How an upholsterer in Labrador is putting the 'fur' in furniture with sealskin

Danny Swearinger's been upholstering and repairing furniture for nearly 40 years, but he had never worked with sealskin — until he moved to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Demand is growing for Danny Swearinger's sealskin upholstery

Sealskin is a more difficult material to work with compared to leathers and synthetic coverings, according to Danny Swearinger, but he believes the look of the finished pieces are worth the extra effort. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

Danny Swearinger has been upholstering and repairing furniture for nearly 40 years, but he had never worked with sealskin — until he moved to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Swearinger says it was his wife, a Labradorian, who suggested using the skin, a material he was unfamiliar with because of an ban on imported seal products in the U.S.

"Sealskin — well, it's illegal in the States, so I never heard nothing about that. Then, the next thing I know, my wife's got me making sealskin furniture," he said.

"My wife, Michelle Parsons, she comes up with a lot of the ideas and then we kind of tweak them together, and it works out pretty good."

Swearinger orders the metre-long sealskins from a distributor on the island. They come in their natural colours, or can be treated with a variety of dyes. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

From Georgia to Goose Bay

Swearinger spent most of his life in Georgia, in the southern United States, where he began doing upholstery work by asking the owner of a shop nearby where he grew up to help out to earn some extra cash.

"I stuck my head in the door and asked him did he need any help. He talked to me for a minute or two and said, 'yeah, come by tomorrow evening,'" he said.

Swearinger said he started out stripping off old upholstery and eventually worked his way up and learned more from the owner of the shop.

He said his specialty while in the U.S. was working on show cars, laying carpeting and upholstering head liners and doors — until he met his future wife on an online dating site. Swearinger said he saw her name and location and decided on a whim to send her a message.

"I thought Labrador, what's Labrador? I've never heard of it," he said.

"It ended up being true love."

A custom order of pillows for the Royal Inn and Suites in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (Courtesy Michelle Parsons)

Growing demand for sealskin

When that love brought Swearinger to Labrador, he had no idea quite how to work with sealskin, but at his wife's suggestion, he started using it as an accent on furniture for companies like Nunacor and the Labrador North Chamber of Commerce.

From there, Swearinger began using patches of sealskin to cover pillows for a local hotel. That's gotten him orders to make items for people's homes as well.

"They're getting more interested. I got a call this morning, a fellow had three stools for his bar and wanted a quote to do them in seal skin," he said.

I thought Labrador, what's Labrador? I've never heard of it. It ended up being true love.- Danny Swearinger

But the skin isn't always easy to work with, even for someone as experienced as Swearinger.

"It's so stretchy, and sometimes when you're sewing it, the backing sticks to the sewing machine table," he said.

"It was a whole other experience to learn, but it's getting easier … I learn everyday."

Despite the challenge of working with a somewhat unusual material, Swearinger said the finished product is worth it, and the sealskin has gotten him some good feedback

"It's beautiful ... they love it. It's a really classy look."

Swearinger uses square patches of sealskin and synthetic leather to create checkerboard-style patterns on custom ordered pillows. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

With files from Labrador Morning

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