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Camira chats with sustainable upholsterer, Vanessa Butt

Back to Inspiration

As a tutor, you’re teaching the next generation of upholsterers; is sustainability something that you think will grow in importance for future makers and designers?

Yes, I think this is the case. I teach the AMUSF (Association of Master Upholsterers & Soft Furnishers) Upholstery course at London Metropolitan University, and the students show a lot of interest in the alternative, sustainable materials available. We encourage them to practise with things like rubberised hair and coconut fibre on their modern pieces so they can take this experience and knowledge out into the big wide world of upholstery! We like to focus on quality and durability rather than what is currently ‘trending’. There is also a module which focuses on starting up on their own so the students can successfully sustain a business which helps customers make those good decisions. 

Product shown: Oceanic in Barrier with a feather cushion inner and the selvedge of the fabric used as the trim, created by Vanessa.

How do you approach upholstery from an environmental/sustainable perspective?

Upholstery began in the early 17th century as an incredibly sustainable practice, using only natural materials and hand tools, and, with its focus on restoring and keeping furniture going, an eco-friendly ethos really does lay at its core. However, the advent of industrialisation and the development of plastic as a source material meant that our craft had to adapt to ultise manmade materials - for example, modern furniture (anything made from 1960 onwards) was designed to be upholstered with foam. This, combined with society embracing a more throwaway nature of consumerism, meant that the main challenge faced by upholsterers was highlighting the importance of longevity and restoring rather than replacing.

What I find interesting is that we are now coming back full circle to using more natural materials, or recycling the excess that our society has created - which is brilliant. In our workshop, we do the research so it's as easy as possible for our customers to opt for sustainable options. For example, we offer alternatives to foam in the form of rubberised coconut fibre. We have also created a directory of sustainable fabrics, all made with either environmentally friendly or recycled materials, from suppliers that share our commitment to creating in harmony with the environment. We particularly love Rivet and Oceanic, woven from recycled plastic, and many customers are also very drawn to the all-natural fabrics, Nettle and Hemp. As upholsterers, I feel it’s our responsibility to be knowledgeable and educate ourselves so these options are no longer ‘the alternative’.

What is your favourite sustainable material? Why do you love it?

It has to be wool - it's resilient, long-lasting and easy to clean and, better still, is a renewable product that is biodegradable at the end. Wool has the natural capacity to keep away moisture depending on the temperature which is why it feels cool in summer and warm in winter. There are so many different wools available on the market so there’s something for every taste and style. In the UK there are still very strict regulations regarding fire retardancy in upholstery but using wool removes the requirement to use chemicals on our furniture. Ticks all the boxes for me!

Product shown: Nettle Aztec in Tollan with a ‘Thought-fill’ cushion inner created by Vanessa; a sustainable alternative to foam, it consists of rubberised coconut fibre, sandwiched between layers of carded Dorset Horn wool and then covered in a calico cotton cover.