Richmond upholsterer will save you a seat
on December 17, 2012
Patrick McStravick runs his fingers over the bare bones of an old chair. “Look at the thickness of the wood,” he says reverently in heavy brogue. “Honduran mahogany.” Jute webbing, tacked and stretched from the bottoms of the outer wooden slats, forms the base of the seat. A half-dozen metal springs sit on top of the jute. “These are all hand-tied,” he says, pushing down lightly on the springs.
Like a cooper her barrels or a tinker his cans, McStravick, 60, owner of Laverty’s Upholstery on 23rd and Garvin, deals in seats—couches, chairs, rockers, loveseats, ottomans, stools—and more specifically, their cushions and coverings.
Eventually, after enough sitting and rising, slouching and readjusting, most every seat will need a new skin. McStravick’s job is to pull off the old worn-out fabric, take the seat down to the foundation, and build it back up.
It’s an old profession, and it’s slowly washing away in the tide of polyurethane foam, particleboard and injection-molded plastic. “It’s getting to be a dying trade,” McStravick says.
He grabs a cushion off his bench and sets it on top of the springs. The stuffing is cattle and horsehair, he says, lifting up the bottom to show the dark matted hair. “Apparently all the horses were black back then,” he says. He points out the stitching holding the hair in place. “All done by hand,” he says. The stuffing on the top of the seat is wiry twisty hoghair.
He sets the cushion back down, and drapes flowered fabric over it. The chair, more than 100 years old, has long outlived the pigs and horses and skillful handiwork that went into it. And it’s still comfortable.
McStravick grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the ‘60s and ‘70s. He wanted to be an artist, wanted to design billboards and advertisements, but it was hard to find work in the thick of the country’s Catholic-Protestant conflict, and the opportunity never arose. He went instead to work as an apprentice for his uncle, who owned a furniture factory—upstairs a woodshop, downstairs upholstery.
In the late 1970s he immigrated to the United States, and found a job in Walnut Creek, at another upholstery shop. McStravick moved to Richmond in the early 1980s, when Charles Laverty, the shop’s namesake, lost his son Eugene in a car accident and needed a skilled hand.
“Do you want to see my favorite chair?” he says, pointing to a high-backed armchair. The Murphy chair, he calls it, a fireside chair. “Back in the day when there was no TV, radio, people just sat around the fire and read or talked,” he says. People don’t buy chairs like these anymore, and few of them are made, he says. He points to the chair’s wooden leg. “Look at this curve,” he says, skimming its hand-carved length. “I just stand back and go, ‘Oh wow.’”
The chair’s cushions are covered in white and brown zebra striped fabric. It’s what the client wanted, he says, sounding only a little sad about it. “There’s a lot of beautiful fabrics,” he says.
He’ll take most jobs though, regardless of the client’s taste in fabric. . He needs it. Business has been slowly dwindling ever since he took over from Mr. Laverty. Back in the ‘80s, he says, this was the busy time of year. In the months around Thanksgiving and Christmas he had three employees—“doing six days a week, flat out.”
Now it’s just him, getting by. There’s a dartboard in the corner, for when business is slow. “Did you watch the guys on the Olympics?” he asks. “Every shot a bullseye.”
The problem is cheap imported furniture, McStravick says. He pulls out one such chair.
It’s almost a joke—a half-inch plywood toilet seat with stapled synthetic webbing. Its spring comes not from springs, but from zig-zagged heavy-gauge wire that gives a little bounce. The cushion is a wobbly slab of foam. “This is our modern-day horsehair,” he says.
But while the guts don’t look as nice, the materials and labor involved probably cost less than a tenth of what it took to make the old chair. That’s fine, McStravick says, and it makes sense why people buy a $30 chair instead of a $300 chair. When they’re buying it though, they must know that it that it won’t last 100 years, and probably not 10.
It’s willful shortsightedness, he says—a telling measure of the modern mentality. People don’t want to pay $100, $200, $300 to repair a seat or a couch, he says. They’d rather get a new one. The old furniture, with the horsehair cushions and the subtle hand-carved ornaments, is ending up at the dump, he says. “I’m tired of people saying to me, ‘I could buy it cheaper new.’”
There used to be a four or five upholsterers on 23rd Street alone, he says. “Now it’s just me.”
It’s not just upholsterers hurting. The whole American furniture industry is on its knees, he says. Most of the big-name domestic furniture makers are already closed, he says, and the supporting textile industry is stuttering to a halt too.
In years past, he says, he’d get rid of four or five books of fabric samples every year, as their makers discontinued them. Last year, he got rid of 60 sample books.
You can’t get American cotton-velvet anymore, he says, holding a sample swatch. “It’s been around for centuries,” he says. “You can no longer find it.”
He goes back to work—it’s another animal print job, this time on a barstool. He stretches the fabric over the cushion, pinning it with a tack strip that he hammers into the underlying wood. He trims the fabric with foot-long metal scissors, then pulls out a pneumatic stapler.
In the old days, he says upholsterers would fill their mouths with tacks, then spit them out one by one onto the end of a special hammer with a magnetic tip. “This is probably the best invention,” he says, bouncing the stapler over the chair pfft pfft pfft. It’s one thing he doesn’t mind about the modern day. “I would hate to be spitting tacks,” he says.
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