Nellie K - Manchester based upholsterer

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 July 2019

Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly


A downshift from high pressure career to a more balanced working life is Sarah Kelly’s dream come true.

Parker Knoll Froxfield chair using Kim Porter fabricParker Knoll Froxfield chair using Kim Porter fabric

Sarah Kelly's last employed role was as Director of Communications for a Government agency. High powered, highly regarded and highly stressful, there came a point when she realised that this wasn't the way she wanted to live her life, so she decided to make some dramatic changes.

'I was working three days a week in Liverpool and then two in Whitehall. If I wasn't at my desk I was on a train or on a motorway and I was feeling stressed to the max. My home life was suffering, my youngest child was just four years old; I just thought this is ridiculous, everybody is getting the worst part of me.

'I had started doing small upholstery projects as a form of therapy, really; a way of doing something that didn't allow me to think about work and stress about what was going on. I decided to go freelance with the communication side of things and then balance that off with doing some upholstery, which is what I have done ever since.

'I started Nellie K in 2015. Nellie was my great-grandmother, a formidable tour-de-force in a time when it was absolutely a man's world. The K is of course from my last name.'

Sarah's Manchester-inspired fabricSarah's Manchester-inspired fabric

At Nellie K, Sarah undertakes a wide range of projects, but doesn't wait for work to come to her. Instead, she works on many and varied pieces of her own choosing, building a collection of furniture - pieces large and small - to sell at one of her regular pop-up shops.

'I started with a stall in Altrincham Market,' she says. 'I sold a mix of upcycled pieces and some bits made from scratch - stools and benches that I construct myself. I stopped doing this because I wanted to expand into bigger pieces, sofas and chairs, and people don't visit Altrincham Market to spend £200 on something. Now I build collections and do pop-ups throughout the year. My next one will be 8-9 December, at Air Gallery in Altrincham.'

Sarah hasn't walked away from the market entirely. You will still find her at the Christmas Market, where her collection of Manchester fabric bags, cushions and covered stools goes down a treat.

'In 2017 a friend and I designed a fabric with a very Manchester motif, using iconic images and sayings, from Votes for Women to 51HAC to the Manchester bee. It's been really well received, I do bags and cushions and have been asked to re-cover vintage pieces with it too. One lady brought me her husband's very old rocking chair that he recalled being rocked in by his mother, which needed a lot of TLC and re-upholstering. They were thrilled with the end result.'

This is where Sarah gets her greatest pleasure, a full do-over on an old, worn, much-loved piece, which can (after her own tender ministrations) step back into the home for another century of use and memories. She is absolutely frustrated by the throwaway culture of today, which includes furniture such as chairs and sofas, no longer built to last as they once were.

'If you use really good quality furniture that's not going to fall apart, you can keep it forever, just change the fabric to suit your interior design. By using antique and vintage pieces, you can have exactly what you want in your home and it will be unique - you can be sure that nobody else will have the same thing, unlike anything bought on the high street.

'I love to hear the stories behind a lot of the pieces brought to me: memories of grandparents or family homes. People just love being able to take something that's really old and really loved and giving it back a proper working life.

'There's no automation about what I do, it's all done the way it's been done for centuries. I strip the piece right back to the frame, and then start by replenishing the wood, which is often quite dried out by its time in modern homes. Giving it a wax treatment is like giving it a drink.'

Sarah, when not working on commissioned pieces, sources and upcycles furniture she finds herself, loving the opportunity to choose her own fabrics and let her creative side out.

'My approach is very much "Let's not be coy; let's make a statement!" I recently completed a Parker Knoll Froxfield chair using fabulous Kim Porter fabric. It's a heavy old thing, a real statement chair, you can't hide it in a corner, so this fabric reflects that standout style. I also found some beautiful Christian Lacroix velvet, which I have used to create room dividers. I really love being able to take something and not doing just a straight upcycle, but creating something really unusual. When it's all finished I will step back and feel an almost ridiculous sense of satisfaction.

'I wouldn't swap this for my civil service desk, not ever.'

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