Reupholstery 101

Designer Linda Merrill interviewed upholstery pro Walter Heller.

Posted by Linda Merrill | Jul 20, 2011
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ywel/stock.xchngUpholstered furniture is a staple of the home. From sofas to dining chair slip seats and everything in between, most of us will purchase upholstered furniture at some point. Unlike a table or bookcase where the structure and craftsmanship are easy to see and assess, the fabric we see on the outside of upholstered pieces hides all the important materials and workmanship, or lack thereof, on the inside.

As with a wood dining chair, the quality of the sofa or lounge chair frame is all-important, yet we can’t see it. So, how do we know what we’re buying is worth the money? If you have an older piece, how do we know when it makes sense to reupholster it, or to scrap it and buy new? The staff at Heller Furniture in Norwell, Massachusetts, headed by master upholsterer Walter Heller, has over 75 years of combined experience in the upholstery business and they shared some of their tips on how to assess your particular upholstery situation.

Is it worth it to reupholster?

If you’re thinking about reupholstering an old sofa or chair that you already own, or is a thrift store find, you may be wondering if it’s worth paying as much to recover the old piece as you might on something brand new. In general, older furniture was made with much better workmanship and materials than much of today’s furniture is, especially at a moderate price point. 

As Cathy Chiasson of Heller Furniture notes, “Old furniture was made with higher quality woods and have better structures than new pieces. You can fill a whole living room with cheap furniture for the same price as reupholstering a single quality older sofa, but in five years, the cheap furniture is already falling apart.” 

Additionally, when you are having a piece reupholstered, you can often completely update and customize the look with a few design changes, such as swapping a skirted look for one with exposed legs, or having a single seat cushion versus three or four separate seat cushions.

DIY reuphostery vs. professional reupholstery

A professional will know how to estimate the correct amount of fabric needed for a project. They will take into account the pattern repeat (large flowers or other designs require more fabric so that the patterns are matched) as well as the specific tailoring required (skirt or exposed legs, gathers or pleats).  Incorrect estimating can mean spending needlessly on too much fabric, or worse, not buying enough and finding the store has sold out and more can’t be purchased. Simple things like recovering slip seats (the covered chair seats in dining room chairs) are relatively easy projects with some simple planning and basic tools. Recovering more complicated pieces such as a wing chair or sofa requires more skill and experience than the average homeowner has.

Guidelines for purchasing quality upholstered furniture

Understanding these basic concepts will also help when purchasing new furniture. The Heller team all agreed that the weight of a piece of furniture is important. A sofa should be made of kiln-dried hardwoods, which are heavier than many less expensive options. Cathy Chiasson recommends running your hand over the piece to check for hard spots under the fabric. These hard spots will eventually cause undue wear on the fabric and the underlying wood will start popping out. Chiasson said, “The entire piece should be wrapped with cotton and padding so that it’s soft on all sides, not just where you sit. Hard spots indicate areas where the fabric is just wrapped directly over the wood and will not have the substantial feel you want.”

The Heller team also suggests that you ascertain whether the springs are 8-way, or diamond, tied. “It’s important that the springs are tied together so they act as a single unit to provide uniform pressure across the surface of the seating area. You want to avoid individual springs from letting loose and poking at you from underneath,” she said.

A good reupholstery professional is a design asset

Reupholstery is not about simply slapping a new fabric on an old piece of furniture. Depending on the need, the upholsterer will completely re-build the piece from frame up, making necessary repairs, adding new cushioning and springs as needed and reusing that which is still in good condition. When selecting an upholsterer, these are services you are looking for. Add to that experience and a well-outfitted workroom with the tools of the trade needed to tackle any job, and you will have found a partner in design who will be an invaluable asset as you re-decorate your home. 

Linda Merrill is a Hometalk - - writer.  Read more articles like this one - - or get help with your home projects on

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