The Beginner’s Guide to Upholstery

The Beginner's Guide to Upholstery

You see it across the way. That perfect little piece in the corner of the thrift store with the insane, original 1970’s print in burnt orange. The wood is in great shape and the price can’t be beaten. It will even fit in the back of your car. You seriously consider taking it home. After all, you can just reupholster it, right?

Let’s pause right there. Whether you are a thrift store maven or simply looking for a way to refresh your current furniture, chances are something akin to this scene has played out in your mind before. You may even be holding on to an item or two you want to attempt to reupholster but you don’t know where to start. You have come to the right place. This complete guide is designed to help the most novice upholsterer start their journey to fabulous, stylish new looks in every room of their home. Let’s start with the basics.

What is upholstery?

By definition, upholstery refers to the process of giving furniture padding, springs or webbing with durable fabric, or leather covers. What we think of as today’s upholstery actually has its roots in 18th century English funerals. Upholders were tasked with lining caskets with fabrics and providing other appointments for funerals. The phenomenon quickly spread to wealthy households where upholders were charged with using fabric cushions attached to furniture to enhance the decor in London homes. Today, upholstery continues to be the work of artisans around the world as the demand for restored antiques and customization of standard furniture rises.

Upholstery terms you need to know

Like most crafts, upholstery has a few common terms that are helpful to know before you take on your project.

  • Deck: The platform underneath a seat cushion that is usually covered in fabric. The deck should be firm so you cannot feel the springs under it.
  • Fabric backing: Certain upholstery fabric requires an extra layer so it will not sag or stretch. This extra layer is called fabric backing.
  • Ground: The color in the background of your upholstery fabric. This may or may not be the main color in your fabric, depending on the size of your pattern.
  • Pattern match: One of the most difficult looks to achieve in upholstery. Pattern match allows the fabric to flow unbroken across the seams and cushions of your piece. When a pattern match is done well, your seams will be almost invisible. To achieve this look, you may need a lot more upholstery fabric than you think.
  • Repeat: One cycle of a pattern on your upholstery fabric. A good rule of thumb is, the larger the repeat, the more fabric you will need to achieve pattern match.
    Selvage: The tightly woven edge on the ends of the roll of fabric. The selvage should be cut away so the upholstery fabric can drape smoothly.

What are the different types of upholstery?

Upholstery is upholstery, right? Except when you are suddenly faced with reupholstering the seats of your car. (Did you know you could reupholster the seats of your car!? More on that later.) There are actually several types of upholstery, each with different fabric specifications, required tools, and necessary skill levels.

Traditional Upholstery

Traditional upholstery is an all-encompassing term used to describe adding padding and fabric to chairs, sofas, headboards, and other furniture. What began as stuffing sawdust, grass, feathers, or horse hair into a cushion is now a complex sewing, lashing and stuffing process that allows you to shape elaborate rolls with softly padded shapes on just about any surface in your home. Today’s traditional upholstery generally involves placing a deck onto a set of springs, building a cushion on top and covering the whole piece with high-quality, tightly woven fabric. While it is possible to upholster furniture with just about any fabric, the best options are those that will hold up to use. Sure it is possible to cover your great grandmother’s settee in a beautiful silk brocade, but you wouldn’t want your toddler touching it. Ever. Velvet, damask, chenille, leather, microfiber, linen and even canvas are durable, easy to clean and ideal for upholstery.

Automobile Upholstery

While most automobile manufacturers use production lines to upholster the insides of their vehicles, high-end car manufacturers still employ people known as trimmers to upholster the interior soft surfaces. Still, car enthusiasts and automobile restorers find that reupholstering the seats, carpet, ceiling, and doors of a car can offer added comfort, beauty and safety. The best fabrics for automobile upholstery? Leather reigns supreme for seats and interior surfaces with vinyl coming in at an affordable second place alternative.

Commercial Upholstery

Restaurant seats, church pews, hospital, and clinic medical tables, dentist chairs, and lobby areas all fall under the umbrella of commercial upholstery. The goal for each of these surfaces is to be easy to clean, easy to arrange and as attractive as possible while meeting those first two criteria. Upholstery fabrics for church interiors may trend more toward damask, velvet, and brocade while hospital and clinic commercial upholstery generally use commercial grade vinyl.

Marine Upholstery

Boats have unique requirements for the fabrics that cover their seats, floors, and interior cabins. Not only does it need to hold up to dampness, but marine upholstery also has to be durable and UV resistant. Marine grade wood and fasteners must also be used lest the fabric hold up but the materials underneath give way. Closed cell foam is also often used on small cushions that can double as floatation devices. Marine grade vinyls are top of the list for application in boats and come in hundreds of styles, colors and even patterns.

Why would I choose to reupholster my items?

There are several benefits to taking your furniture to a professional upholder. Not only are they able to produce the cleanest lines while using the highest quality products, but they are also often able to replicate the original look of the piece. However, DIYers are often tempted to try their hand at upholstery for two reasons.

1. The piece is relatively simple to upholster. A square cushion on a small footstool requires a small amount of fabric, a little foam, a few tools, and a few video tutorials to recover yourself. For many beginners, this is an ideal place to learn as they go the ins and outs of folding corners, adding trim, and hiding fasteners. In the end, a small piece is often the most forgiving of beginner mistakes.

2. Professional upholstery can be expensive. Depending on the fabric you choose, the condition of the piece, the complexity of the angles and its size, having an item of furniture reupholstered can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. However, there are fabrics and prices made for everyone.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if you want to try your hand at a new skill or simply want to save the cost of having a piece professionally upholstered. Beckenstein Fabrics’ experts can offer you advice for your piece and point you in the right direction as you select your materials. Best of all, if you decide you are in over your head, our upholstery services can have your piece looking as good as new for less than you may think. Call today to set up your upholstery consultation and discover why Beckenstein Fabrics is the premier source for all of your upholstery needs.