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From Gatwick to Glasgow and back to Glory – Part 2

Way back in 2014 I talked about how vintage furniture transcends not only the decades but also the country as I embarked on the restoration of my Gatwick chairs that had travelled from Gatwick to Glasgow. Some time has passed by since I started my night school in furniture restoration but at last Phase 2 of the restoration has commenced.

As I mentioned 2 years ago the Gatwick chair was designed in 1958 by the legendary post-war designer Robin Day. The architects of Gatwick Airport, Yorke, Rosenburg and Mardall, commissioned Robin to design a series of furniture for the new luxurious concourse and lounges and the chairs were so successful that they later went into production.  [You can read more about Day and the Gatwick chair in the earlier ‘From Gatwick to Glasgow and back to Glory’ blog further down the menu panel.]

On a wet day in January 2014 I set out from Harrogate to make the 408 mile round trip to Glasgow to pick up the chairs with the aim of restoring them to their former glory. The original webbing had broken and the leather on the cushion was torn and decayed.

Since the original blog I have made a prototype replacement cushion out of black vinyl at my night class. This was on the advice of an upholstery supplier who categorically stated that “you needed a 5 year apprenticeship prior to working on such historically important pieces of furniture”. He talked me into doing a test cushion using cheap leather look vinyl so I could see if I could do it and make any mistakes along the way without wasting expensive leather. What I soon discovered when I started the prototype was that a standard sewing machine was not capable of stitching through multiple layers of leather, or vinyl, and as soon as you add in a layer of foam the machines is unable to stitch correctly reducing the quality of the end product to a standard that is simply not good enough. Due to the lack of a suitable sewing machine and the constraints of time my chairs remained untouched and collecting dust for most of 2015.

However, last year I was given an ultimatum as these beautiful chairs lay dormant in our porch, still in need of completion. Rather than give up on the chairs I decided to return to night class and to invest in a second hand industrial walking foot sewing machine so I could complete the job. On these machines the two portions of the foot “walk” by taking steps to help feed the material through the machines. They are powered by large industrial motors and are integrated into sturdy work tables. The only problem with them is that the motors are foot operated. I was really lucky to find a lovely Juki machine for sale near to work in Leeds and with the help of the seller and her partner we were able to load this giant of a sewing machine into the back of the Grand Tourneo Connect. This is probably one of the only Motability vehicles tall enough to take the stand and the machine. It took two friends to lift it out and into the garage, come workshop, when I got it home. So then I had to find a way to operate it with my elbow as using my feet was obviously out of the question.

This is where the help of Remap came in. I came across them many years ago when we were trying to come up with an innovative engineering solution for some athletics equipment. Remap is a national charity working through local groups of skilled volunteers to help disabled people achieve independence and a better quality of life. They do this by designing and tailor making equipment for their individual needs. This helps people carry out essential daily tasks without having to ask for assistance, or take part in leisure occupations or sports that would otherwise be impossible for them. It is a free service and what we managed to engineer was a truly exceptional elbow operated device, connected to the motor via a bike brake cable and this one change has allowed me to go on and make a really professional job of the leather stitching as part of the restoration. We were helped by Mark Rowlson of Rowlson Industrial Sewing Engineers Ltd. who had done a similar adaptation and was kind enough to share photos of the conversion along with provided some of the parts we needed.

Whilst we were adapting the machine I took a trip to Yarwood leather in Morley to select a hide to remake the original cushions. The pull up leather I selected is a beautiful supple hide and matches the original leather exceptionally well. It is really important to me to be true to the original design and manufacturing process so every detail has been carefully considered and executed. The hide itself was huge, totaling over 5.5m2 in area. The first task was to make templates for all the leather panels and to mark them onto the hide for cutting. The only place I could lay out the leather to do this was on the lounge floor and it took up over half of our sitting room. It was quite a process deciding which bits of the hide to use for the various panels and piping, especially as this was a real first for me. You can see the hide marked up ready to cut in one of the images.

After a great deal of head scratching and a very nervous morning with a pair of shears I now have all of the leather cut out and have almost completed the first cushion. Over the next few months I should be able to complete the two chairs, bringing them back to life from Gatwick to Glasgow and back to glory. It has been a true labor of love and I have learnt so much along the way. The process has not been without errors but it will be an exciting day when these two iconic chairs have been cleaned, polished, re-webbed and finished with new leather cushions to the original design. I just hope they are as comfy as the seats in my Grand Tourneo Connect!