When it comes to straight up decorating, I think the most mis-understood aspect is the selection of upholstery. Why is this? Because there are three distinct parts of a piece of upholstered furniture and the least important part, the fabric, is the only one that is visible.
We see a pretty chair (this above from my Duxbury garden home project), sit in it and decide in about 30 seconds (or less) if it’s comfortable. Perhaps we can select our fabric, but we never see what lies beneath.
Below the fabric is the cushioning, springs or coils, webbing, etc. etc. And below the cushioning, is the frame itself. The very basis for what will eventually be a beautiful, and hopefully comfortable and long wearing piece of furniture.
The frame is the most important part of a piece of upholstered furniture. Much like our own skeleton, if we don’t have a strong frame made of healthy bones and joints, we’re going to feel it over time and eventually start to break down. And our bones are made of much stronger stuff than even the best wood. As an aside – did you know that our bones completely regenerate every decade? I just learned this on the PBS show The Amazing Human Body.
A good furniture frame is made from a kiln dried hard wood (* see terms below) such as oak or maple. The wood should be straight lumber without warping and free of knots and wormholes as much as possible. Lower cost furniture is usually made of a softer wood such as pine and is often treated with chemicals to sterilize it.
The frame pieces are attached using mortise and tenon joinery, double dowels, screws, corner blocking and a quality woodworkers glue. Staples are never used in a high quality piece of furniture as they simply don’t provide the long term strength needed. It’s important to remember that seating takes the most beating. Think of it – we lounge, we squirm, we jump, we cuddle – and that’s just our dogs. Add to that kids and adults, and it’s a lot of downward pressure on what is a relatively small skeleton. A well-made frame will stand up to normal wear and tear and should last without any need for repair for upwards of two decades. When we re-upholster an old piece of furniture, we often find that the frame needs nothing but a good cleaning.
Once the frame is built, the next steps are the supportive and cushioning layers. This is what makes the furniture comfortable and also durable. Webbing and 8-way hand tied springs (*) hold everything in place. The padding, cushions, foam or down fills, dacron wraps all provide the comfy sit. But, they also soften the hard edges of the frame which reduces friction on the fabric and extends the fabric life. Years ago, I worked in an upholstery shop and one thing I learned was to feel the arms and edges of the upholstery. If you can feel hard edges through the fabric, this means that the frame hasn’t been sufficiently padded. These hard edges will rub against the back of the upholstery fabric and eventually break it down. In the image above, we see how the edges of the rolled arms are well covered. When sitting in a chair, it’s common to grip the front edge of the arms when we sit down and get up. A cheaply upholstered piece of furniture will break down in these spots because of the extra tension from both the inside and outside.
And finally, once we have a strong, sturdy frame, and strong, comfy cushioning, we should think about the fabrics used. Good quality upholstery fabric also needs to be strong, but even thinner fabrics or fabrics with too much “give” such as chenille can be knit-backed for strength and stability. I wrote an in-depth post here about the importance of pattern matching. Most lower priced furnishings don’t match patterns because it takes skill and extra fabric and is more expensive. But, it’s so worth it.
Another wonderful detail of quality upholstery is the ability to have dressmaker details*. The chair above shows the addition of pleating, buttons, trim and banding on the skirting of the fabric which all leads to a truly one-of-a-kind piece of furniture.
* Glossary of Upholstery Terms *
Kiln Dried – Kiln drying is a slow process of removing all the residual moisture from the wood. The purpose of this is to strengthen the wood and reduce the potential for warping overtime as much as possible.
Bench made – Refers to a piece of furniture that is primarily made by one craftsman versus factory made where many hands, and even locations, are involved in the same piece.
8-Way Hand-Tied – This is the process of stringing together a series of coils from all directions – front to back, side to side and corner to corner – thus keeping them as stationary as possible.
Recover vs. reupholster – Recovering refers to simply replacing the outer fabric, but doing very little repair to the frame or replacing the cushioning. Reupholstery refers to stripping the piece down to its wood frame, making any repairs as needed and then upholstering with all new materials. A fully reupholstered piece of furniture is “like new” especially if the frame is a quality one.
Pattern Match – the process of matching the print or weave on a piece of fabric across a piece of upholstered furniture. A good pattern match requires more fabric, which is why lower cost furniture rarely has matched patterns.
Dressmaker Details – Added details such as trims, pleating etc. which makes for a unique piece of furniture.