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How to make a sofa: An interview with our Upholsterer

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Antonio Wedral
How to make a sofa: An interview with our Upholsterer

At the beginning of the 20th century, a school teacher from Pacos de Ferreira, Portugal built furniture which was used in schools across the country. Carpenters from the area then began making furniture for the home, which resulted in the creation of a furniture making industry in the area.

Our Portuguese factory lies on the outskirts of Porto, in Pacos de Ferreira, the heartland of manufacturing, known as “Furniture Capital”. Porto, specifically, is famous for furniture design, manufacturing and textiles and has become a powerhaus in the industry. Pacos de Ferreira hosts over four thousand companies and employs 35,000 craftsmen - so we’re in good company.

We employ an army of talented Portuguese artisans who hand make our sofas and armchairs: from building and carving the solid wood frames to sewing 995 stitches per metre. The passion and love that comes from our craftsmen is evident in the quality of our sofas.

We’re incredibly proud of our craftsmen and what they achieve in Portugal, which is why we wanted to bring to life the work that goes on in the factory. So, we sat down with Nick, our full-time product development lead to understand what it’s like building sofas day-in-day-out:

Q: Can you briefly explain your role?

N: Essentially, my role at Swyft is to bring the designer’s idea and drawings to life. This involves making the prototype and ironing out any issues before it gets put into production. When we are finally happy with the product, I train the team in the factory and we begin production.


Q: What's your upholstery background?

N: It all started when I was twenty living in South Africa, I was fascinated with vintage furniture and I wanted to learn how to make my own. I managed to enrol in an upholstery course at college, which was difficult to find because of where I lived. I started learning about upholstery at college, but as soon as my course finished, I worked in factories for free to learn how to make furniture on the job - it was great fun, I have a lot of great memories from that time. I then moved to London where I spent three years working as a loose cover tailor. I then moved to Holland and worked for three years making luxury beds before moving back to London where I made bespoke furniture. I learnt a lot and I’m very thankful for my time there, it was like a furniture University for me.

Q: Have you worked in other parts of the industry?

N: I worked my way up through the industry, dabbling in most areas. In the early days I was in upholstery, but then moved to carpentry. From carpentry I became a team leader which led to a quality control manager. I then moved to factory floor manager and production manager. All of this has accumulated to my current role in product development at Swyft.


Q: How many years does it take to become an upholsterer?

N: There are different levels and skill sets when it comes to upholstery. You can teach someone basic tacking on covers in six months, but to become a skilled bespoke upholsterer with a broad knowledge of all aspects of the craft; from the frames and cutting, to stitching and more difficult techniques, I would say that it is a 10 to 15 year journey.


Q: What stages are involved in making sofas?

N: There are many different stages to making a piece of furniture. The first being the design process, every single aspect of the sofa is carefully thought out, from the rubber on the feet of the sofa to the foam density and shape of the cushioning. It’s designed from the inside out.

As soon as the production drawings have been completed, we send them to carpentry. From carpentry we build the frames and then move to the body work stage, unless it has show wood or plinths it would then go to spray. The body work stage is where webbing or springs would be applied, as well as the foam. It then moves to the fabric stages; templating, cutting and stitching. Then finally to the upholsterers table. Each step is as important as the next.

Q: What makes a good sofa over a bad sofa?

N: I’d judge the quality of a sofa by accessing three key areas:

1) The frame. Whether the frame has been made to last.

2) Upholstery. The quality of the upholstery and whether it’s comfortable

3) Shape. This is something I'm always working hard to achieve, does the sofa look any different after one week of use. Has it kept its shape?


Q: What do you enjoy most?

N: I enjoy all of it. I was never going to be happy with one aspect of furniture making as I wanted to learn how to make furniture from start to finish. The management side of things was never really something I thought I would be involved with, but it’s been a natural progression which I’ve embraced and enjoyed.

Q: What changes have you seen in technology over the course of your career?

N: In upholstery nothing beats the well trained hands of bespoke upholsterers, so I don't think we will be replaced by machines just yet. There has, however, been a lot of technological advances in design programs and CNC machine technology, which can build beautiful frames. They come out perfect every time, so this is something to watch out for.


Q: What furniture style or designer is your favourite?

N: It all started with vintage furniture and I still love it. A vintage furniture market is my happy place. But when it comes to sofas I love clean lines, modular type furniture. My taste changes slightly when it comes to chairs, bar stools, beds and headboards - I love them with bold fabrics, I’ve been able to work with a lot of amazing fabrics over the years.

As far as designers go, Piet Hein Eek is a Dutch up-cycle furniture king. Love his work. Another Dutch designer, Maarten Baas, has an amazing smoke chair range which I love. I was fortunate enough to see both designer’s work in person when I was living in Holland.


Q: What do you like most about living in Porto?

N: It's old and beautiful buildings. Porto is a small, historic city, so easy it’s to explore - you have the Douro river, a lot of coastline and some amazing sunsets. I also like the people.

Q: Top places to visit in Porto?

N: I like the area ‘Foz’, it has nice walks along the coast and beach bars for sundowners - the perfect spot to watch the sunset on the horizon. Roaster in ‘Vila Nova de Gaia’ is incredible for a nice breakfast with good coffee, highly recommended. I’m also hoping to visit some nice vintage stores and markets soon.


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