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Destination MCC

Upholstery.jpg
Destination mcc: college threads needle with niche upholstery offering

The idea came in 1981, eight months into her pregnancy while she was staring at a "beat-up old rocker" that was still structurally sound.

"I could recover that," Kathy Foust thought to herself. 

A completely self-taught upholsterer, Foust did such a nice job recovering the rocking chair that her husband bought her an $800 machine for additional projects. She took out a classified ad in the Omaha World-Herald under the "Services" heading and lined up her first paid gig - a six-cushion, skirted couch. 

Before she was able to collect her $75 payment, she had to redo the cushions on it three times. It taught her an important business lesson on pricing and the value of quality work.  

After 35 years and hundreds more upholstery projects, Foust's initial desire to have a nice chair to rock her baby girl in eventually gave birth to the Metropolitan Community College noncredit upholstery program.

"It's an art that I have been doing for almost 45 years, and I still love it. There’s a passion to it that you enjoy," Foust said.

There's also a big opportunity. Home economics programs used to have more of a presence in high school education, funneling graduates into upholstery careers. Similar to other skilled trades, established professionals like Foust are approaching the end of their careers, leaving a skills gap that widens with every retirement.

"There are so many more people today who have never sat behind a sewing machine and put something together," Foust said.

The upholstery workforce is so scarce, when searching the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for employment information, 20% of states lack the data available to report on the industry. Among the 40 that do, supply and demand rings true with employment - fewer workers are driving higher wages. Nebraska is among the group of states with the smallest share of industry employment against the national average. Nebraska is also among the states with the highest annual mean wage ($42,200-$52,060).

Lyn Ziegenbein, executive director emerita of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, envisioned establishing a dedicated neighborhood where "lost arts" like upholstery could be explored. At MCC Makerspace, the program is hosted within the resurgent New North Makerhood, an art colony north of 11th and Cuming streets. The area was once a commercial center that became blighted over decades of neglect. Located blocks away from Abbott Drive, along a common route to the airport, the drive presented a confusing picture of Omaha to visitors.

"From the airport coming into Omaha, looking south, you would see all of our wonderful trophies like the convention center, First National tower and the Woodmen tower. Then you'd look north of Cuming Street, and you would think, 'Now wait a minute, which is the real Omaha?'" Ziegenbein said of the area that has since been beautified by a gift to the city from the Peter Kiewit Foundation during her tenure as executive director.

"What we have going on now on the north side of Cuming Street is a rebirthing of downtown because this used to be a very busy commercial area that gradually faded. Now it's coming back," Ziegenbein said.

MCC Makerspace is part of the refurbished fabric in an emerging, creative neighborhood

Ziegenbein said one the "first instigations" for the New North Makerhood project came about 15 years ago. It was the result of searching for a new upholsterer after discovering two businesses she had used for past projects were no longer operating. Through word of mouth, she met Foust.

"In the course of our conversation, [Foust] told me that she was also worried about the declining availability of custom upholstery and that it would be a real loss for the community," Ziegenbein said. "We need to pass it on in our culture and our society, or things like that will disappear entirely."

"Having a place like [the New North Makerhood] educates the whole community because there are a lot of people who would not be aware of these kinds of artistic skills, not only in their functionality, but also their recreational enjoyment of them. I've been to makerhoods in other parts of the country, and they are special, well-known areas in their communities. They really help to enhance the quality of life."

The New North Makerhood is a nonprofit organization, offering more affordable rent for studio space to artists and craftspeople than privately-owned properties. All work sold in the space is created by the artists who crafted them. More than new 30 studios will be available in the community in the near future, Ziegenbein said. A building that formerly housed a lumberyard is being converted to offer work, community and gallery space.

"There's so much diversity in the kinds of things that are being done. You have Kathy doing custom upholstery, and then right outside her door is pottery, where MCC has its own kiln. Then you walk a few more yards to the north in the building, and you find a printmaker. So right there, you have three somewhat disappearing arts that are coming back in one space."

One of Foust's first students, Stephani Keene, is now an MCC instructor. She owns and operates Keene and Daughters Upholstery in Glenwood, Iowa, with her daughter-in-law, Lizz Keene, also an MCC instructor. Stephani Keene said in addition to the lack of business competition, there are several other market conditions that are favorable to pursuing careers in upholstery, with quality being the biggest driver.

"Furniture has changed. You have furniture that lasts only two years and is disposable. And you have this new generation coming up that wants to reuse and recycle. They have an appreciation for craftsmanship. There's renewed interest in reusing things in grandma's house because they've lasted 50-, 70-, 100-plus years. They're noticing a big difference in quality," Keene said.

She also noted that with the shift to remote work instigated by the pandemic, people were at home more than ever before, looking at their furniture.

"It was good for upholstery because people want to redo things, but unfortunately, a lot of the schools have fallen by the wayside to teach it, so MCC has really given us the opportunity to start from scratch," Keene said.

MCC is one of the only educational institutions in the region to offer an upholstery program. The MCC Makerspace, is a destination to learn the skill. Blocks away from the recently opened MCC IT Express location in the historic Ashton building, MCC Makerspace adds to the College's footprint in North Omaha.

MCC Makerspace also happens to be frequented by multiple out-of-state students who regularly attend classes in person in Omaha due to the lack of academic-level upholstery training offered elsewhere throughout the region.

Over the past year, there have been students who have traveled from the surrounding areas of Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Missouri, to join local students in working on their pieces, improving their techniques, broadening their abilities and developing the confidence to launch their own businesses.

Pat Nagel-Wilson regularly travels more than 150 miles from Indianola, Iowa. She started coming to MCC Makerspace after she retired in 2018 from a career as a special educator for the blind and visually impaired. She has a daughter and granddaughter who live in Omaha, whom she visits on her trips to attend the Upholstery Lab course. The seven-week class meets for three hours one day each week.

Nagel-Wilson said each upholstery project brings an interesting challenge, like navigating the 48 tufted buttons on an antique chair she restored a couple years ago. After the piece is finished, an assortment of memories remain. Every once in a while, the upholsterer finds an unforgettable surprise, like a prize a child finds in the bottom of a cereal box.

"On a chair I picked out from a thrift store and worked on last fall, as we were uncovering it, I found a gold garnet ring," Nagel-Wilson said.

And sometimes, on the far less glamorous side of restoring other people's castaway furniture, you get more surprise that you bargain for - like the time Nagel-Wilson discovered a rodent's abandoned nest while uncovering a chair bought at a thrift shop. Despite that experience, Nagel-Wilson said it’s fun to hunt for items to restore at yard sales, flea markets or on social media sites. The "before" and "after" pictures bring a lot of satisfaction, she said.

Nagel-Wilson said what she enjoys most about MCC upholstery courses are the small class sizes (capped at eight per class), choosing her own pieces to work on and often seeing the same people attend courses offered each quarter. She mostly considers herself a hobbyist but has done one paid project so far.

"It's a wonderful program. You learn something new every time you attend class. I get to come and see my granddaughter and just have fun and camaraderie when I come to class," Nagel-Wilson said.

A single class launches a career

For Stephani Keene, the path from her first class to a career was comparable to a sewing machine with a rate of over 1,000 stitches per minute. "She was in my first class," Foust said of Stephani Keene. "I could tell right away she was gifted, and she started teaching the year after me."

Keene said she was enthralled.

"I loved the whole process of breaking a piece down, learning from what I've taken apart and putting it back together. There's creativity, craftsmanship and a skill to grow. Every piece is different," Keene said.

After sharing the experience in class with the people in her life, she quickly learned about the intense demand for her services.

"Everyone was like, 'Come get my furniture.'  I started doing things on the side on my living room floor," Keene said. Soon after, she opened her business with her daughter-in-law, and a position with the Glenwood Resource Center opened for an upholsterer. Keene said she got the job because of the classes she took with Foust.

"For the last five years I have worked on applying those skills on a lot of unique things for adults with disabilities," Keene said. "That one single class I took with Kathy launched my upholstery career and took over my life in a good way because I love what I do, and I love sharing that passion and energy with my students."

In addition to being a fulfilling way to earn a living, it's been financially rewarding, Keene said.

"It's more than doubled my income. It's a lucrative business to get into," Keene said. "They aren't low-paying jobs to start out, but it's very low initial financial investment to start your own upholstery business. The classes are inexpensive, the equipment isn't crazy high and you don't have to get a loan. It's a really great startup - business comes knocking almost immediately."

Foust also advocates for student hobbyists to take a hard look at becoming entrepreneurs. She said the key to success in any business is developing a good reputation.

"People are booked three to six months ahead all the time across the country," Foust said. "If you can make $50 an hour, then you can make $90 an hour once you're faster. If you sell fabric, you're earning extra there, too."

Humming along

The MCC upholstery program started with one instructor, a class of 10 students and two machines. It is now humming along with four instructors and eight machines that serve around 300 students throughout an academic year.

"I feel pretty humble that it has been such a success," Foust said. "It's not just me. It's all the instructors. And a huge part of it is MCC. [The College] gives me practically whatever I want. I'm up to eight machines now. It's a good cooperation between everyone involved."

Like demand for the work, MCC upholstery classes get booked up quickly. And there's a lot of fun to be had, something Foust stitches into the lessons.

"There's a lot of camaraderie and friendships that have developed. Everyone brings in their own piece, they redo it and are proud of it," Foust said. "And we also goof around, act silly sometimes and yell at each other."

Ziegenbein said the success of the New North Makerhood has been "gratifying and humbling." Gratifying because it pinpointed a need validated by the distances people travel to obtain the training and humbling "to see the kind of talent we have in our town."

Ziegenbein said having the strong educational partnership of MCC is an essential component.

"One of the things I have come to appreciate about the College is that it is strengthening the future of our community with the quality and diversity of its programs," Ziegenbein said. "When you look at what MCC has done in both North and South Omaha, they're revitalizing neighborhoods, which wasn't [the College's] first mission, but that's what they've done."

For more information on the upholstery program or to view course information, visit mccneb.edu/CE.