After 50 years in business, West Jordan man hopes this dying trade stays alive

Ken Curtis of KenTeck Custom Upholstery uses a pair of large scissors to trim some of the fabric away as he works on a chair in his West Jordan shop on Friday. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

WEST JORDAN — His name may not be familiar to you, but if you live in Utah, you’ve likely sat in a restaurant booth made by Ken Curtis.

The West Jordan man started sewing at age 9 with the help of his aunt, who owned a Midvale cleaning and altering business. Together, they made and sold car litter bags, which used to hang from knobs in older vehicles. They saved the money for her to purchase a special sewing machine.

“She would take on nieces and nephews and teach them how to deal with money, how to deal with clients, how to count change — which is another thing people can’t do now,” Curtis said.

He quickly discovered a knack for upholstering furniture and car interiors, and started taking on jobs for family and friends. By age 18, he’d earned enough money to buy his aunt’s sewing machine from her before she passed away due to cancer many years ago.

“When she died, I just took that over and kept going,” Curtis said as he stood inside KenTeck Custom Upholstery, his shop which is brimming with fabrics, equipment, pieces of furniture and materials like cushion filling.

Now, Curtis has done upholstery for more than 50 years and he fears his business — like other skilled trades — is quickly becoming a thing of the past. That’s evidenced by the high demand on his time.

Only about 20 upholstery shops remain open along the Wasatch Front, Curtis noted.

He’s now booked out through the end of the year with commercial jobs. He says he’s currently reupholstering the Twilight Lounge in Salt Lake City. He’s done all of the upholstery for booths at area Cafe Zupas, Zao Asian Cafes, Crown Burgers, Astro Burgers and other restaurants across the Wasatch Front. Through a contract with Cafe Rio, he ships booths for all of its new stores across the country.

“And then, I just got the contract to do Burger Kings, all the Burger Kings from Fillmore to Logan — 207 stores,” Curtis said.

When asked whether he thinks incoming workers could keep the trade alive, he says: “I don’t think they’re going to, I really don’t.”

Granger High School in West Valley City used to teach upholstery, but now Curtis believes the skill is no longer taught at any schools in the area.

“And I know that people don’t want to do work like this because it takes labor, it takes time to learn, and it takes time to be good. And it also, I guess it also has to have an inherent skill, where if you don’t have that (obsessive-compulsive disorder) that it requires, you need to make every job look good,” Curtis said.

He’s continued working despite four broken vertebra and “more broken bones than I can even tell you.”

With the shortage of skilled upholsterers, Curtis said he can name his price for a job and sometimes gets paid up to $700 per hour “just because of the speed and skill.” When he started in the business, he said he made $65 per yard of fabric. Now, he makes between $145 and $225 per yard — and clients are willing to wait for jobs to be finished because of the shortage.

Curtis says he would encourage anyone who could potentially have the talent for it to look into upholstery as a career. Many shops in the area would hire new workers on the spot, he noted.

He taught the skill to hundreds of inmates at the Utah State Prison for 13 years.

“And one thing I’ve discovered is a lot of people just don’t have that OCD and inherent skill it takes to do it, attention to detail. It requires all of that,” he said, adding that he’d love to bring someone into his business who could learn the skill.

Curtis has no plans to retire, and says, “I’m just gonna keep going until I can’t.” He would, however, like to have time to work on his hobby, which is sewing leather vests, bags, pants and other things to sell at Mountain Man rendezvous.

“Please, somebody, come take over. It’s a little overwhelming because I’ve developed the reputation and it’s hard to tell people: ‘No, I can’t do that.’ My wife says, ‘You’re going to start scheduling it out further,’ so she went through my calendar and pushed everybody back a couple weeks, because 2 o’clock in the morning she’s coming out saying, ‘Are you coming to bed sometime?'”

When asked what’s kept him in the business for so long, the 61-year-old quips: “It’s like a line from ‘Blind Side.’ I’m good at it. … I mean, I do enjoy doing it because I can look at a project after I get done and say, ‘Yeah, I created that.'”

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