The craft of upholstery – what does it take to excel at it? Picking a great fabric and having the talent to put it on a piece of furniture, right? Well, yes, that is the most important part, but there are three extra skills that you definitely need to grasp before you can consider yourself an all-round master. These are the three fundamentals you may not have realised you need to get to grips with…
When it comes to upholstery, sewing is an essential part of the mix. I seriously underestimated this before I got started. If the thought of a needle and thread terrifies you, I’m here to tell you this is a technical part of the job you just can’t avoid. When I first started, the amount of sewing involved came as quite a shock. I’d never really considered how seats are actually made. These days, the only upholstery project I can think of where you wouldn’t need to sew is a drop-in seat pad. For everything else, you need to be very savvy about your stitching.
Whether it’s for single piping, double piping, joining edges, creating cushions or putting in zips (no mean feat) there is LOADS of sewing in this line of work. There’s an incredible amount of hand closing needed on chairs and sofas. You’ll also need to become super good at slip stitching. This is a tight, invisible closing stitch commonly used for back fabrics, joining edges and corners. Don’t be surprised if you sometimes have to do it all day long to complete a large project.
As someone who never had an interest in sewing before, it has become one of my favourite parts of the process. Using your hands and completing a repetitive run of perfect stitches is so satisfying, almost therapeutic, in fact. When done well – every piece of thread perfectly placed with no creases or puckers – I’d go so far as saying it’s an art form.
You won’t get very far in upholstery without being able to take furniture apart and put it back together. Let’s face it, there’s no point in a chair looking beautiful if it’s liable to fall apart when you sit on it. Fixing loose joints is just the start of it. And don’t think that just because a piece of furniture is newish, it will be immune to any technical issues – sometimes they’re the worst!
“As an upholsterer, you have to learn how to delve into the bones of a chair and understand how to spot issues – you become a bit of a furniture detective.”
As an upholsterer, you have to learn how to delve into the bones of a chair and understand how to spot issues – you become a bit of a furniture detective. Common issues can require tightening bolts, replacing broken rails or battens, and of course fixing weak and broken joints. There are often cosmetic adjustments that require some degree of woodwork wherewithal too. Switching legs and changing broken castors, for instance. Let’s just say you need to become very good friends with a hammer and chisel. Having an appreciation for wood is also key. Most of the frames you come across will be made of wood, so I’d advise you to understand the different types and – very important – learn how to spot woodworm and know how to treat it!
Painting & Polishing
For me, knowing how to handle the wood properly on a project is AS important as making sure the upholstery is finished to perfection. Judging when to paint and when to leave alone is one of the most critical judgements you’ll make in the upholstery process. There’s nothing worse than obliterating the age and beauty of something by painting over it. If there’s even a chance of preserving the authenticity in the wood, don’t mess – you’ll just be dissolving its history. Always take a decision – is painting the right thing to do? Even if you don’t like the colour or condition of the wood in its original state, there are things that can be done to enhance it.
Take, for instance, a Mid-Century lacquered chair frame. It used to be the trend to coat the wood with a spray varnish, but these days that is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Instead of taking the easy option to paint over it though, I often advise stripping it back. When you expose the raw beauty of the wood underneath and give it a wax or even a stain or varnish, the loveliness of the wood grain pops out beautifully.
French polishing is an art form and something that I adore doing. Getting the right mix of oils, stains and waxes, knowing how to use them – and in which order – is the difference between a drab and fab wood finish. I’m amazed at the amount of upholsterers who don’t even bother to give their pieces a basic polish. If you ask me, that’s like having a pedicure and painting your toes but not scrubbing your heels.
The most useful solution I have ever discovered for making furniture gleam is what I call my ‘Insider’s Secret’. I use a mix of boiled linseed oil and white spirit to clean and nourish every single item that leaves my workshop. Trust me, it smooths, cleans, revives and brings out wood grain like nothing else. The shine you get is stunning.
Thinking of learning the craft of upholstery? Sign up to my total beginner’s guide Virtual Vintique: Upholstery Uncovered and take the first step towards seeing if learning upholstery could be for you.
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