Late last year, just after I’d had one of my huge and infamous rearranges – where the front room was dismantled, its furniture redistributed about the house, the living room shoved into the front room, the dining room recreated in the middle room, and the kitchen transformed into a working kitchen divided by a sideboard with a lovely cosy study / armchair area set up in the nook – I decided what I “really needed” was a lovely armchair to sit in the corner of the dining room, in front of the bookcases.
I scoured the opshops, the footpaths … and a long time favourite, good old eBay.
At first, my imagination was filled with those extravagant French styled armchairs with their ornately carved backs, rolled arms, Queen Anne legs, and outrageous floral velvet upholstery. I found a lovely pair in Sydney – green and cream velvet floral – awesome price – but they were in Sydney. I even considered driving up and fetching them – what an adventure that would be!
Hmmmm … I would have had to have a towbar installed on the car and bought a trailer. More then possibly a wee bit extravagant. But Julian was away for the month and anything seems possible when Julian’s away :-) However, when I ran my grand plan past Abby, she merely raised her eyebrows and went back to her books. I took that as a no.
In fact, there were heaps of lovely armchairs in Sydney and all at good prices. Here in Melbourne – no, no, no. I rarely saw any, and when I did, they were way out of my price range. So I loosened up my expectations and quickly found a gathering of seven Edwardian chairs – two armchairs and five dining chairs – in various stageses of reupholstering – that were an incredibly reasonable price, right here in Melbourne. No one else bid on them and a few days later, I was the gleeful “winner”!
Now, there were six more chairs than I had originally anticipated buying but I figured a pair of armchairs was always better than just one lonely one. And five gorgeous dining chairs would always come in handy. Most extraordinarily, I bought the whole lot for just $120. Can you believe that?!?!? Seven beautiful Edwardian chairs for less than $20 each. Oh my goodness. I felt like I was robbing the previous owner, but that’s the spin of the eBay wheel, isn’t it.
However, it did mean two trips to bring them home which turned into an all day adventure whereupon I also got to meet a sweet family and hear a lovely, lovely story about my new chairs. And as I’ve mentioned before, I always love furniture that comes with a good story, and this one is especially touching because it describes just the kind of relationship and adventures I have with my lovely mum.
In the late 1960s, a young woman – recently married and hoping to start a family – hunted through the antique stores with her mum for Edwardian dining and arm chairs they could restore. Her mum had been taught upholstery by an elderly aunt – the young woman vividly remembered going to visit her great aunt in the countryside where she would play whilst her mother and great aunt would work away at their antiques and upholstery.
Eventually she too learnt the skills and when she was setting up her own home, she and her mum knew just the chairs they wanted. They found these seven, brought them home, and set to work.
Their work was slow, meticulous and employed traditional techniques. The chairs were carefully webbed. Their springs were handstitched with jute twine. The backs of the armchairs were buttoned through hessian that covered carefully layered and stitched coconut fibre and upholstery wadding. Calico lining and upholstery fabrics were perfectly stretched and tacked into place with blued tacks.
But then the young woman fell pregnant with twins and it was hard to find the hours needed to keep working on the chairs. Nevertheless, they kept at it, bit by bit, and her little girl (one of the twins) was now making her own memories of playing in the garden on weekends whilst her mum and grandmother upholstered chairs. She thought it was just what mums and grandmothers did!
This bit made me laugh – that’s exactly what Abby thought when she was little. When asked what she got up to on the weekend, she would answer “Oh stripping with Mum and Nan as usual!” People were always a little bemused by just what “stripping” was.
However, life became busier and busier. Eventually the great aunt – bestower of all upholstery knowledge – passed away and then so did the young woman’s mother. The chairs moved further and further into the dark corners of the garage and were almost forgotten.
Then, decades later, the time came when the young woman was now becoming older and more frail herself and needed to sort through a lifetime’s belongings and move into a smaller, more easily managed home. And there – in the garage – were the seven chairs.
The chairs brought back so many lovely memories and she was in a quandary about what to do with them. She felt sad that she and her mum had not managed to finish them. But she no longer possessed the skills required to finish them off, and even if they were finished, had nowhere to put them in her new home. Nor did her children need or want them.
No antique dealers were interested. She couldn’t imagine giving them to an opshop – even less putting them out for hard rubbish. So her son-in-law offered to put them on eBay where hopefully someone would see that same beauty and promise spied by her and her mother all those years ago.
Well, I think the perfect person did ;-) Together, the older lady and I examined the chairs – ooohed and ahhed over the lovely woodwork, and delighted in the still excellent upholstery. I described my experience with upholstery – I spent two years attending weekend classes at the Holmesglen TAFE here in Melbourne – and we discussed fabric and braid options.
We talked embroidery, knitting, patchwork and antiques. And I shared funny stories about the furniture adventures Mum and I have had, our methods for restoring furniture, and the lovely treasures we have found over the years, and filled our homes with.
It was a lovely day, and the woman, her daughter and son-in-law were all delighted that the chairs had not just found a very suitable home, but a much valued tradition of mother and daughter, working together, would be continued.
So this weekend, with my Mum newly returned from her Christmas adventures in Canada, we tackled the loveliest of the chairs. Look at that carving on the back – it is so beautiful! I wonder whether it was intended as a dining chair or whether it sat on an altar in a lovely old church. You know how in Catholic and Anglican churches you often see beautiful chairs lined up for the different attendants to sit on during mass, yes? Now, this one sits at my desk in the kitchen. It’s just perfect.
And I found the perfect toile in the sewing shed – bought for something else of course, that never eventuated, but that’s the way things go sometimes. It’s a linen/cotton blend with a lovely firm hand. Just right for upholstery and such an appropriate pattern for chairs that have elegant, swirly flowers and leaves carved into their wood.
I daresay, Mum and I too will take our time with these chairs :-) Let’s face it – we’re no professionals and every step taken is checked against my notes and books, then ummmmed and ahhhhhed over and carefully tested before we settle on the best way to move along.
And who knows, maybe one day soon, Abby and I will be finishing off a couple for her future home.
And of course, there are funny mistakes that need to be ripped out and redone. After doing such a careful and satisfying job on the seat and front of back, we completely lost the plot on the back of the back.
We were so engrossed with getting the rose perfectly centred and balanced along the edge, we failed to notice we had moved the fabric 3 inches up and after tacking it down, it had no HOPE of reaching the bottom! What silly billies!
Another moment that had us in fits of laughter was when we finally realised – after a whole afternoon of wondering why the staple gun was not working properly – all the staples were loose, no matter how hard we pushed, and had to be banged in the last few millimetres with the hammer – that the setting had been bumped from 6 (nice and tight) to 2 (hopeless).
However, that’s just the way mother-daughter restoration rolls. Don’t you think? Full of experiments and victories, flops and giggles, hours of pleasure, the creating of wonderful memories, and a life-long, shared appreciation of the old and lovely.
Yes, these seven Edwardian chairs have settled into our home beautifully. It was meant to be.