Cam's Corner > Cam's Corner: The Upholstery Shop

Cam's Corner: The Upholstery Shop

As one might imagine, it doesn’t take long for furniture inside The Greenbrier to show a little wear and tear. With thousands of guests coming through America’s Resort on a weekly basis, and lobbies and corridors that remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the couches and chairs inside The Greenbrier see much more action than even your father’s favorite recliner in front of the HD television.
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So, what happens when the armrest of a chair in the Upper Lobby gets ripped? What if someone spills their hot chocolate on a couch outside of Colonial Hall? Does the housekeeping team simply order a new piece? Does it send the worn furniture off somewhere for an upgrade?

I recently set out to find the answer, and what I found was a warehouse filled with chairs, couches and ottomans, enough fabric to reupholster a city and a team of nine dedicated workers who keep The Greenbrier looking its best at all times.

I had heard about the upholstery shop at The Greenbrier through the grapevine before my visit, but what I had pictured in my mind – a small room with a couple of sewing machines and a few swatches of fabric – was far from what I found when I headed across the street to meet with James Holmes of the upholstery department.

I met Holmes inside a giant warehouse with walls filled with hundreds of different fabrics and three seamstresses working tirelessly on Singer sewing machines. I toured a back room filled almost from floor to ceiling with old chairs and coaches in need of repair, while others sat on the main floor of the warehouse in various stages of the refurbishing process.

In talking to Holmes, I quickly learned that there is no magic repair button that is pushed when a piece of furniture is in need of some assistance inside The Greenbrier. If it’s part of the framework that’s broken, the carpentry team at America’s Resort handles those repairs. But if it involves any type of fabric, it’s up to the five upholsterers and three seamstresses that work inside that warehouse to keep everything looking up to The Greenbrier standards.

“We tear it down and then build it back up to where it looks new,” said Holmes, a 31-year veteran of The Greenbrier, who worked in housekeeping before moving to upholstery 11 years ago. “We’ve got furniture in here that goes all the way back to World War II. It’s still going.”

It’s not just the furniture that falls under the watch of this eight-man team, either. All of the specially-designed carpets and curtains – and even some of the walls, like in Colonial Hall or the Wedding Showcase offices – are the responsibility of this group. Basically, if it’s covered in fabric, this team keeps it looking new.

The process starts with housekeeping. As soon as a team member finds a piece of fabric in need of repair, he or she immediately notifies the upholstery shop. From there, Carleton Varney and his team at Dorothy Draper & Company – the interior decorators, who have been decorating The Greenbrier for more than 70 years – pick out the new fabric that they want to replace the worn one. Sometimes is the same fabric, while other times it’s something entirely new and different. Holmes estimated there are “several hundred” different Dorothy Draper patterns of fabric inside the warehouse from which to choose.

Then it is up to the upholstery team to get the job done.

And these upholsters know their craft well. It takes four years of training to become a journeyman upholsterer, and Holmes said there is plenty to learn during that four-year period.

“It starts with tearing down a piece of furniture,” he explained. “We tell them to watch how they tear it down. It goes back together the opposite way. What you take off first is the bottom dust cover. When you put it back, that’s the last thing that goes back on.

“We help them with the cuts and everything. There are several different cuts you have to watch. There’s a technique to it.”

Putting the material on straight, matching up the patterns and learning to take the time to do it perfectly is the most difficult part of the process, according to Holmes, and it’s a job that is never truly mastered.

“If you don’t learn something on every piece of furniture, it’s a wasted day,” he explained. “Every piece of furniture is different.”

The experienced upholsterers at The Greenbrier can knock out three or four small chairs in a day – completing the process of taking off the old material and replacing it with new – while bigger projects can take weeks. They work fast with magnetic tacks quickly going from their mouths to the end of a hammer and then eventually into a piece of furniture – a process I quickly learned isn’t nearly as easy as it looks. Holmes estimated that each of the five upholsterers refurbishes 100 pieces of furniture per year, meaning 500 pieces come in and out of that warehouse every 12 months.

“We all give 100 percent, and that’s what we expect from each other,” said Holmes. “I like working with my hands. I like taking an old piece of furniture and making it look new again. The older the better."

And the reward is simply strolling through the halls of The Greenbrier and seeing their work.

“If it looks good, you know you did a good job,” said Holmes.