Beneath the carefully tended hanging flower baskets at Long Eaton railway station in Derbyshire, the words ‘Welcome to Long Eaton’ are written on an image of a sofa in the colours of the Union Jack.
Since the 1940s, Long Eaton has been a town known worldwide for furniture upholstery and in 2015, it was named as a centre of excellence for quality upholstery manufacturing.
Long Eaton was originally the heart of the lace making industry in Britain, but as the demand for lace declined, the Victorian red brick mills once used to produce lace were adapted to produce upholstered furniture. As Britain’s railways expanded, and travel became more popular, the town’s former lace makers turned their hand to producing railway carriage seats and furniture for ocean liners.
Nicola Harding’s NiX range of upholstered furniture is made at a family-run firm in Long Eaton that has its roots in the town. The directors are locals, one originally trained as a frame maker and the other as an upholsterer and both have over 60 years of experience designing and manufacturing fine furniture.
The process of making a NiX upholstered armchair or sofa begins with the timber frame. Planks of air-dried or kiln-dried seasoned timber are shaped with a bandsaw before the holes are drilled for the fixings. A frame maker then assembles the frame before the whole structure is sanded and made ready for upholstering.
In general, European birch is used to make the frames as the hardwood is strong yet malleable. It is an intricate process, with the frame components passing through around 15 different machining processes before being finished. The oak legs in the NiX range are turned, polished, and sent to the upholstery factory along with the frame.
Once it is time to cut the fabric, it’s down to the skill of craftsmen like Roy, who at 85 still enjoys his job so much he has no intention of retiring yet. The fabric is then passed to the sewing machinists who sew all the separate pieces, the trickier elements being piping and ruched trims.
The founders say there are around 3000 rolls of fabric in the factory, all of which can be located by memory by Darren, the fabric store manager and a former postman who trained as an upholsterer with the company years ago.
Finally, a trained upholsterer – such as Mark, who has been with the company since he left school - will assemble all the elements from the springs and foam to the fabric and finish the sofa or armchair in a process that the company founders call “one man one job.”
The Idler collection of sofas, loveseats, armchairs and ottomans for NiX and the More the Merrier range feature a metal coil spring seat unit which is seen in more traditional upholstered designs and gives a greater level of comfort. For luxuriously plump cushions that keep their shape, a 50:50 mix of feather and Quallofil Blue, a recycled fibre, are used for the filling. The feathers are from Spanish Barbary ducks and are a by-product of the meat industry rather than from birds that are bred for their feathers.
As well as taking immense pride in their products, the founders say making the process as sustainable as possible is important. One of their sites is heated entirely by a biomass boiler, which runs on the wood by-products and produces enough heat for the hot water, central heating and hot air fans for the whole factory. All their wood is naturally FSC-certified and the cardboard for packaging is regularly recycled.
Despite the long tradition of making furniture in Long Eaton, the founders say it is a process that is constantly evolving, with new fabrics and furniture styles demanding new skills. “We have a saying,” says one of the founders. “Every day is a school day. You never know everything and we’re always learning something new.”