From Frame To Fabric: Making An Ottoman From Scratch

From Frame To Fabric: Making An Ottoman From Scratch

Cambria Bold
Jan 7, 2010

If you're anything like me, you probably have a pretty romantic view on upholstering (or re-upholstering). You see a beat-up chair at the flea market and think, Ah! A little dusting, a little paint, some pretty fabric, and it'll be better than new! (That's the DIY spirit!) It was with this feeling of optimism and potential that I signed up for Matthew Haly's über-popular 4-week upholstering class. The project? Matthew teaches you how to make an ottoman from scratch. The problem? Upholstering is more than picking out a pretty fabric (who knew?), and I'm not known for being handy with tools…

Matthew warned me that the class was hard. Hard, shmard! Bring it on, I said. It was only after I signed up for the class that he sent me blog post links written by past students (dare I say survivors!) and... okay, so Matthew wasn't kidding. There was an overwhelming sense of panic in the posts ("Instructions are given very fast! Segments are timed! You might not finish! Tying the coils is practically impossible! Stretching the fabric is a nightmare!") And many of these were from people who had sewing and/or crafty skills... of which I generally do not. Oh goodness. What had I gotten myself into?

Well, I was about to find out.

Week One:

I was the first to arrive at the studio, a bit before 6:00 pm. Matthew asked me to sit down at the nearby conference table and read and sign one of the 2-page forms sitting there. My eyes scrolled over the form...hereby consent to blah blah blah, I understand blah blah blah, loss of limb or other bodily injury... um, wait, what? There was no explanation or introduction given to the form, and as other people began to arrive, Matthew sat calmly and quietly at his desk while we all (potentially) signed our limbs away. One woman next to me nervously asked, "Did he ever tell us what the risks are?" and another girl quipped "Well, you're working with power tools, so there's always risk involved." Matthew smiled.

On to the workroom! All nine of us all gathered around a center table while Matthew gave the world's quickest introduction to all the tools you'll need if you ever plan to reupholster at home (and the ones we were going to be using in class) as well as places you can purchase them in the city. I was frantically scribbling them down (and peeking over my neighbor's shoulder to get items I missed, since she seemed to hear and understand everything completely). Here's what I got:


  1. Gooseneck Webbing Stretcher
  2. Magnetic Tacking Hammer
  3. Staple Remover (Size 120.5 is the best)
  4. Awl (#4 is the largest one)
  5. Regulator
  6. Diamond Tipped Tufting Needle
  7. Hand Stitching Curved Needle (Set of 5)
  8. Pincers
  9. Scissors
  10. Tailor's Chalk
  11. Staple Gun with a Nose on it.*
  12. Tacks

*The best option really is an air-compressed staple gun, but (as you can imagine) that gets a little problematic if you live in a rental. The recommended staple gun will cost you $250.

So, Matthew said, if your spirits haven't been broken, file out and pick one of the 9 available work tables. I ended up at the table on the far end of the room, by the window, and as it happened, the worst place to view Matthew's demonstrations, which he was still doing at the center table.

At that point we were instructed to pick up the air-compressed staple gun on our table.

[Side Note: I am not known to be a handy person. I do not have handy skills. I have never really operated any power tools. There was a part of me that hoped this class would reveal an unknown skill for these things, a previously untapped pool of talent that would send me on a major power (tool) trip! This did not happen.]

Do you ever have one of those moments where you're looking at something and thinking, yes, I see how that is. But then it's like your brain synapses have gone haywire, and you're completely incapable of making your body do what your brain is telling you is so obvious? That was my first experience with this staple gun. Matthew was trying to show us how to release the tack chamber, and I'm not kidding when I tell you that it took me at least 30 seconds to get it right. Everyone else in the class was standing there, looking at me, waiting for this idiot by the window to get her stupid staple gun in the right position. So this is what it's going to be like, huh?

First task: Measure, center, cut, and staple five strips of jute webbing on the top of the frame, the foundation for the 5 coil springs.

Step One: Attaching the Jute Webbing

Well, I had to figure that staple gun out pretty quick because I needed to use it in the first step. After cutting two small strips of jute webbing (looks and feels kind of like burlap), we were instructed to use the width of the webbing to measure three equidistant marks on the two opposing sides of our ottoman frame. Once measured, we needed to staple three long strips of webbing to the frame, angling our staples and keeping them towards the inside of the frame. Once those two sides were completed, we were told to cut and staple two more strips on the counter sides to create a weaving pattern with five strips total.

Enter Tool #1, the Gooseneck Webbing Stretcher, which was needed to pull the webbing strip tight over the frame with one hand while you staple it with the other. So imagine this: you're trying to pull this webbing as tight as you can with one hand while reaching for and maneuvering a bone-shattering tool (that you've never handled before) with the other hand. There's a running commentary in your head: Concentrate. Okay. Slowly... reach. Got it. Do not staple finger. Woh! Keep finger off tringer. Do not staple neighbor. Angle, angle, yes!

[Side Note: My confidence was not helped by the fact that my neighbor must have had some sort of professional carpentry experience or something, because he was always done in two seconds flat. And I kind of wanted to tell him to please stop being so good. Like, couldn't he at least pretend that this was hard for him?]

In the end, while my stapling job wasn't perfect (I kept stapling too close to the edge and splitting the wood), and I was working way too slow, I thought the end result wasn't too shabby! Maybe I could do this after all!

5 Coil springs (above) and their exact marked placement on the webbing.

Step Two: Sewing on the Coil Springs

We had five coil springs (the kind of springs used in most custom shops, as opposed to the zigzag springs you see in cheaper or more commercial furniture) that we needed to evenly space on our now-woven-and-stapled-webbing, about an inch from the edge of the frame. After marking exactly where they were to be placed (including the direction they should be facing), we were told to sew them down (three stitches per coil) with one long piece of heavy twine. I got dreadfully behind on this part because I was working too slow. (You were supposed to sew in a particular way and in a particular direction, and I kept messing this up and having to start over.) Matthew's assistant, Antonio, had to come and finish this part for me while Matthew went on to the next instructions. Sigh.

Matthew hand-trying the coils.

Step Three: Hand-Tying the Coil Springs
Warning: Doing this will suck your soul out.

If I thought the previous steps were hard, it was nothing compared to the final step of the night: hand-tying the coils. I can't even get into what this was other than to show you the composite picture I created from snapping shots while Matthew was demonstrating. It's basically a very complicated series of loops and knots to bring the height of the spring coils down to 3.5 inches. And I watched, and I tried, and again, my brain synapses failed to ignite any form of tactile memory. And Matthew kept telling me it was wrong (granted he was deliberately giving me a hard time—Come on, Cambria! This should take you 2 minutes! Hey, Matthew. How many years have you been doing this? Twenty-five?) I never got it. We were supposed to tie down three rows of coils. I only managed to do one, and I really only did half of that one as Antonio had to come and fix the rest.

And then class was over. Apparently when I go into class next week, those other two rows will have been tied down by Matthew's crew (since the class has to keep on schedule), but I will be expected to do two more rows myself. Which means I'll have to figure out what the heck I'm doing.

Stay tuned...

Click here for more information about signing up for one of Matthew's upholstery classes at The Furniture Joint.

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