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Weekend edition February 25, 2022 | Kailyn Lamb

Crown Upholstery to open school, aims to bring more people to the industry

By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

After 23 years of working on furniture, Jesica and Wes Breitenbach are moving toward the next step at Crown Upholstery: opening a school.

There used to be several schools for upholstery in the area, the couple said. There was even a program for the trade at nearby Fulton High School. A lot has changed in upholstery over the years.

“For many years, this industry has been tight-lipped, secretive, hard to get into. That’s just kind of the old school way of what it was,” said Wes. “As the years and decades have gone by, schools have closed, suppliers have closed, shops are closing and no one is taking them over because of their closed style of working.”

The Breitenbachs want to change that, in part to help their own business, and because they want to see the art of upholstery continue. With nearly a year and a half worth of work in their shop, the couple said anybody who goes into upholstery has the potential to be as busy as they want to be. The demand for upholsterers has remained high despite closing shops. “Our industry is really suffering because of that lack of education,” Wes added.

Right now, Jesica and Wes have one full-time worker and a former apprentice who recently joined the business full-time. Wes said it took around two and a half years to train their apprentice, but it also took roughly the same amount of time to find a quality full-time worker.

“If I could hire two more full-time upholsterers, I absolutely would,” Jesica said. “But there’s nobody to hire.”

Wes and Jesica Breitenbach

This is where the school comes in. Jesica and Wes said they wanted the format to be more of an open workshop where people can come in with projects and learn what they need. Classes are one night a week for four weeks. People can sign up for multiple four-week sessions if they would like. Jesica added they will also start offering “weekend warrior” classes in the summer that cover more specific topics. The space will have tools available for people to use, as well as fabric and materials for sale. Jesica said they want the space to be full service. “Anything that needs to get done, you can get done over there,” she said. Classes start on March 22, but the Breitenbachs will have an open house in the space on March 5.

The school will be in a separate location from Crown Upholstery’s everyday workshop. Jesica added that when they are not hosting upholstery classes in the space, she wants to make it available for other artists to teach classes.

Over the years, Wes has said he’s had many goals and ideas of what success would mean to him. Every time he’d hit a goal, he’d make a new one. Now that the opening of the school is on the horizon, Wes said his new idea of success would be to have one of their students open their own upholstery business that’s better than Crown Upholstery.

Wes also said he hopes that the school will bring more attention to the upholstery industry. He added that when the Breitenbachs first moved to Knoxville 14 years ago, there were 10-15 upholstery shops or quality workers fixing furniture out of their homes. Since then, that number has dwindled to three shops and one person doing work out of their home.

The couple added that it’s not just the actual upholstery shops either. There is a group of ancillary businesses that have started to shut down as well. The Breitenbachs used to be able to buy their fabrics and materials locally from a supply shop. After that closed, they needed to start ordering materials to be shipped in, and oftentimes the fabric comes from one place and the foam materials come from another. The same can be said for mechanics that can work on industrial sewing machines. Wes said they have to travel to either the Middle Tennessee area or North Carolina to have their machines repaired. One local business Crown Upholstery can still rely on is woodworking shops. Crown Upholstery works with three woodworkers in the Knoxville area. But Jesica said that even those businesses are backed up with work.

“It’s a small industry, but it really supports a lot of other things,” Wes said.

With 40-60 email requests coming in a week, the Breitenbachs are busier than they’ve ever been at Crown Upholstery. In addition to working on people’s personal furniture, the business also works in some corporate spaces and with local businesses. Jesica said they see “the gamut of things,” with vintage pieces, family heirlooms, and more. This often means that no two pieces of furniture are the same to work on.

“It revolves a lot around problem-solving,” said Wes. “There are times where we’ll spend days trying to figure out how to get something done and then we’ll never see anything like it again.”

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