He’s Got It Covered
Why Thomas Seabolt is one of the most sought-after upholsterers in the Triad
By Robin Sutton Anders
Photographs by Amy Freeman
Thomas Seabolt isn’t one to turn up his nose at a discarded sofa — not at first, anyway. Regarded by many local designers as the Triad’s premier reupholsterer, Seabolt has developed his own tried-and-true sniff test. “If I’m driving down the road and I see a sofa or a chair I like, there are two things I look for,” he says.
First, are there coiled springs? Second, is the frame made of hardwood? “If you hit the underside of the chair or sofa with your hand, you can usually feel the springs and it sounds like a drum,” he says. “Those are coiled springs. And if a piece has a hand-tied spring system, it has to have a hardwood frame to support it.”
To fellow furniture-lovers lucky enough to happen upon a coiled-spring, hardwood piece, Seabolt offers an industry pro tip: “I always throw the cushions in my car until I can come back later with a truck to pick it up,” he reveals. “Then it’s yours. Nobody wants a sofa without the cushions!”
Antique or modern, plush or simple — regardless of its style, a well-constructed piece of furniture always merits new life, Seabolt believes. “Heirloom pieces are special because of the history behind them, the story of a sofa being in a beloved grandparent’s living room, or even the great grandfather having built the piece,” he says. “But honestly, I like it all. I just like furniture and fabric.”
From his Huffman Street headquarters in Greensboro, Seabolt employs six full-time skilled upholsterers and partners with anywhere from 12–15 designers at any given time. About 40 percent of his work is for designers, and the other 60 percent is for the general public.
Half science, half intuition, furniture reupholstery is a specialized skill that requires formal training and years of experience. “I am so fortunate to have a staff of craftsmen experienced in the trade,” he allows. Looking around his 4,000-square-foot workspace at the associates hard at work, Seabolt does some quick math. “There’s probably about 75 years’ worth of experience in this room,” he says. “We put a strong emphasis on teamwork. Without everyone here, this would be a much different story.”
Seabolt’s story began more than a decade ago. “I was working for a heating-and-air company and mowing yards,” he remembers. “I ended up mowing the lawn of Mike Walker, a gentleman who owned an upholstery shop.”
Walker saw promise in the young twentysomething and offered Seabolt a job in his shop. The lure of working in air conditioning, rather than installing it, was too strong to resist.
“I loved it from the very beginning,” says Seabolt, who was often reminded of his grandfather. “As a kid, I spent many afternoons watching my grandfather, who was a skilled woodworker despite having had polio in his left hand. I think that seeing him work with his hands — mixed in with my love for furniture — drew me to this type of work. I loved the transformation process. And I knew that I eventually wanted to have my own business.”
But first things first. Seabolt signed up for night classes at Guilford Tech Community College. He studied in the evenings and spent his days learning from Walker, honing his reupholstery skills and learning from his mistakes. He watched as Walker mentored his employees.
When Seabolt got married in 2008, he decided it was time to take the leap, and he started his own business the day after he and his new wife returned from their honeymoon. “My wife thought I was crazy,” he laughs. “But it’s the American dream to be able to have a vision and to take the chance of succeeding or falling on your face — and getting back up and dusting yourself off and just doing it.”
The newly wed Seabolt had zero clients waiting for him when he returned from his honeymoon, but he had one great asset: an empty 600-square-foot in-law suite in his backyard — the perfect launchpad for his new business. Seabolt set to work calling the Triad’s high-profile designers and visiting fabric stores.
Lindsay Henderson was one of the first designers Seabolt approached, and she’s still among his regular designer partners. “He does a beautiful job,” she says. “He has an eye for it, and he’s very skilled.”
Maybe more important, Henderson adds, Seabolt is an excellent communicator. “If he has a question, he’ll call you in a second as opposed to making his staff guess.”
Seabolt doesn’t disagree with Henderson’s assessment of the importance of client communication. “A client needs to feel confident in the product they’re getting, and that starts with communication on my end. I try to clearly express my understanding of their expectations — where the fabric needs to be applied, what the design goal is,” he says. “I like working with my hands, but my favorite part of the process is interacting with clients.”
As Seabolt’s projects from Henderson grew, so did the number of designers and fabric stores who filled his in-law suite with reams of fabric, sofas, chairs and headboards. “For every new project I accepted, I was doing the tear-down, the cutting, the sewing and the reupholstery. I plowed through it with long hours,” he says. Five years in, the birth of his first child nudged Seabolt into a new phase. “I knew I needed more space, and I needed employees.”
Once a forsaken piece of furniture is rescued from its fate in a landfill, an extensive restoration process begins. Seabolt and his team start by carefully removing all the old fabric. That fabric offers the first clue to the piece’s unique template. Sometimes it’s worn and isn’t much help, but most of the time the fabric that comes off of an old piece serves as the guide for the cutting the new fabric.
Next up, cutting — a task Seabolt performs for every project he accepts. “Cutting is a really important part of the process — and it’s hard to find people who do this craft,” he says. “If the fabric is not cut perfectly, the sewer is getting something that’s not right. And if the sewer sews it up and sends it over to the upholsterer, the new fabric doesn’t fit and you have to start the process over again. Not only have you wasted fabric, but you’ve wasted a lot of time.”
On the cutting table, Seabolt carefully examines a piece’s new fabric. He lines up stripes and makes sure floral patterns meet in just the right spot. Once the new fabric is cut, Seabolt passes it off to one of his sewers, who then passes the fabric onto an upholsterer.
Reupholstery comprises most of Seabolt’s business, but occasionally a client asks him to custom-design and manufacture a brand new piece of furniture. Seabolt welcomes the challenge. “I like the creating process and the clean aspect of starting a project with a blank canvas,” he says. Whether it’s a sofa, bed, headboard, ottoman, club chair or window treatment, Seabolt can make it happen with the help of his team.
“Each of us in this room have been given talents, and we all understand that. We work long hours to build good relationships and offer great customer service. But we can’t control when the phone rings,” he says. “We know we are blessed.”
Robin Sutton Anders is a Greensboro-based freelancer. She found her favorite living room chair on the side of the road.