An upholsterer’s approach to fabric is completely different than that of a decorator or designer. Their main relationship with fabric is mainly an aesthetic one whereas mine is more of a utilitarian one. Basically, I look at the fabric in relationship to the piece that I am going to be upholstering to gauge whether it has the correct elasticity and give for me to apply it properly...
Students in my upholstery class are always surprised by the varying amounts of tension required when applying fabric to a piece. For example, a Tulip chair or Egg chair that has a lot of rounded edges defining its shape and design requires a lot of hand stitching, so a fabric with a lot of elasticity is needed so it can be stretched around the curves properly.
You will also notice that most modern or round chairs are done in solid fabrics. This is not coincidental. Stripes and patterned fabrics are not a good choice for modern or rounded pieces (as opposed to a basic wing back chair). The tugging and pulling of the fabric required for its proper application will pull the stripe or pattern out of place and you will end up with crooked stripes and warped and wavy looking patterns!
For most upholstery projects silks and linens usually require a special backing in order to strengthen the fabric. A knit backing is fused to the back of the silk or linen. Likewise, any fabric that has extra elasticity is also backed, as the backing will help eliminate some of the excess stretch. Make sure to ask your upholsterer about the piece you are covering and what fabric will work best for reupholstery!
In some cases you might find some antique modern furniture done in leather, but you may find it difficult to find an upholsterer to redo it using new leather. The reason for this is that the piece was originally upholstered using a suction vac-type procedure where the leather is basically molded to the piece using a vacuum type apparatus (think shrink wrapping and holding it in place until the leather breaks in and “learns” the curves of the piece and the glue backing has dried). This process is performed in a factory setting and most ‘boutique’ upholsters are not able to achieve this process.
A Final Note on Custom Furniture:
I like to use the analogy that getting custom upholstery is like getting a custom suit made. Everyone's body is different — one person’s knee-to-foot measurement may be different from the next person and someone else’s hip-to-knee measurement might differ as well. When applying this analogy to furniture it essentially means that everyone “sits” differently and to and some extent you can have your custom sofa ‘fitted’ to your body’s personal needs and measurements. Height of the seat, depth of the seat and the type of padding and cushioning all play a part in how a good custom sofa is designed. So it is important that you visit your atelier and sit on different samples till you feel the right fit.
• An Upholstering Primer: Part 3 of 4 — The Truth About Green Upholstery
• An Upholstering Primer: Part 2 of 4 — Finding a Good Upholstery Atelier
• An Upholstering Primer: Part 1 of 4 — Consider Your Furniture
Matthew recently authored Matthew Haly’s Book of Upholstery, published in 2009 on Random House’s Potter Craft imprint. It explores techniques, tips and tricks to producing A-level upholstery projects at home. The book is an excellent resource for those unable to enroll in Matthew’s highly popular evening upholstery classes.