Making the Old New Again


Chair before. Wish is was a clearer photo.

I am proud to say that I have completed a major upholstery project.

We have had a pair of chairs in our family room for quite a few years. They belonged to my late mother in law and were manufactured in the 1950’s by Jamestown Lounge, a hometown furniture company. My mother in law had them professionally reupholstered in the early 1980’s, shortly before my husband and I got married. He claims they had been done at least once before that, as well, having been pretty well used and abused when he and his brother were kids.

When we inherited these chairs the fabric was outdated and already somewhat worn looking. But they were comfortable and fit well in our smallish room. So I immediately started looking around for fabric. Two years ago, I found a print I liked in a rusty red paisley with just a hint of green that went perfectly with the wall colors in our room. I bought the fabric, brought it home, and looked at it. I looked at it for a long time. Two years is a long time. But it took me that long to muster up the courage to cut that lovely piece of fabric. You don’t get a second chance when cutting fabric.

My husband offered a couple of times to have them sent out to be professionally done. Two things held me back: I did not want to spend the money on professional reupholstering, and I really wanted to try it myself. Then, finally, when one of the backs of the old chairs started to come apart, I knew it was time to begin this project.

Here’s a short list of my previous furniture projects. I have refinished a dresser and shelf unit, and six antique chairs we found at a junk shop. Those chairs had no seats, so I cut some of plywood and made upholstered seats for them. That was many years ago. Since then I have upholstered a bench seat, another chair seat, and built a headboard from plywood and upholstered that. I have also slipcovered a sofa, but that’s not the same as upholstering. Even with all that experience, reupholstering a pair of chairs was daunting. It’s all the curves that concerned me.


The chairs after. What a difference!

I enlisted help from my mother to get the fabric laid out so the pattern would line up properly. She has never upholstered but is an expert seamstress and very good with fabric layout and matching designs. We used the pieces I had removed from one existing chair as patterns, allowing for some minor changes since I wanted to eliminate the buttons and create smooth seams along the inside back.

Since I am far from an expert on this subject, I will offer a few tips for upholstery beginners:

  • You will learn a lot when you take apart your old upholstered piece. Watch carefully to see how pieces were put together: were they stitched, tacked, or stapled? Take pictures and take notes if you need to.
  • Give yourself time to take each piece apart carefully. You will want the old fabric pieces intact to create a pattern for the new pieces, and you may be able to re-use batting, foam, or other items as you go.
  • The last piece you take off will be the first piece you replace. Essentially, your reassembly will happen in reverse order that you took the fabric off.
  • Use heavy duty upholstery thread and a heavy duty needle on your machine. And invest in an electric staple gun. I bought one after the first chair was complete and am now wishing I had bought it years ago.
  • Don’t rush the job. It’s okay to read online tutorials about reupholstering in a single day, but if this is your first job it will take a lot longer. Getting it right is more important than doing it quickly, since you’ll be looking at that piece of furniture in your home for quite a while. I would guess that I have about 60 hours into this twin chair project, and that represents quite a few weekends and evenings.

If your sewing skills are half decent, you know how to use a hammer and staple gun, and have a little ingenuity, you can do this. I took some books out of the library and watched a number of online tutorials before embarking on this project.

It would probably help if you were a very patient person. On a scale of one to ten my patience level is about a minus two, but my level of persistence is about a plus twelve, which makes up for the lack of patience.

So this is not a tutorial, but it is meant to be an encouragement. There is nothing like the feeling you get from having accomplished a task yourself, especially one that is a little challenging.

Oh, and if you stop over, don’t look too closely or you will definitely find the flaws in my chairs.  But do take a seat.  They are pretty comfortable.



Pick Your Path

I recently had the great fortune to have lunch with one of my sisters. That may not sound like a big deal, but it was. She lives a few hours away, and usually when we get together it is because of some big family function or holiday with kids and spouses and a house full of people and there is no real time to connect one on one. This was different. She was only going to be in town for a couple of days and I already had evening plans both nights. So she suggested lunch. I decided to take the afternoon off. What a great decision! We sat at an old favorite local place sipping coffee for several hours, talking; just the two of us.

One thing she said to me has kept coming back. She feels as though she “wasted” a part of her life. She was specifically talking about her 20’s – most of that decade. I know what she means, and in my recollection of that time in her life she was embarking on a career path, but her personal life may not have been all she wanted at the time. I’m not sure I said it clearly enough then, but I will say it clearly now. That part of your life was not wasted, my dear sister. It was preparing you for what came afterwards.

But that got me to thinking about my own life and decisions. Each of us makes choices in life. We choose our friends. We may choose an educational path. Often we choose a career or workplace. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to choose where we live. We choose a life partner; or not. Those choices do not happen overnight, nor do they happen in rapid succession. Most often we make decisions on a continuum; one thing leads to another.

As I look back over my 50 plus years, I know that there are opportunities I squandered and things I could and should have done differently. There are plenty of times when I should have been more helpful, more caring, and kinder. Sure, I have some regrets and part of my youth was definitely misspent. But I also see now that the choices I made at the time ultimately led me to the life I have with my family and career. Perhaps even my bad decisions at times were necessary in order to propel me towards something different.

choose your pathEach of us begins life with a background. I happen to have been born smack dab in the middle of a family of five children, which may give me a different perspective than some of my siblings had or have. I also believe that each of us is born with certain personality traits. After these basics are in place, the bulk of our life, I think, is created by choice. We cannot predict the outcome of our decisions, only that we have made a selection based on either logic or emotion or a combination of the two.

Honestly, my darling sister, that part of your life was not pointless or fruitless. I saw you then as a young woman who was searching for a path and learning a lot along the way. I was then, and am now, so proud of your decisions to make some physical moves which I know were emotionally difficult and life-altering. You laid the groundwork for the amazing family you have now and for the journey you have taken so far.

It’s no coincidence that one of my favorite poems is The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. It is all about making a selection. The best line of that poem, in my humble opinion, is “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” We don’t always get another chance to make a singular choice, even though we may often think about where the other road may have led.

So while I began this about my sister, I will write this out loud as a reminder to myself and for my daughters or anyone else who cares to read it. We make our choices in life and they form the person we become. Living with the results may be difficult or may be wonderful. Circumstances may disrupt the course we have charted from time to time. But here’s the great thing about having chosen: whether we like our decisions or not, we can always make another.

Mom and Music on a Spring Day

Today was “take grandma to college day.” Even though she isn’t as spry as she was even a few years ago, we try to take my mother along once in a while when we visit our daughter at school. Today was a concert day for the University of Rochester Wind Symphony, and a Sunday afternoon concert seems like the perfect time to take mom along.

wind symphony

U of R Wind Symphony

The concert was terrific! I am always impressed by this group, which is made up of mostly students (undergrad and graduate) with a few faculty members and alumni thrown in here and there. Our daughter auditioned for this ensemble in her freshman year and has been playing with them ever since. Each spring, the director recognizes the seniors who are leaving the group. He gives their names, hometowns, and majors. This group includes students from as far away as China, with majors as diverse as political science and bio-chemistry. One student named today is completing a PhD in optics. In fact, there is hardly a music major among them, which is not surprising considering most of the music students at the University of Rochester attend its prestigious Eastman School of Music.

Despite the lack of music majors in the group, they have a beautiful tone. The music flows graciously, and even pieces that may be challenging by virtue of notation or tempo sound polished and lovely.

On the way home my mother, who has always enjoyed concert music, noted how remarkable it is that these undergrad and graduate students must carry a heavy academic load and still find time to participate in wind symphony. She is right. U of R is not a school for those who choose to rest on their laurels. It is academically rigorous across all majors. It is a research university, where they take learning very seriously. That’s the main thing our daughter fell in love with about the school. Almost every student there wears their academic “nerd” label as a badge of honor.

So what is it about a music ensemble that keeps these young men and women coming back for more? I suppose the answers are as diverse as the students, themselves. But knowing our daughter, I can only guess that some of the reasons are a love of music, the fact that playing an instrument once in a while can be relaxing for these hard working students, the camaraderie of participating in a group of like-minded people, and the pure enjoyment they get from playing their instrument.

A few words about the director: Bill Tiberio is obviously an engaging conductor who takes an interest in both the students and the music. He is a music teacher at nearby Fairport High School where he conducts several ensembles. His resume includes the Eastman School of Music Community Education Division, summer staff at the Hochstein Music School, faculty of the jazz department at Ithaca College, and past president of the New York State Chapter of the International Association of Jazz Educators. This is a man who has invested his life in music and music education, and yet a portion of his busy week is spent with this group of students who are mainly engaged in biology, brain and cognitive science, chemical engineering, art history, religion, and other non-music pursuits.


Three generations

Both of our daughters studied music for years. The eldest started piano lessons at age eight, took up percussion in middle school, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Music from West Virginia University. The younger one started playing percussion in fifth grade, switched to clarinet in middle school, and now in her junior year at U of R took up bass clarinet. She is not a music major, but she and about 90 others like her continue to make music together, beautifully, in this thoroughly enjoyable ensemble.

Music can be a life-long pursuit even for those who choose not to make it a career. My mother began piano lessons at the age of 80. She is thrilled to see her grandchildren pursue all of their interests, including music, into their adulthood. Taking her on a little road trip on a beautiful spring day to hear her granddaughter was the least we could do for her.