Running an upholstery business in Gers

Sandra Haurant meets an expat who has turned her love of textiles into a thriving upholstery business, which is based in a Gers château

Watching Ciara McClinton-Staines at work in her workshop, it’s hard to imagine she was once part of the corporate scene. Five years ago, Ciara swapped office wear for overalls and embarked on a creative career that could hardly be further removed from her old job. She now runs an upholstery and furniture business from a workshop in a sunny corner of a beautiful 17th-century château, deep in the rolling Gers countryside, near the town of Condom.

It’s a very different world from her previous life. She and her family lived in Leicestershire, where Ciara worked in account management for an international telecoms firm and her husband, Anthony, ran his own successful plumbing and heating business.

For some people, moving to a new country is a wrench. For this family, though, the move to France was something of an organic process that took years to come together. “My mother travelled across Europe in her twenties and she always wanted to live in France. She had a lot of affection for the Gers area,” explains Ciara. “She decided she would like to buy a place here so she came househunting with my sister, Kerry.”

They came across the beautiful Château de Trizac, which dates from the mid-1600s and is surrounded by parklands, near a village outside Condom. But it was Ciara’s sister, Kerry, who had the coup de cœur and fell in love with the impressive building and its extensive gardens. She decided to buy the château, and as a result Ciara and her family found themselves spending more and more time visiting the area. “Eventually, we decided we should buy our own place here. We found a house, which was just around the corner from the château, and bought it as a project nine years ago.”

Their house and its outhouses were in need of extensive renovation, and the family were making lots journeys to France to work on them. Finally, the natural step seemed to be to make Gers their permanent home. And so Ciara and Anthony packed up and headed south with their three children, Henry, who was four and a half at the time, Olivia, who was 18 months, and newborn Isabella, only six weeks old.

As their own property was not yet habitable, the family set up a temporary home in the château, where they stayed for three and a half years, before moving into mobile homes near their house while they finish the renovations. The majority of their belongings remain in storage in the UK, and they still have a lot of work to do before they can move into the main house.

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Although the move from the UK went smoothly, uprooting with a young family is always a challenge, both logistically and emotionally. There were decisions to be made about how to manage the children’s arrival, their introduction to French life and the local school. “I think, as parents, we worry a huge amount about how the children will cope, whether they will be upset. But the reality is that they are extremely adaptable,” says Ciara.

They decided to plunge Henry, who was the only one of school age, in at the deep end by starting him at his new school as quickly as possible. “Before the move, Henry did half a term in an English school. Then we left the UK on a Friday, and he started at the local French school on the Monday,” says Ciara. He spoke no French and was a bit shell-shocked at first. But he quickly settled and, before long, he was completely fluent in French.

Olivia soon began going to the local crèche and also settled well, and Isabella, being so small, was completely used to hearing French and making sense of both languages. “Really soon after she started at the crèche, the staff said they were sure she could understand everything they were saying to her.”

For Ciara and Anthony, the move also meant challenges on a professional level, particularly when it came to dealing with the language barrier. Ciara had learnt some French at school, but was rusty, and Anthony had never studied French, so was starting completely from scratch.

However, as a plumber and heating engineer, Anthony’s skills were transferable, and he had experience in building up a business. Before long his company, Cascade 32, had loyal customers, largely people in the English-speaking or international community around Gers and beyond. He is fast becoming the ‘go-to’ English plumber in the area, and, as his work brings him increasingly into contact with French tradespeople, French clients are beginning to employ him too. His suppliers and a lot of his work associates are French, and he has generally found people extremely welcoming. “I decided to get involved with the local rugby team at the start, and that made a big difference. It’s brought me into contact with the community and got me to start speaking French,” he says.

For Ciara, the career change has been more dramatic. But in spite of her corporate background, she says the move into creative crafts was a natural one. “It’s something I have always done,” she says. “Before I was even two, my mum gave me a real needle and thread and some fabric and let me play. I think I used to drive her mad as I got older. She would come home and find that I’d completely changed a lampshade, or re-covered some piece of furniture.” It’s a gift she is passing on to her own children too. Henry proudly shows the chair he helped to upholster and they are allowed more or less free rein in the workshop; on condition, of course, that they don’t touch clients’ furniture.

Turning Ciara’s hobby into a career has involved hard work. She began by taking a residential upholstery course in Wales, and has now gained a diploma in upholstery, but is continually training to improve her skills and is currently working towards Master of Upholstery qualifications. “No two pieces are the same, so it’s important to keep working on techniques and skills. You have to think laterally,” she says. She has also branched out into furniture; restoring and selling beautiful old pieces she buys locally, as well as working with a local cabinetmaker to make bespoke furniture for clients according to their own designs and needs.

The store room behind her workshop is full of old furniture that is waiting to be restored, and she plans to develop the furniture sale side of her business further. There are sets of dining chairs, little cupboards, a metal bed frame and much more. She bought most of her pieces from a local brocanteur or second-hand furniture dealer, and has acquired yet more furniture from a former local resident who has returned to the UK and couldn’t take everything back.

In 2011, she became a registered stockist of Chalk Paint® decorative paint by Annie Sloan, which she sells from her workshop at the château. This meant training with founder of the company, Annie Sloan, in Oxford, to learn how to use the paints, creating effects with colour to turn tired old pieces of furniture into treasured classics. And as well as working on her own furniture for resale and bespoke commissions for clients, Ciara also offers upholstery and decorative furniture painting courses from her workshop, and people come from far and wide across the region and beyond.

Some are renovating their French holiday homes and looking to gain skills to make the job easier and more rewarding, while others are full-time residents looking for a new hobby. “Most of the people who come are English-speaking, but I have run the painting courses in French,” she says. She plans to begin offering residential courses in 2014, with bed and breakfast provided at the château so that people who come from further away can benefit from a place to stay before and after the course.

Ciara, Anthony and the children feel right at home in France these days. The children are heavily involved in school life and have many extra-curricular activities. All three have plenty of friends and any language barriers are a thing of the past. Business for both Ciara and Anthony is booming – so much so that their house renovations have often had to take a backseat and they are unlikely to move out of the mobile homes and into the main building straight away. “We are victims of our own success,” laughs Ciara.

It may take a while for their house renovation to be completed, but in the meantime Ciara, Anthony and the children are building a home within their new community that goes beyond the weathered bricks of their house. As the sun shines in Gers and the children run around the gardens surrounding Ciara’s château workshop, it’s easy to see why they are so happy here. LF