So You Want to Try Upholstery: a Beginner’s Guide to Choosing the Perfect Project.

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Here’s a question we get a lot: “What kind of project should I bring to my first workshop?” So we decided to make a whole post for curious new students, just like you!

First let me emphasize that most people overestimate how far their time will go. Whatever you think you can get done in a weekend, go ahead and cut that by a half to two-thirds. When we tell you to start small, it’s not because we think you’re inept –  actually, we ASSUME you’re relatively handy – but we’ve also taught hundreds of new students, and ALL OF THEM would tell you to start small. Upholstery, like many things, is harder and more time consuming than it looks. That’s also what makes it a joy to learn and eventually, possibly, MASTER.

Our initial goals are that you’ll have fun, finish something in 1-2 weekends, and experience enough to decide if you want to dive deeper. From there, we can help you set new, bigger goals.

Here are a few proven advantages to starting small:

  1. Better results: If you’re crashing through a 20 hour project in 12 hours, you have zero time for rework.

  2. Better retention: Focusing on a fewer skills helps you understand and remember what you did.

  3. More productivity:  Our student/teacher ratio is very low (4:1) but that still means 75% of the time, your instructor is with someone else. If you have a complex project and no mastery of the basics, you’re going to spend more time waiting and less time doing.


So what exactly do we mean, “Start small?”  Here a few examples of well chosen student projects to give you an idea.

Project 1: A Simple to Moderate Ottoman

Two excellent examples from several years ago! Sue’s ottoman was a giant, coffee table sized beast that she reupholstered in a funky, faux leather. Gladys’ tiny ottoman had a few more details – a tack band with a single welt cord, and a double welt trim.  While these may seem like overly simple projects, they were PERFECT for a first weekend.

Sue wrestling the world’s biggest ottoman!
Gladys showing off her first finished ottoman!

Skills introduced: 

  • Basic tear back
  • Introduction to measuring and cutting fabric for upholstery
  • Centering/tensioning fabric for a smooth, even edges
  • Introduction to the industrial sewing machine 
  • Introduction to handling vinyl (Sue)
  • Measuring/layout for a sewn corner (Sue)
  • Single welt (Gladys)
  • Double welt (Gladys) 
  • Cardboard tack strip (Gladys) 
  • Foam selection (Gladys)

 

Project 2: Slip Seats (Dining Chairs)

The definitive “DIY” project! Most students skip over this, since they may have done something similar at home. But there’s always a difference in how you approach projects when you have access to professional tools, supplies and instruction. In fact, repeating something you’ve done independently can be an excellent use of instructional time, because you’ll unlock new results and knowledge that you weren’t likely to get from a book or video.

Still not convinced? Bring a set of four and try a challenging fabric, like a giant repeat that has to be cut and applied to match, or leather.

Skills introduced: 

  • Basic tear back

  • Introduction to measuring and cutting fabric for upholstery

  • Centering/tensioning fabric for a smooth finish

  • Introduction to professional tools and materials

  • Foam selection 

  • Webbing and burlap application (sometimes)


 

Project 3: An Attached Seat Bench or Chair

A simple seat that CANNOT be removed from the frame introduces a wealth of basic skills, and can usually be comfortably completed in 12 hours, even if springs and padding are required. This is the point of training entry for many more-complex styles with arms, backs and seat variations. Manipulating fabric around fixed obstacles (like arm posts and legs) without exposing cut edges or puling the grain off-center is a big part of upholstery.

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Vickie’s rescued bench, looking fresh with new foam and fabric.

Skills introduced: 

  • Basic tear back

  • Introduction to measuring and cutting fabric for upholstery

  • Centering/tensioning fabric for a smooth finish

  • Retying zig-zag springs/burlap replacement

  • Introduction to easement cuts. 

  • Single welt 

  • Foam selection 


 

Project 4: A Boxed Cushion

Average time to complete a first boxed/welted cushion is about 6-8 hours – SURPRISE!!!! They may look simple, but there are a many steps to this bread-and-butter skill. So it’s a great project to explore, and one you’ll use again and again.  It will get you familiar with the sewing machines, and all the steps we use at the cutting table.  Once you know how to confidently sew a cushion, you’re ready for many other tasks.

Skills introduced: 

  • Measuring/layout 

  • Cutting/labeling 

  • Introduction to the industrial sewing machine 

  • Simple zipper

  • Single welt

  • Methods for joining and aligning multiple pieces at the machine

  • Foam selection 

If you’re interested in diving deeper into boxed cushions check out our online course Boxed Cushion: Fundamentals. This double course walks you through two common cushion styles: Boxed Without Welt and Boxed with Welt. Once you are familiar with the fundamentals covered in this course a great next step would be attending an in-person workshop. Here you can work with an instructor to begin modifying and applying concepts to actual custom projects like a custom window seat. 


 

Project 5: A Simple Side Chair

This is our most popular project selection, and for good reason – cute side chairs can usually be found in abundance at thrift stores and online marketplaces.  There’s lots to be learned on even the most basic of chairs, and a fun fabric selection turns it into a work of art – even if your results are less than perfect.

DO BE ADVISED that a side chair is usually a TWO WEEKEND PROJECT.  But if you’re looking for the sampler platter of skills training, this is it.

Skills introduced: 

  • Tear back and documentation

  • Measuring and cutting

  • Centering/tensioning fabric, smooth edges, pleats and corners

  • Introduction to the industrial sewing machine (possibly)

  • Introduction to minor variations like buttons, trim, etc.

  • Foam selection (possibly)

  • Easement cuts

  • Spring tying (possibly)

  • Basic techniques (dependent upon style) such as hand stitching, back tacking, and/or pli-grip

If I HAD to pick one, I’d call this my favorite “first” upholstery project:

Access to live training is currently very limited for upholstery students. So we take seriously questions like “what kind of projects delver the most instructional value? What are the most versatile techniques can introduce? What best prepares new students for later, more challenging projects? And we come back again and again to side chairs. 

Let me explain very specifically what we’re looking at here:

  • A chair with a tight upholstered seat (not removable) and back.

  • Preferably, wood arms (as opposed to no arms)

More importantly, here’s what we’re NOT looking at:

  • Upholstered arms

  • Separate cushions

  • Sewing

  • Embellishments like tufting, channeling,  extensive nailhead, etc.

  • Unusual variations

  • Fabric that needs significant planning (like a large repeat)

All these seemingly insignificant details add up to HOURS and additional skills that are likely to overwhelm you. When it comes to first workshops, LESS is 100% MORE

A few more recommendations:

  • Don’t spend much on your frame. SERIOUSLY. You don’t need the stress.

  • Don’t spend much on your fabric. See above. You’ll learn more if you aren’t panicking about mistakes.

  • DON’T use an heirloom.

  • Make sure it’s structurally sound. (spring repairs are fine – a chair with falling apart joints and rotted wood rails is not. Give it a wiggle)


But what if I finish early???

First of all, this really doesn’t happen much (like, almost NEVER)

But if it’s a concern, we understand, and let me reassure you: a little extra time won’t get wasted. Here are a few ways you could joyfully utilize an extra hour:

  • Troll your neighbors – learn from the projects around you.

  • HELP your neighbors – someone is going to be frantically running behind.

  • Practice on the sewing machine. Drive around, experiment with the speed, try a few different fabrics from the scrap bin.

  • Practice making a zipper panel

  • Ask all kinds of questions about other projects you’re considering or trying at home.


Now what if I DON’T finish???

This is ALWAYS more likely, because no project is a guaranteed 12 hours. Time estimates are tricky, and dependent upon any number of variables. The same project might take one student 8 hours and another student 20. The difference might be in unexpected foundation work, or a challenging fabric, or one big mistake, or just being off task (which isn’t NECESSARILY the same as wasting class time – watching your neighbor tie springs CAN be useful)

Many students, out of a desire to use every last second of class time, invariably choose a more ambitious project and end up going over. Not a disaster, but in this case, you’ll have two options:

  1. Finish on your own.  FLC instructors will wholeheartedly support your efforts by recommending books/videos/resources that might help. You can also utilize Virtual Instructor Support from home if you run into a minor question along the way.

    Many of our intermediate students do final steps at home as a regular practice. It’s actually a great way to maximize your investment – do as much as you can OUTSIDE the classroom, and focus workshop hours to where you most need instruction. But if you aren’t ready to invest in some tools and independent struggle, be especially careful to choose your project conservatively,

  2. Sign up for additional classes. If you feel like more instruction, the proper tools, and dedicated time/space are really what you need to get the job done, we’re always happy to see you for additional classes. You can even spend a few hours finishing a project and the rest of your hours starting a new one.

Unfortunately. Our classoom is only staffed during workshops and events, so we can’t accommodate requests for a few additional hours. SO PLEASE:  if you’re determined to finish in one session, START SMALL SMALL SMALL!!! If you aren’t inclined to start SMALL SMALL SMALL, be prepared to come AGAIN AGAIN AGAIN!!!

And if you just aren’t sure, don’t hesitate to send a message. We understand that a first upholstery class can be daunting, and project selection is a big step towards ensuring success. We want you to arrive feeling prepared and to leave feeling satisfied. So any questions you have? Let us hear ’em.

We hope this gives you some guidance, because we’d love to see you in St. Paul! And if you’re wondering what NOT to bring, check out our related blog post: “Worst First Upholstery Project” We hope Virgina’s story will give you some additional insight and a laugh – she was very good to share her experience!

Ready to give upholstery go? Check out our Weekend Warriors Workshops now!

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