Wednesday, 27 November 2013

(C) C*A*L*I*C*O

(Concerned About Living in Consumer Overdrive)

My Father was an upholsterer – a species of tradesman that has almost disappeared. It’s tempting to say that they have become nearly extinct due to consumer over-indulgence in cheap mass-produced furniture. That of course is a gross exaggeration; but…this is my essay. And as the lawyer said to another in a Japanese restaurant – sosumi! Indeed, in these litigation frenzied times, that is precisely what might happen; but I digress...

Back in the days when most middle-to-upper-class families owned a ‘three piece suite’, it was a major and treasured part of a family’s possessions; right up there with the Holden and the Kelvinator ‘fridge’. It was customary that families would elect to have their three piece suites re-upholstered once the fabric had become worn and faded and/or the springs had given way. Calico was often used as lining cloth and as the material for covering the bottoms of chairs. Better quality calico (with printed designs) was used also as the main covering on chairs where a less luxurious fabric was required; more of a ‘budget’ fabric. Calico, of course, is also used to produce clothing such as shirts, trousers, skirts, curtains and tents; (actually tents nowadays are made more from plastics) and much more.

Actually, it’s irrelevant whether calico, chaff bag or cheesecloth was used to cover chair bottoms. The interesting thing is that these days, people are more likely to abandon the furniture rather than have it repaired. Opp-shops are full of shoddily made furniture – usually compressed pine board filled with cheap foam and stapled together and covered with plasticised artificial fabric. The rationale would appear to be: why have a lounge suite repaired when brand new flat-packs are readily obtainable from Ikea? This mass-produced cheaply made furniture is also to be found at places like Freedom and Fantastic. But they are hardly free and far from fantastic. I think Dad realised that his days were numbered. Foam rubber replaced flock and springs and hessian straps were replaced by a plasticised substitute.   

I can still see my father patiently taking an old worn-out chair apart in his ramshackle old workshop and producing something beautiful and functional in its place. After the repair work was completed and it was time to reattach the new fabric to the frame, he would empty about a handful of small upholstery blue-metal tacks into his mouth. Then taking a small hammer with a magnetic head, he would insert the end into his mouth and bring it out again with a tack on the end with the spike pointed outwards. He would immediately drive this tack through the fabric and into the wooden frame. He would simultaneously position the next tack in his mouth, using tongue and lips, so as to keep up a constant momentum. Bang...went the hammer against the frame; barely a second would elapse from one single hammer blow to the next. The sheet of calico was attached to the bottom of the chair in similar fashion.

I never saw him swallow a tack or have one stick into his mouth. He did say, however, that it took quite a lot of practise to be able to do this at speed. It is probably another of the myriad techniques (some obviously eccentric) that have disappeared over the past half century that tradesmen utilised to carry out their particular skill. I did attempt to do this several times myself but I found the ‘Houdini’ like skill of manipulating tacks in my mouth to be almost impossible. Dad discouraged me from following in his footsteps. He wisely foresaw that I lacked the physical strength that was required at various times for moving furniture. And of course, like all fathers, he wanted a better standard of living for his son. Hence better education equated to less physical labour. Little did he know that I too would bang things for a living. He banged nails into furniture and carpets to floors and I bang drums and other percussion. Incidentally, music is one of the most labour intensive occupations; ironic wouldn’t you say?

Interestingly, some of my drum gear used to be wrapped in calico when transporting from one place to another and I’ve still got his little magnetic hammer stored in the garage somewhere...  

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