Perusing thrift stores has always been a pastime of mine, but with Mary Hetrick, it’s different. While others write off a piece of furniture as hideous due to its tacky fabric, she looks at the shape, the era, and the possibilities she sees for it. Mary is a self-taught upholsterer from Jamestown, NY with a passion for antiques and restoration. Where another craftsperson may refuse to do a job that “compromises” a piece’s history, she’s happy to break the rules and make something original. You want a leopard print chaise lounge? This is your girl.
Upholstery is a dying art, to which Mary fell into accidentally after being laid off. With the help of a friend, she was able to secure a job at Fancher Chair Co. in Falconer, NY. While she was “pretty intimidated” about jumping into upholstery, she had always been a crafty person. She learned the basics on the job, but quit the factory grind after a few years in order to spend time learning how to reupholster and pursue her love for antiques.
Finding someone to apprentice under is very uncommon these days, especially considering that few trade schools teach the skill. When I asked Mary what she was most proud of, she told me, “I am very proud of myself for not giving up on this craft. I spent time reading everything I could, watching videos, and just using trial-and-error when I first started upholstering. Needless to say, I tore out a lot of staples to fix my mistakes, and I fussed around with pleats, folds, and cording for hours on end sometimes. Sometimes it would get frustrating and I still have a lot to learn, but I am very proud of how far I have come with my skill level and knowledge of the upholstery industry and trade.”
After countless hours of teaching herself, Mary started to take side jobs and commissions until she knew she could make a decent living. She was able to quit her day job at the Salvation Army Domestic Violence Shelter and created Electric Chair Upholstery in the basement of her home. She says, “Upholstery can be done anywhere really, I have seen many different kinds of shops. All you need is a place that can get dirty but has good lighting to see the intricate details.”
Mary prides herself on the organization of her shop. While others keep their workspaces cluttered, hers is tidy and a reflection of her work. “I have a few sets of saw horses (custom built for my very short height), work tables, button maker, a wall for hanging tools, an air compressor, a JUKI industrial sewing machine (my baby), and a cutting table. Of course I have an assortment of power tools, hand drills, and sanders, because sometimes you really have to go to town on your stripped furniture,” she said.
The idea of upcycling and reimagining items is exciting. “I believe that ALL furniture has potential and that anything is possible in bringing it back to life. Even if the piece is falling apart, or has been rotting in a basement or barn for centuries, I can always doctor up the frame, replace all fiber fillings and put on a fresh new fabric,” she said. An inherently good frame will support a piece for years to come. When it comes to period pieces, “I love Mid-Century Furniture (Think Mad Men) and also love to get my hands on anything from the 1970s (Think: Dr. Evil Egg Chairs). Anything that has unique legs, arms, or sewing patterns are a favorite of mine too,” she said.
Mary is a self-proclaimed Textile Geek: “I just love fabric. I get to work with all the different kinds of fabric fibers: tweed, cotton, tapestry, wool, leather, vinyl… I love when a customer chooses a fabric with a wild, vibrant, or crazy print that needs matched or can be placed on the piece in a very neat way.” But it’s the result she enjoys most. “I enjoy the feeling of finishing a piece, it’s so empowering. I stand back, give it a look, and remember that I just did that with my own two hands from start to finish. Sometimes jobs are hard, complicated, and require a lot of hours of manual labor, but it is all worth it when the piece is finished and perfect for the customer,” she said.
For Mary, upholstery has been a way to marry many of her passions at once. “I have always had an interest in interior decorating and design. I get inspired by very well-decorated spaces that have an eclectic, original feel to them. There are no rules when I am upholstering my own furniture. I get to choose what the finished product looks like. I can use my own personal style to create whatever I want. It is so inspiring to be able to have complete freedom of your creativity.”
If you would like Mary to bring your furniture back to life, you can email her at Electric Chair Upholstery via email: email@example.com. She offers home furniture upholstery and custom cushions. Her work is viewable on her personal Facebook page. She also does the occasional art show in the area.