In any given year, an upholsterer works on all kinds of projects – sofas, chairs, cushions. . . Old pieces, new pieces . . . Complex, simple . . . Big and small.
I recently had the privelege of doing a project for one of my son’s teacher’s – Teacher Betsy. It certainly wasn’t the biggest or most complicated thing I’ll tackle this year, in fact it was rather small. But it’s a perfectly lovely illustration of the upholstery process, so I wanted to share, and she said that that would be fine. Let me explain:
Last spring, Teacher Betsy sent a photo of a small wood rocking chair that she and her husband had acquired at an antique shop. Could I provide some information and an estimate on having it upholstered? Of course! The wood frame of the rocker was bare – no existing fabric or padding. I inquired, did they have the old materials? A photo of the chair with the upholstery on it? Nope, the chair had landed in their possession exactly as it was: a mystery.
One very common misstep that first time DIYers make is to tear off all the old fabric (and occasionally padding) and throw it all away. TA DAH!!!!! Clean and bare and ready to go!!!!! As any upholsterer will tell you, there is an ocean of information in the old materials – it’s the closest thing you have to directions. Without it, upholstery becomes an awful lot like archaeology.
I’ve done enough upholstery that the lack of existing materials doesn’t usually scare me – but it DOES slow me down. I showed Teacher Betsy the peculiarities of the frame, gave her my ideas on how it might have once looked. I was intrigued. We chatted and parted ways for summer break.
In September I was delighted to hear from Teacher Betsy – could she come look at fabric?
(My favorite aside from the story – when Betsy asked my son if she could bring a chair to the new shop, he barked, “YEAH, BUT YOU GOTTA PAY HER!” Ahh, the joys of growing up with a self-employed parent!!! Ha!)
We sat down together and Betsy selected a beautiful deep blue fabric from Greenhouse. I got a closer look at the chair.
What’s especially interesting is that the back has one center spindle – it is finished and turned and one can only suppose that it was meant to be visible. However, on either side of it, the chair has a very rough board – clearly not meant to be exposed. My best guess – and I DO mean guess – is that the chair originally had more spindles and no upholstery. Perhaps one or several spindles broke and someone restyled it for upholstery? Perhaps someone just wanted an aesthetic change? We’ll never know. But this theory is supported by the proportions of the chair – the seat depth was quite short. It didn’t appear that it was originally designed with a padded back in mind. That meant that we had to be careful about not overdoing it – a thick cushy back is nice in theory, but only if you have room for it! We used just 1″ of a soft foam, a half layer of polyester batting, and new synthetic burlap to support the whole business.
I frequently run into evidence of DIY reupholstery/restyling in furniture. I think maybe it’s part of our national identity – we’re inventors and explorers, cowboys and pioneers. Why would we NOT fix our own furniture? Pa Ingalls didn’t look for a professional – he dragged his chair to the barn and figured it out. We are a nation of determined DIY warriors – the good, the bad and the . . . Interesting. My European upholstery friends seem amused, confused and occasionally alarmed by our rambunctious relationship with reupholstery. But when you open up something that’s been creatively restyled a time or two. .. If there’s a “right” way to reupholster it, I’m not sure what it is. I’m content to smile at the ingenuity of those who came before me, and then put on my thinking cap and get to work.
The next decisions to make were quite tactical in nature – where could we attach fabric, and how? What techniques would we use to cover our tracks? Again, we looked together at where fabric had clearly been fastened before, where we had space to pull fabric through. Since the frame was old and quite delicate, I wanted to avoid anything too aggressive – no hammering, so no pli-grip, no tack strips, no nailhead. Once that decision was made, our palette of options narrowed considerably. I decided to cardboard tack strip the bottom edge, and then tension the fabric upwards. At the top edge, we discussed how to cover the necessary staples. There are three common choices in such situations: Decorative nails, which were out because of the hammering. Double welt, very popular right now, but we were looking at a pretty flat exposed area, and double welt works best when the frame was designed with double welt in mind, hopefully with a small “lip” of wood for it to set against.
So that left trim – in this case, Scroll Gimp. It lays nice and flat and comes in a wide selection of colors. We thought it was a nice accent to the pleasing curve at the top of the back.
At this point in the process, I stood back and thought, ‘hmmmmm, some buttons might be nice, but we didn’t discuss it beforehand . . . ‘ Three cheers for cell phones! I made up some buttons and sent Teacher Betsy a few photos. She quickly responded enthusiastically for five buttons and on we went!
Once the buttons were in, I tackled the outside back. Again, options were weighed and discarded. Just like the inside back, I was able to back tack the bottom edge and staple/gimp the top edge, but I also needed to close up the sides. Typically, I’d use pli-grip or a metal tack strip, but both require hammering, so that left hand stitching as the best option. It’s considerably slower, but it’s very gentle on the frame, and creates a beautiful finished edge on most fabrics, including Teacher Besty’s.
A student asked me recently, “How do we decide which techniques to use? Why do we use one over the other? What’s the ‘right’ way?”
I’ll tell you now, I’m not real big on the “Right” way to upholster things. If Teacher Betsy had 10 such rockers and brought them to 10 different upholstery shops, she probably would have ended up with 10 different solutions – hopefully all of them good. We decide which techniques to use based on the evidence in front of us, based on our own competencies, based on things we’ve tried before that have worked well (or not worked at all.) To that end, every project makes us a better upholsterer, because it adds to our toolbox of techniques – what looks like instinct when you watch an accomplished upholsterer is really just experience. The more you have, the more proficiently you sort through your options and dive in.
Students are often so afraid of making “mistakes” or trying something and having it fail. But truly, I’ve learned more from things that went wrong than I’ve learned from things that went right. I know all kinds of things to NOT try again, all kinds of ways to work around a fussy textile or a questionable pattern. I expect that in 10 years I’ll know even more. Every project is different: that’s what makes upholstery art. That’s why there’s no substitute for good old fashioned experience – because when I look at Teacher Betsy’s little rocker, I call to mind hundreds of chairs that came before. They inform my approach on this lovely little chair that I’ll see but once.
I’m so glad that Teacher Betsy brought me this rocker. It combined my very favorite aspects of being an upholsterer: Working with a client to understand their specific project and to imagine their perfect finished product – then solving the physical challenges of making that product a reality. It was a delight to contemplate the history of this chair, to wonder about the people that built it, used it, changed it. We’ll never know who they were, but hopefully we did them proud.