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Relic Keeps on Picking

Unique Machine Is Essential Part of House Upholstery Shop

On a recent Thursday afternoon, House upholsterer Kenton Armas stood in front of an antique steel-and-oak machine, gingerly feeding 50-year-old horsehair onto the conveyer belt.

That’s right, horsehair.

The machine, known as the horsehair picker, is simultaneously both the quirkiest item — a jokester has penned the words “John Deere” across it in green marker — and one of the most necessary features in the House furnishing division’s upholstery shop.

“Ninety-five percent of our furniture has horsehair in it,” said Frank Jones, the shop’s longtime foreman. And like all hair, it’s in need of a little attention from time to time.

Jones, 63, believes the machine, called “The Champion,” was made in the early 1930s about the same time the upholstery shop came into existence. The way it works is simple. The hair enters the machine via a conveyer belt, then a roller adorned with pins separates the hair, fluffs it and spits it out into a steel box. [IMGCAP(1)]

Once the hair is sufficiently fluffed — each batch is fed through the machine two to three times — it’s taken across the hall to the upholstery shop. There the hair is restuffed into pieces such as the 1930s-era tufted Turkish chairs that are used by Members in their personal offices. It’s a time-consuming process — redoing one Turkish chair, which contains about 40 pounds of horsehair, takes 80 man-hours to complete — but one that has long-term benefits when it comes to sustainability, according to House officials.

The Turkish chair “is something that you are continually able to refurbish as long as the frame is there,” said House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, whose office oversees the shop. “It’s a recycling process.”

“Horsehair will last forever,” Jones added, while foam rubber, which most furniture nowadays is made with, has a shelf life of “four to five years.”

Still, despite the benefits, Jones, who has been with the shop nearly 31 years, said he’s had to fight to keep the machine.

“They were ready to get rid of that picker in 1995 when the Republicans first took over the Hill,” he said. “Everything was to be contracted out. Everything was to be done as cheaply as possible. They would buy and throw away before they would refurbish a chair.”

Beard said that won’t happen as long as he’s CAO. “Nobody is getting rid of that picker,” he asserted.

In this respect, the House is in a class of its own.

The Senate, which also had a horsehair picker until about a year ago when the machine was condemned for safety reasons, now buys new horsehair rather than fluffing the old, said Senate upholstery leader Larry Scearce.

Don Williams, senior furniture conservator at the Smithsonian Institution, said that while there are likely a few other horsehair pickers in existence, the House’s machine is “the only one to my knowledge … in production use.” (To meet safety and environmental regulations, the House has made some adjustments to its machine. In the early 1990s, on the advice of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the upholstery shop voluntarily added a suction system to the end of the picker that collects the dust it emits, Jones said.)

With the advent of “synthetic chemistry technology,” horsehair went out of fashion as a filler for most furniture, Williams noted, and by the mid-1940s it was rarely used except in custom upholstery shops. Today, new horsehair — which is harvested from small horses or ponies “that have extremely long manes” with no pain to the animal, according to Williams — is very expensive. “Depending on the quality” it can cost from $75 to $300 a pound, he said.

Aside from working on the ornate Turkish chairs, the upholstery shop — which is responsible for rehabilitating the furniture on the House side of the Capitol as well as in the Cannon, Longworth, Rayburn and Ford buildings — also services “thousands” of sofas and chairs each year, Jones said. (Work on some of the smaller office chairs has been contracted out, however.) Workers there also build some furniture from the frame up and make repairs on the House chamber benches during the Congressional recesses. (A refurbishing of the House gallery seating is in the works, Jones said.)

Jones, who started as an apprentice at a private upholstery shop in 1969 before moving to the House in 1977, oversees a staff of eight highly skilled upholsterers — adept in techniques such as the “eight-way tie” and stitching “fox edge,” the term for the supportive edging placed around the furniture before the cover is put on.

A quick tour of the upholstery shop, located in the Rayburn Building’s out-of-the-way “WA” level, is a furniture lover’s delight. Rolls of fabric and tools adorn the walls, staplers suspend from the ceiling, and chairs and sofas sit on raised workbenches in various states of dishabille. It is here that Armas, who has worked as an upholsterer for nearly 50 years, pokes the curly, bleached horsehair — yes, it’s been permed — into a stripped-down Turkish chair, and where Vincent Marcum, who has been with the shop for 30 years, meticulously binds a sofa’s springs with twine.

Jones worries about the future of the craft and sees the House upholstery shop — where turnover is low and years of experience high — as the last holdout against an industry trend toward the swift and the disposable.

Not even the highest echelons of power are immune to this trend, he lamented.

Last Christmas, while touring the White House, Jones noticed that the “fox edge” had been removed from some of the furniture and replaced with rubber. “I looked at it and said, ‘Oh, God, I don’t believe it,’” he recalled. “It’s quicker and it’s easier and it takes less experience to do it that way. It’s sad. The American way is quick, fast. Throw it away. Buy more.”

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