Remaking a Chair, Renewing Yourself

ON Monday evenings during the school year, the woodworking shop at our local middle school undergoes a transformation. Instead of its usual daytime occupants - teenage students carving plaques and making tables - the room fills with adults learning another hands-on skill: upholstery. The course description in the adult-education catalog is brief. But it is enough to attract 14 of us for the fall semester. As we gather on a late-September evening for the first class, it becomes obvious that our chosen projects - faded chairs that have been rescued from attics or purchased at yard sales - are desperately in need of a make-over.

Beyond the lure of creativity, perhaps the strongest magnet drawing us here is economic - the prospect of a ``new'' chair for only the cost of materials and the $40 instruction fee. But each of us has come for other reasons as well.

Five young mothers are eagerly anticipating a ``Mom's Night Out'' each week. An energetic foreign language teacher who has just retired after a 39-year career is ``going berserk'' trying to fill once-busy days. A professional woman is seeking a leisure-time antidote to a demanding career. And a divorced mother with three sons, two jobs, and two college tuition bills is stretching a tight budget with do-it-yourself decorating. ``We bought a `handyman's dream' house,'' she explains with a brave smile, ``but the handyman left.''

Here in this high-ceilinged workshop, learning takes practical rather than intellectual forms. We start by pulling out tacks and removing old fabric. Then, under the patient eye of our instructor, Mike, a professional upholsterer, we begin the nine-week process of creating something new. We replace webbing and burlap. We measure and cut fabric, stretching it over chair frames padded with cotton batting. The room echoes with the rhythmic pounding of 14 upholstery hammers.

As we work, we also talk. In the beginning it is the tentative, getting-to-know-you conversation of strangers seeking common points of reference. Gradually, formality fades and we branch out into other subjects. Some are political, pegged to the news of the week: the Senate's confirmation of David Souter to the Supreme Court; President Bush's deployment of troops to the Persian Gulf; Prime Minister Thatcher's departure from No. 10 Downing Street.

But most topics are more personal. Two new mothers taking parental leave debate the pros and cons of returning to work. Other classmates with young children exchange names of day-care centers and baby sitters. We trade recommendations of area restaurants and discuss favorite new books and movies. And we laugh when, in a moment of frustration, the newly retired German teacher threatens to donate her half-finished chair to a charity and join the Peace Corps.

As the calendar flips from October to November, leaves fall and the suburban landscape turns barren. But inside the woodworking shop, a reverse transformation is underway. under way. Once-bare wood chair frames are budding and coming into full bloom, as if from winter to summer.

Early in December, our ugly-duckling-to-swan transformations are complete. A platform rocker, originally covered in tattered gold fabric, is now fitted out in a rich blue tapestry. A well-worn wing chair has become a showpiece in elegant cream-colored damask. My own project - a small bedroom chair that languished in our attic for 15 years - has exchanged a 1930s beige covering for a crisp floral chintz.

At the end of the last class, as we load our upholstered treasures into our cars in the moonlit parking lot, we realize that we have acquired more than just a ``new'' piece of furniture. In exchange for a modest investment of time and money, we have learned new skills, made new acquaintances, and produced a holiday present of sorts for the home - just in time.

But our recycled Christmas gifts are more than the sum of five yards of fabric, boxes of No. 3 upholstery tacks, and hours of tentative hammering and snipping. You cannot remake a chair without remaking yourself - quickening the mind and heart as well as the hands. And so we carefully cradle our projects home, like proud kindergartners with their first modeled-clay figures - full of a new sense of life's possibilities.

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