After working in the upholstery business for over 40 years, Donna Vassalotti of Lewes still loves her job.
“I love a Cinderella story, going from rags to riches,” she said. “I can take an old chair and make it pretty. It’s like living the Cinderella story over and over. It gives you a real sense of satisfaction to make something unused, useable.”
In the early 1970s, Vassalotti first studied hotel and restaurant management while working at her parents’ Rehoboth restaurant, The Dinner Bell. Then, her family sold the restaurant.
“I was on unemployment and had to do something,” said Vassalotti, who started sewing slipcovers on the side. Friend Barbara Moore, who also made slipcovers, lived around the corner.
“Right before Christmas, she was overbooked,” Donna said. “She knew I sewed, so she asked me to help out. We got along so well I bought into the business.”
When The Cover Up Shop closed its doors about 1976, Vassalotti started working part time for a local upholstery and canvas shop. The owner gave her a pile of 24 cushions. “I had them done in a week,” Vassalotti said.
The owner told Vassalotti he would love to take her on full time, but had no more cushions for her to do. There was, he said, a water-damaged, eight-cushion couch in the warehouse she could tackle. “It was a mass of black mold and everyone refused to do it,” she said. “I stripped it, sprayed it with Lysol and upholstered it. It was the first upholstery I ever did.”
At the time, Vassalotti was the only female working in the shop. “All the men wanted to work on canvas for boats, so I had half the shop to myself, and I loved it,” she said.
Later, while recuperating from surgery, Vassalotti had a lot of time to think about her career.
“I hadn’t had a raise, and he had started taking on slipcovers because I could do them,” she said. “I knew upholstery, slipcovers and cushions, and I thought, I could do this on my own.”
When Vassalotti returned to work, she asked for a raise. “I wanted what the guys were making,” she said. “He told me he couldn’t do that because they’d all quit. So, I quit and went out on my own. The first week, I made double my paycheck and never looked back.”
In 1981, she established Donna’s Upholstery and Slipcovers, working out of her basement. “We had water problems and had pallets on the floor to keep cords out of the water,” she laughed.
Years later, she and husband David Snyder built a home with a shop and showroom. Snyder died of a heart attack in 1991, and she married Jack Vassalotti four years later. The newlyweds bought a home and converted the garage to a workshop, where she sewed stylish slipcovers, cushions and pillows, and upholstered chairs of all styles and sizes.
“I like to keep a tight rein on what goes out of here,” Vassalotti said. “It has to look good and be high quality. I’m never bored because the ability to be creative is endless.”
Since then, Vassalotti’s work has been showcased in homes profiled by Delaware Today, Cottage Style, Decorating with Color and Style magazines. “I was in Florida at a Barnes and Noble store when I saw a Better Homes and Gardens magazine, and I screamed!” she said.
There on the cover of the August 1995 issue was a white wicker chair and couch in Polly and Walter Stark’s Henlopen Acres home adorned with bright blue, red and yellow floral cushions and pillows sewn by Vassalotti. “That’s when the calls really started coming in,” she said.
For business she travels north to Milford and south as far as North Ocean City, so customers started coming to her. A Maryland doctor brings furniture for her to upholster with fabrics from Egypt.
Vassalotti was contacted by an interior decorator for singer Diana Ross, who wanted two chairs upholstered for her home in Cedar Island, Va., a former barrier island resort.
When ABC TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” built the Jusst Sooup ranch in 2011, they, too, called upon Vassalotti. She sewed two purple-velvet window seat cushions used as church kneelers. “I also had to strip the leather off an old ottoman and reupholster it with tufts, all in one day,” Vassalotti said.
Daughter Suzanne Cannon entered the family business in 2006, leaving behind a demanding retail job. “I was so anxious and stressed,” she said. “Mom asked me to come work for her to see if I liked it. I started going on in-home appointments with her to learn how to take measurements and calculate fabric yardage for estimates.”
Once Cannon learned the ropes, she was on her own, doing free in-home estimates, keeping the books and doing sewing prep work. “My favorite part is going to the customer’s home with fabric and seeing what will work with their decor and how they decorate with window seats, cushions and pillows,” she said. “I enjoy meeting new people, and I get to see a lot of really neat homes.”
Everything is custom pin-fit to the piece of furniture, Cannon said. After measuring, she returns to the shop, cuts fabrics, and adds zippers and welt cording. “I cut out the cushions and pretty much put everything into a kit for Mom,” she said.
Once the work is completed, mother and daughter return to the home to install slipcovers and ensure the client is happy with the finished product
Cannon says her stressful work days are over. “We’re very laid-back,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing to see what something can look like after we’re redone it. The fabrics are so beautiful these days; there’s so much to choose from.”
In between his own business installing window treatments, Vassalotti’s son Matthew Snyder does upholstery jobs, including restaurant booths at the Vineyard Wine Bar, Saketumi and even the tables at Aqua Care Physical Therapy. Snyder’s teen daughter Donna helps in the shop at times, too.
“I enjoy having both my kids work for me because we get along so well,” Vassalotti said. “Suzanne has become my best friend. We’ve worked together so long she can finish my sentences.”