All About Upholstery

All About Upholstery

Welcome to Second Nature, a Q+A series with Jute founder, Ali Davin, that explores all things healthy living, with a fond emphasis on that thing she does best—interior design.

Are you sitting down right now? If the answer is yes, chances are it’s on a piece of upholstered furniture. From dining chairs to sofas, most of our waking hours (and frequently our sleeping hours) are spent on these comfy furnishings.

Upholstery is more than choosing the right fabric. Whether you’re ordering a custom-made piece or reinventing a family heirloom, here are the steps to take to ensure your design lasts a lifetime—or longer.


What’s the most common question people have about upholstery?

We get asked a lot about reupholstery, and I always recommend it for any pieces you own that are antique, that have sentimental value, or that you have an emotional attachment to. It’s important to keep in mind that reupholstery is not necessarily a matter of financial savings. In fact, it’s often on par with making something from scratch, or even a bit more. You have to take into account the labor, the sewing, the fill, and the fabric—that’s where 95% of the cost comes in. Obviously you already have the frame, unlike making something custom.


How do you find a good upholsterer?

The best ones aren’t going to be on Yelp or have a website—they’ll work directly with a consumer, but to find one, you’ll need a recommendation. If you know a designer in your area, they’ll have a pulse on the best upholsterers around. Another great resource is a local decorators’ showcase. If you attend, they’ll usually provide you with a book of all the designers and their resources—it’s like a design bible. Otherwise, just ask around; it’s definitely a word-of-mouth business.


Do you need to provide your own fabric?

Some upholstery shops may sell fabrics, but others want you to bring your own. You can purchase yardage anywhere from a local fabric store like Britex in San Francisco to Etsy. There are a lot of manufacturers that sell fabric only to the trade, so you’d need to work with a designer or decorator if you want to source from there. Just keep in mind that to reupholster a sofa, you’ll need 25 yards of fabric, and if you’re ordering your fabric from a mill, it can take a while, like 6 plus weeks.


What should you look for when you’re shopping?

Always go for natural fibers, and make sure no chemicals have been added to the process, or that it’s been sprayed with fire-retardant. European mills have pretty strict guidelines in terms of chemicals, so I’ve never had trouble with fabric from those. In terms of type of fabric, your upholsterer will tell you if something is suitable for an application or not, like if a fabric you love might not work for a chair but will for a pillow.


Can upholsterers do a totally custom piece?

Of course, if you want to create your own heirloom piece, a good upholsterer can make something completely from scratch. If you’re not working with a designer, you can find a photo of something you like in a magazine or on Pinterest and take it to an upholsterer. They’ll tell you what kind of fabric to look for. It’s definitely a process, but if you want something really special, you can totally DIY it.


What if you just want to buy something from a store?

You can do it, but you need to ask a lot of questions and do your research. Something made in the States is ideal. Ask what material is being used—hardwood means that the frame is made out of real wood versus MDF or manufactured wood. Details like “8-way hand-tied” means that the webbing supporting the seat is done by hand, and thus high quality. The fill of pillows and cushions should be down or feathers.  There are greener alternatives that don’t have so many chemicals, so ask for them. Make sure the stains used on the wood are water-based. Manufacturers have to disclose what materials they use in making a piece, so if you look at a tear sheet and see a list of chemicals, stay away from it.


Is custom the way to go, then?

If it’s done well and uses quality materials, definitely. There’s an inherent value in creating a truly unique piece, especially if you want something you can hand down for generations. And in terms of materials, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting. If you have the resources, it’s what I’d recommend.


Reupholster pieces for emotional—not financial—value.

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