beautiful velvets if the client is brave enough.
How is it more sustainable than buying a new piece of furniture?
Furniture these days aren’t built the way they used to be. The furniture industry is almost mirroring the fashion industry in the sense that materials used are so much cheaper with quantity ruling over quality. This article (https://www.rts.com/blog/
How are you being sustainable?
Personally, I try to really only shop second hand or local for things when I can. WHEN time permits, I will always jump on saving a chair. In fact at one point i had over 70 chairs in our home and have become a bit of a hoarder when it comes to taking in furniture. Especially when there is still such potential for it to still have a use.
My better half Sean and I are always out and about keeping our eyes peeled for great pieces that we fix to keep or resell. From radios, to lamps,chairs, tables, clothes and art we love projects and love to make something beautiful and functional again.
About Swede’s Den -
Swede’s is a nod to my great grandmother Ruth who immigrated to the states from Sweden. She was known in the family for her beautiful sewing work ( even upholstery! ) style and entertaining. This might sound weird but in the early days when I was in the work room or practicing at home I had this sense that someone was guiding me or that I somehow knew what I was doing - exactly where to cut or tack and I always liked to think it was her in someway passing it down.
While I do most all of the upholstery work and have my own love for antiques and vintage, my fiancé Sean is a supreme picker who finds some of the most unique things that we bring in. The two of us have become quite the duo finding and fixing pieces from all over so others can enjoy them just as much as we do. Above all, Swede’s Den is a thoughtful curated space for vintage and antiques with a mission to preserve the past.
Cristen will be publishing a FAQ on her new website, but for now, head over to her instagram and give her a follow!