There once was a very sad Louis style chair. Very beige, very neutral, very brown wood. It was French in style, and vintage, so it had something going for it, but all else was a complete bore, so it’s not even worth showing. It needed color on the outside! On the inside, it was even worse: crusty, crumbling old foam over webbing, which would never do, professionally speaking. So, off came all of its materials, all the way down to the bones, to be built back up the traditional, European, way, with springs and natural materials (no foam).
I painted it with natural milk paint in a cornflower blue hue–meant to be imperfect looking. Sealed with tung oil and lightly distressed for a casual look, the transformation had begun. Next came webbing and hand-tied springs, anchored with tacks. Although I usually tie my springs eight ways, most of these are tied six ways, because eight ways seemed like overkill on such a small seat. I daresay they’re tight and will last just as many years.
This is excelsior, or wood wool. Using traditional upholstery methods, it gets laid into bridles to be covered with burlap and hand-stitched into a first stuffing. The stitching compacts the wood wool in a roll around the top to support the second stuffing of hair.
On top of this, lots of fluffy horsehair gets bridled in to form the second stuffing. I then cover that with muslin and a layer or two of cotton before I put on the fabric. In this case, the fabric is a wonderful designer velvet that is printed with a large variety of patterns in amazing colors. Just the effect I was looking for.
With an oversized black and white houndstooth chenille in the picture frame back, and double welting made of plum purple velvet, the completed look far surpasses the original in excitement. The inside, done with traditional methods and materials, far surpasses the original in comfort, quality, and durability. This beauty is going to make a fabulous statement wherever it ends up. Check out my Etsy shop, or Chairish, to find it.
I design and make chairs to sell, or for clients based on their own desires. I have an inventory of vintage seating pieces longing for their big breaks–contact me directly to design and make a chair for you that has something to say!
I had these antique pieces in their run-down state for a couple of years. When I acquired them, I knew they were the kind of thing that would not settle for ordinary. When they came to me, they looked like this:
You really couldn’t sit on the settee because the springs were falling out of the bottom, but the seller had stripped the old fabric off and put this muslin on, I think to make them more attractive. She needn’t have done that; it was pretty easy to see their potential no matter what. The gilding on these pieces was untouchable–shiny in many places, worn, dull in spots, greenish in others, glazed in some crevices, missing in some areas–and tells a story that no one will ever hear. They are very old, and obviously hand-carved, in mahogany. They needed a special fabric, and when I saw the Designers Guild Mattiazzo, there was no question about their future.
I don’t use foam when I upholster antique pieces. I have invested in learning and practicing the traditional ways of upholstering that include hand-tied coil springs, excelsior foundation, burlap, stitching the integrated sculpted edge roll for structure, and stuffing with horsehair and cotton. It’s labor intensive and expensive, but beautiful and long-lasting. When I’m done, it feels like I have created a piece of art, not just furniture. I call it “artisanal upholstery”.
Come into my studio! Here are a few process shots to show just how intricately constructed the guts are in these pieces:
And, voila! Many steps later, we have the finished product!
Here they are together, comparing notes on how far each one has come over the last 100 or more years. We’ll never know where they started, but they aren’t planning to quit anytime soon!
These are for sale. Check them out in my Etsy shop. You can also contact me directly.
I have discovered that I love making upholstered furniture. Not, by the way, with foam stuffing. Using traditional methods of upholstering furniture is like sculpting with stitches. You are not at the mercy of the materials, but the materials are at the mercy of your hands. Horsehair, cotton, and coiled springs–a great combination for truly stylish, refined furniture with longevity. Kind of like putting yourself out of business!
These began on a Craigslist whim, as most of my purchases do. I loved the curve between the front legs on these antique mahogany chairs. I knew the frames would look amazing in black, topped with some velvet. And pink. Pink was required. They were so sad and neutral. See:
Since my new favorite thing to do now is upholstering, I knew that six of these babies would provide me with adequate practice to get it right, and they did. After ripping out the old guts, including the old zig-zag “springs”, sanding, and repairing every lose joint, I painted them black and put a satin topcoat on them. That was the easy part! To upholster, I did them in phases, perfecting my technique: webbing, springs, burlap, horsehair, muslin, cotton, velvet. And the seat backs: fabric, stuffing, support, stuffing, fabric. I’m really having a hard time preferring any other way to spend my time!
Some highlights of the process:
The pink floral seat backs got tightly woven burlap to keep their shape, and layers of cotton. This floral fabric has a very linear weave, so it was important to keep the weave straight, and tight as a drum.
Yards and yards of double welting made from the velvet brought the whole look together. I was actually sad when they were done. But they made someone in Kentucky very happy!
A few years ago, I began to be attracted to lovely photos of creatively upholstered furniture. I looked at them with an aim to recreate them myself, and with my creative skill set, I knew I could do that, albeit not without a struggle. I found these old French chairs, which are slightly different, but both in need of serious reconstruction.
These were found at two different places, and were in equally horrible condition. Both were stuffed with crunchy old hardened foam. My aim was to bring them back to fine antique condition, which entailed learning a whole new skill set: traditional upholstery. Techniques used in this method of upholstery involve no foam. I had to learn how to tie springs by hand, stuff with excelsior (wood wool), stitch with twine into burlap, pound tacks, arrange horsehair, and tuft, tuft, tuft.
This sort of trade is disappearing. It is time consuming and takes much practice. It is expensive. However, the finished product is sculptural and long-lasting. It will never harden or crumble. It is authentic. It’s also a bit of a hunt to find someone who will teach it to you. I could go to the UK, where the craft is very much alive, and is taught many places, or I could go to Nebraska. I was referred to a master antique upholsterer there who was willing to have me spend a week training in his workshop, so I went.
The week I spent with Kim Buckminster, of Buckminster Upholstery, was eye-opening. There wasn’t nearly enough time to learn everything, but I got started on one of these chairs. He taught me many different techniques that I could apply, but most importantly, I learned the FEEL of good upholstery, and that details matter. I left with an awe of his talent and techniques, and a vow that I would do this.
Over the next year or so, I worked on these chairs, off and on. I read old upholstery manuals found at thrift shops and traditional upholstery tomes that aren’t even in print anymore, found on Amazon. I did, undid, and redid many of the steps along the way, because they did not meet the standard I was looking for. Tufting was the hardest. It was like an instructor put the same inside back in front of me every day, and I had to strip it at the end of each day until I got it right! But all that was practice, and actually very satisfying, because in the end, I got two skillfully upholstered chairs in the traditional method. And it was my kind of fun.
Here are a few progress shots so you can get the idea of all the steps that were involved!
This is not a tutorial. It is my attempt to shed some light on the upholstery trade I admire. I see so many upholstery tutorials in blogland made by people who don’t do upholstery very well, and shouldn’t be telling other people how to do it. The “looks okay to me” style of upholstery, with crooked box cushions and loose, wrinkled fabric causes people to be fine with a lower standard. I have found that most people don’t even know what their furniture is stuffed with. Some think that quality upholstery is “too expensive”, so they buy at mass-market low-grade furniture stores. Not surprisingly, those pieces have very short useful lives when the foam disintegrates or sags, and are not worth recovering.
Personally, I look at furniture differently now. Foam has its place, such as in contemporary or mid-century modern pieces, but it also has different levels of firmness, quality, and longevity. I am a firm believer that you get what you pay for! These chairs will have a long life, and when the fabric wears a little, you’ll only need to take the finish fabric covers off and replace them. The guts will stay in shape for the next 50-75 years!
I’ll be attempting more traditional upholstery projects. I’ve started on a set of six antique French dining chairs and they won’t take me as long because there’s no tufting, and I know what I’m doing now!
These cuties are for sale. Contact me directly, or go to my shop. I have a lot of beautiful, skillfully done, one-of-a-kind vintage furniture pieces for sale there.