The Army taught Robert Frances to sew. The WWII 82nd Airborne paratrooper needed to repair his chute so his specially trained unit could deploy at a moment’s notice. He became head of a drapery and sewing department and later started his own business. Bob Frances Interiors in North Providence, now in its 75th year, serves as a one-stop destination for
all things fabric.
His son and current owner, Alan Frances, never developed a resume or went to a job interview, his life instead spent surrounded by reams of fabric. Frances loves finding antiques and restoring their former beauty. For those who can make the investment, he advises that higher quality furniture is worth it in the long run. “You’re going to buy the same $1,000 piece five times,” in the next 20 years, Frances gauges.
Today’s “fast furniture,” though inexpensive, is made of materials that are unlikely to last more than five years, Francis estimates, but a quality constructed piece of furniture is worth the investment of reupholstering. A vast selection of fabrics allows almost any piece of furniture to keep pace with design trends.
Fast furniture makes up about 5 percent of the nation’s total trash annually, about 12 million tons, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, up from 9 million tons in 2015 and up 450 percent since 1960. Constructed to be discarded within a short time, the variety of materials used – a mix of wood, metal, foam and fabric – makes it almost impossible to recycle or repair.
The word “upholstery” originally comes from “upholder” which translates to furniture rebuilder. Craftspeople like upholsters, carrying on the textile heritage of the area, provide alternative options to contributing to the landfill, with shops specializing in the service all over the state.
Former art teacher Kris Stamps joined her sister Betsy Convery in her East
Greenwich shop, Sew Many Things, in 1992. Family members taught them how to create from fabric, and Convery opened the shop in 1977 as a catch-all for her many talents with needle and thread. Stamps added her upholstery talents and artistic bent and took over when Convery retired.
Stamps shares that it’s sentimental pieces families can’t part with, loyal repeat customers, and word of mouth referrals that have kept the shop consistently busy for years. There’s also a strong interest in remaking furniture in the younger generation. Whether diving into area antique shops or second-hand stores, “They enjoy the hunt,” says Stamps.
For Gerald Emin, owner of his namesake upholstery shop in North Scituate, his main tool is a can-do attitude, inherited from his father and grandfather. He relishes the challenge of solving puzzles and has his forebears’ penchant for perfection. “I have stick-to-itiveness,” he surmises.
From inspecting mattresses to repairing furniture, Emin went on to work with a master furniture refinisher, who encouraged him to start his own business – and there’s no challenge Emin won’t accept when it comes to upholstering. “It served me well that I couldn’t say no,” he says. His relationships with designers have provided a consistent stream of work over 30 years, and he’s taken on projects as big as panels in the sports betting area of Encore, Boston’s new casino. Showing the scars on his hands from slips using the trade’s cutting tools, Emin admits, “It can be a grind.”
Marc Carriere, whose short days are often 10-hour shifts, could use more hands on deck at Carriere’s Upholstery & Refinishing Co. in Woonsocket. He learned the trade from his cousin Leo Carriere and then took over the firm. Often
tackling large commercial jobs, one of Carriere’s most memorable projects was reupholstering the walls of the John Hay Library at Brown University under heavy
security to protect the library’s collection of rare books, manuscripts, and archives.
His latest project, six months in the works, was reupholstering the almost 1,100 seats in the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket.
Carriere thankfully had family to help remove and reinstall the seats to their precise location in the theater, which were last redone in 2002 when inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions reupholstered and refinished the wooden arms as part of an ongoing program teaching the trade.
Belgium native and former intensive care nurse Line Daems opened Kreatelier, her fabric concept store, when she moved to Rhode Island. “It’s all about fabric,” Daems says. People are very conscious of sustainability, which has served her East Side store well. Her nine upholsters take project orders that are designed in house.
Originally downtown, in its 16 years, the Providence shop has only grown, recently expanding into an adjoining portion of their building on Hope Street. Kreatelier aims to make interior decorating more available and less intimidating. Free consultations and a welcoming showroom invite anyone to come in simply for inspiration, and will take on projects as big as a full living room set or as small as a custom pillow made with a swatch from grandma’s stash.
Another heavy emphasis for Daems is on using and reusing everything. Her fabric remnants become gift bags, wallpaper ends become envelopes, and she gives remnants away to Rhode Island School of Design students.
Though business is brisk in most upholstery shops, what has dwindled are people interested in learning and preserving the craft. Stamps, who doesn’t have an upholster in training to take over Sew Many Things when she retires, predicts, “This is going to be a lost art.”
But the craftspeople who remain preserve the vestiges of deep-rooted textile history by teaching the public about sustainability and durability, even turning down jobs they don’t believe would have a lasting, high-quality end product. “I try to educate people as to why it’s better to buy an heirloom piece,” Emin says. “It’s an investment.”
Ready to leave that loveseat? Let a pro give it a mod makeover. Here’s how to find the businesses mentioned in this article.
North Providence, BobFrances.com
North Scituate, 647-2909
East Greenwich, SewManyThings.net
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