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A Fiend for Furniture – with Cristen Sousa of Swede’s Den Upholstery & Fine Furnishings

Swede's Den 1

Cristen Sousa’s grandmother bought Cristen her first sewing machine when she was in high school. Cristen, the owner and upholsterer-in-chief of Swede’s Den, has always been drawn to creating products with a machine, finding it “super empowering.” A graphic designer by day, Cristen says “I’ve had years of being immersed in antiques and vintage. My mom used to go antiquing and grab items from garage sales or antique shops that may or may not work and fix them. So, I was always around furniture. And I always had this inquisitiveness towards how they were constructed…. but it always seemed so intimidating.” 

In 2014, Cristen dove headlong into upholstery through an unexpected apprenticeship with Master Upholsterer, Eliud Grijalva, owner of Divine Consign in Vancouver. Originally from the Bay Area, Cristen had recently moved to Vancouver with her fiancée and had fallen in love with the place. “I was kind of bouncing around downtown, looking for work….I happened to come across Divine Consign and [saw] a big antique sign pointing downstairs. They had so many antiques, so much vintage!” 

Poking around behind the big “employee’s only” curtain, she found a landscape of frames, fabric, cotton, and sewing machines as far as the eye could see. “And I had this like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m meant to be here,’ kind of moment and ended up chatting with Eliud for an hour or two that day.” Cristen’s apprenticeship began shortly thereafter. “[Eliud] taught me dang near everything that I know.” However, she notes that upholstery is an ever-evolving craft in which every piece presents a new puzzle, requiring her to constantly think of different techniques.

Cristen and Eliud

Custom clothes, for your furniture!

Cristen does simple repairs, like tightening loose screws, all the way through complete reupholstery. She primarily works on antique and vintage heirloom pieces. She gets requests for work on more contemporary furniture but usually has to decline. “People ask me if I can upholster their IKEA sofa but most of the time, unfortunately, those frames aren’t built very well. It’s kind of a bummer, because I would do it, but a lot of folks don’t want to invest in a piece that they might have spent $300 on that could be three times that to reupholster.” 

Cristen finds that it’s important to educate potential clients about the process. “I think there’s a misconception that upholstery is like DIY but there is so much labor involved and there’s so much training and hours of working on these pieces to know exactly how to cut, where to cut…. Ethan Allen, Ashley Furniture, even IKEA, those pieces are all created on an assembly line. So, they have their patterns already pre-cut in the hundreds, the thousands, whereas I’m taking in a piece that I’ve never seen before, and I’m having to make custom clothes for it. I’m tailoring their new outfits.” Cristen makes her own patterns based on the shapes of the furniture. Then comes numerous hours of precise measuring and precise cutting. “They say ‘measure twice, cut once,’ but sometimes I measure three times because I don’t want to mess up – because of material costs.” 

Favorite Things + Challenges:

“What I enjoy most [is] mid-century and antique furniture. With antiques, there’s so many Victorian and Edwardian styles and some of them can have really beautiful curvatures. I get into this rhythm where my hands just know where to maneuver the fabric. Mid-century furniture, on the other hand, is very linear, with crisp forms. “If I move the needle, or if I’m kind of off a little bit, you can see that because the straight lines and the beautiful design of the furniture will call out those flaws very easily. So it’s super challenging. But that’s what I love the most about it….” Leather is particularly challenging. Unlike fabric which can be untacked, moved, and retacked, Cristen notes, leather is “not forgiving at all…. there’s no hiding anything in leather. But I still enjoy it just as much because it forces me to really slow down, really be in the process and use my brain at max capacity.” 

Inspiration for repair: hot rods and waste

Besides the sewing machine and antiquing with her mother, there’s the fiancée-factor. Cristen’s fiancée, Sean, builds custom cars. Several years ago, when a friend mentioned wanting to replace his car’s interior, Sean offered Cristen’s support. “I remember looking back at him, like ‘what did you volunteer me for? I can sew a dress, kinda, and I can hem some pants and curtains but this is somebody’s car seat! I don’t know how to do that!’ But then I got to thinking about it, how it’s constructed and it’s just kind of a different way to construct a cushion and thought, maybe I could do that!”

Swede Auto

So Sean has his classic cars parked all over the house and Cristen has her furniture. Between the two of them, Cristen laughs “could we not pick the large[est], heaviest of hobbies and trades to get into? Between the cars and the chairs, our house is pretty full….”

San Francisco’s wonderland of cast off furniture was another inspiration for Cristen. She follows an Instagram account based in Oakland that documents all of the discarded furniture lying in the street. “There are so many apartments and people would just put out stuff if they were moving or they didn’t have a car to take something to donate or to the dump. So, there was just furniture everywhere through the city!” She herself had a small apartment and didn’t have the means to “adopt” and fix items though she always dreamt of doing it. “I would pass up so many beautiful pieces, just because I didn’t have the know-how or skill to do it.” That, along with the glut of used but often high quality furniture at thrift stores, led to Cristen’s motivation to give new life to pieces that would either be completely discarded or simply forgotten about. 

“We have a very bad waste problem here, I mean, throughout the entire world! We’re an incredibly wasteful society.” She’s frustrated by the trend toward immediate gratification. “Amazon is a perfect example; you can order a couch on Amazon [and] you could probably get it tomorrow. But there’s this thought that between fast fashion, fast furniture is also kind of its sibling. It’s ‘in one season, out the next.’ I do this to – and I’m only one person – but to try and help minimize that waste and find something, breathe new life into it while also restoring and keeping those past generations going. You know, there’s beautiful craftsmanship in not just the upholstered part of the furniture, but the woodworking is gorgeous. And that’s what crushes me, seeing them actually in dumpsters.” She sighs, “I could furnish my whole apartment from just used furniture.”

Half n Half Chairs

Finding solace in her work

Cristen’s father fell ill in 2017 which led to the difficult decision to close her Main Street shop. Sadly, her father passed away in December 2020, but Cristen found that, thanks to a complex project she had the opportunity to work on, she was able to channel her grief and find some healing through the upholstering process, noting that it provided “a constant” for her. She was concerned she was out of practice and had forgotten techniques but “it all came back super naturally – once I got into it. It was not only reaffirming that this is what I need to be doing, this is what I love doing!.” 

Sharing her skills

Cristen hopes to teach others the joy and art of upholstery. She’s planning to host some beginner courses in the late fall, providing pointers and professional upholstery tips while giving participants the opportunity to learn how to do things like reupholster their dining room sets, chairs, or ottomans. “Simple things that folks can do with feasible tools. Not everybody can afford or wants to invest in re-upholstery, which is completely understandable. But I also get so many people wanting to pick up chairs off the side of the road and fix them, just like I did. So, I want to try and pass along the knowledge….” Beyond the classes, she’s also considering options for more robust training like one-on-one apprenticeships and partnering with a local art school to provide more extensive courses. Cristen’s eager to find those people who have the passion AND the patience required to do this work.

On some fundamental level, Cristen feels that the craft allows her to honor past generations. More personally, the work is deeply satisfying. “Upholstery is truly the most fulfilling work I have yet to do. To add to the problem solving, it tests my resourcefulness constantly.” She says would do this all day if she could – she just needs a little courage to take that leap – courage and an affordable space to work in. “Unfortunately it has become so expensive for makers and crafts people in our community to work out of a commercial space where more folks can find us. Trades/craftsmen and women are such a fundamental part of any community, it would be great to see more shared spaces come available.” Cristen presently works out of her home studio. “I do all of my sewing up in our attic and I have my machines upstairs. Then the basement is where I’ll do all the major tear downs…,” she laughs, “so I don’t get tacks in our carpet.” 

Cristen partners with Vancouver’s Kindred Homestead Supply for their Downtown Alley Flea Markets which are held throughout the summer on the first Saturday of the month. You can find some of her work on display and check out a variety of other local businesses while enjoying live music.

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