I recently embarked on a project to reupholster the seats to a couple of my teaching chairs.
What I learned in the process got me thinking about habits, how deeply they sit in our selves, how unnoticed they might be, and how difficult they can be to “get rid” of. I started to look at words like “refinish” (as in wood refinishing) and “reupholster” as they connect to the work of the Alexander Technique: re-education.
You have a few options when deciding how to treat a piece of furniture that you’d like to update. Sometimes you can easily add a layer on top (paint, fabric, etc.); other times, the choice is fairly clear that you’ll have to strip it down to the wood.
This chest was covered in an uneven coating of white paint, and some pink fabric and batting that had seen better days quite a while ago. I saw details – dovetail joints, solid hardwood construction – that told me this piece had potential, down under all the layers. So I took it home, un-stapled the fabric, and got to work with some eco-stripper and a scraper. Then sand paper, then paint thinner, and I was finally ready to apply the finish.
This picture doesn’t do justice to the deep red-brown finish or the wood-working details of its original craft. I enjoy the results and learned a lot in the process.
Sometimes the choice is less obvious.
I knew that the chair seats had at least two layers of fabric and a thin layer of foam. I could have taken a staple gun and simply added another layer of fabric over the top. Easy, right?
But judging that the lower layer dated from a period when loud velour in black, white, and yellow was fashionable, I thought I’d take the fabric off to see what lay beneath.
What I found surprised me: not two, but three layers of fabric, each stapled on top of the other in a tight mess, with some foam degrading underneath.
After removing the top two rounds of staples, I saw that the lowest layer of fabric had lost its structural integrity long before it had been covered. It had been stapled over, and stapled over again. Covering over the fabric was easier than removing all the staples, but that didn’t change the fact that the fabric and foam were falling apart beneath.
Finally, I found good, solid wood at the base, a sturdy seat. Look at all those staples still left.
Here’s that single chair seat, layer by layer.
To do a thorough job, Refinishing and Reupholstering often begin with Removing, so that you can work from the base up.
So how do you change a habit?
Do you try to cover it over with something new and more desirable?
Or do you take the time to re-finish what you’re doing?
In Alexander Technique lessons, we first identify patterns of tension (habits) that are causing difficulty. Then come two very important steps: we STOP. Then we practice what AT teachers call inhibition, and what other disciplines might call non-doing. We don’t add something over the top of it, we just stop doing the thing that’s in our way. We un-learn (un-staple?) the harmful habit and follow it up with some direction of what we DO want to see happening in ourselves.
Amazingly, time after time, I see this process result in free and effortless movement.
The example of the chair seat also reminds me why it can be so hard to unlearn a habit. I didn’t count the number of staples in the fabric, but there were likely hundreds. The more we stack habit on top of habit, the deeper and more ingrained they can become. That’s why learning new coordination takes both time and discipline.
You are re-educating your whole self, but I promise you, both the process and the results will be worth it.