Mara Nelson’s Cover Girls: Upholstery made to last

David Briggs
Mara Nelson has worked with fabric for almost 50 years and has upholstered West Marin furniture through her shop in Point Reyes Station for over 30 years.
02/15/2018

An invitation to move to Inverness in 1971 opened an unexpected door for Mara Nelson, then a 23-year-old early childhood education graduate from Illinois. For nearly five decades now, Ms. Nelson has relied on her skill with fabric—which she first tested sewing doll clothes at the age of 9—to carve out a living in West Marin.

“Sewing was always my happy place, but I was not brought up to think of it as a career,” she said last week at Cover Girls Upholstery, her 30-plus-year-old business in Point Reyes Station. “I needed a way to make money and I wasn’t willing to commute. I had a lot of confidence in my ability to enjoy a project as a hobby, but it immediately became a full-time job.”

It surely helped that she was business savvy and, in her words, a “little judgmental and not very tolerant of mistakes.” Her first enterprise, a high-end stuffed animal line that employed 12, took off worldwide, generating demand from San Francisco to Paris for creatures like elephants and unicorns. 

The designs were her creations, and she and her staff worked out of the Creamery Building and later out of Olema. “We had a ball,” she said.

In a previous career, Ms. Nelson had worked with severely autistic, non-verbal children, and she described how the work had left her emotionally spent. “I put so much of my heart into the work, but I was not good at putting up emotional distance so that I could continually bring positive energy to their lives. I would come home and cry every night,” she said. In contrast, her first business brought levity and fun into her life.

After marrying Axel Nelson, a contractor, in 1979 (“He’s my guy,” she said with a grin), Ms. Nelson closed the stuffed animal line. In the years following, she had two children and turned her attention toward mothering.

But when her youngest child turned three, a new business opportunity presented itself. A studio space on C Street was up for rent and her friend, local artist Jayne Zimmerman, wanted to collaborate on a new project.

Ms. Nelson had inherited a house-full of aging furniture from her late grandmother and was inspired to salvage it, though she had no experience with upholstery. Ms. Zimmerman, who is now retired, brought her woodworking skills. The two set up at a studio space in 1987 where Cover Girls still operates, and hired a skilled upholsterer to come out and train them once a week for almost two years. Then they opened for business.

A story on the opening a 1992 edition of the Light quoted Ms. Nelson saying that she and Ms. Zimmerman were practicing a “hidden, not lost” art. “Quality details like hand-tied springs and jute cord…separate their work from the assembly-line quality of most modern furniture,” the article states. 

Ms. Nelson says 90 percent of her customers now hail from West Marin, but that in the early days she made weekly trips to the city to pick up and drop off furniture for clients referred to her by locals.

To this day, Cover Girls provides two main services: tailoring new slipcovers for furniture and reupholstering. Ms. Nelson says she aims to provide durability that’s twice the industry standard, because the standard is “not high enough, in my opinion.”

She sources fabric from a handful of companies with which she has longstanding relationships, and said the leaps and bounds made in fabric technology over the years astound her. Unlike in the “hippie, dyeing days,” outdoor materials no longer fade in the sun because “they make the color in a liquid pool, just like a pot of paint, and then extrude it into thread, into filaments,” she said. “This kind of innovation is really amazing.”

She also tests wear and tear on materials herself. Picking up a paperclip in her shop last week, she used one end to scratch vigorously at a square of sample fabric for a few minutes in what she calls a “scratch test.” Holding up the square to the light, she said, “That’s a year’s worth of rub, and it still looks pretty good!”

When selecting fabric for a client, she wants to know what type of use the piece of furniture gets, what room it sits in and the room’s characteristics—flooring, windows, light—and whether her client has kids or pets. And, of course, the customer’s color, texture and fiber preferences.

“It’s most important to me that my customers are happy, and that it lasts,” she said. “I’ve had people come to me and say everything else has fallen apart in their house, but a couch I worked on years ago still looks great.”

With such a reputation, Ms. Nelson is never short on business. Currently she works with two contractors, a seamstress and upholsterer, and is the business’s sole employee. In her stuffed animal line, she paid her employees $20 to $40 per hour for piecework, based on the rate each individual worked. But, she said, in today’s economy, “I would have a hard time recovering my costs if I paid anyone at the top of that scale.”

In fact, since she doesn’t need the income to “eat or sleep” now, Ms. Nelson has stopped paying herself in the last year, allowing her to keep her services more affordable.

She’s also begun the process of downsizing in order to make room for other endeavors. She said she plans to revive some old weaving and sewing projects—carpeted handbags, cowboy shirts and even the stuffed animals from the earliest years—but she plans to always keep the studio open.  

“That’s just my personality,” she said. “I need to have a studio to get up and go to and be busy at all day. I relish a day or two off at home, but I need to be surrounded by all the things that excite me.”

 

Cover Girls Upholstery services are available by appointment. Email  Mara Nelson at covergirlsupholstery@gmail.com. You can also give her a call at (415) 663.9363.