The secrets of upholstery revealed

Upholstery is an art and a craft, and the people working within it are highly skilled, but upholstery is not alchemy and nor is it a closely guarded secret. So here are a few of the techniques that we use to ensure that your furniture looks as great as it possibly can.

Uncovering the past

Taking down is the process of removing the layers of upholstery right down to the bare frame. This in itself can be an intriguing part of our work as each layer has its own story to tell – what fabric was used, the technique used, what materials were used to hold the fabric down.

Each layer is removed individually and inspected, keeping anything that is re-usable and discarding other material. When taking down, every tack, staple and stud is carefully removed and it is crucial that the frame is not damaged in the process. 

Depending upon the age and condition of the piece, taking down might involve just removing one layer and replacing it with lovely new material, or it might be a far more intricate piece of work, involving many layers and much frame restoration. It is at this point that wobbly or loose joints are repaired and webbing replaced if it is bulging or frayed.

Springing into action

Springs are used to give shape, resilience, depth and comfort to the seat, back and arm pads of a sofa or chair. There are four main types of springs: double cone, tension, serpentine/zigzag and mesh top.

Double cone springs are found mainly in the seat and backs and give a foundation to the furniture. Their job is to absorb and distribute weight evenly, so it is important they are fitted correctly and securely. To ensure they do their job, the springs are fitted to the webbing, to each other and to the frame before being covered with a layer of hessian.

Tension and zigzag or serpentine springs are largely found in modern furniture and are fitted to the frame with simple hooks, they employ a far less intricate method of rising than double cone springs.

Mesh top springs are mainly found in mass-produced and pre-fabricated furniture. They consist of single cone springs riveted on to a base of thin steel laths. These are held in place by a wire mesh with a heavier supporting wire around the edge. The whole system is then covered with hessian.

Stuffing and padding

How a piece is stuffed and padded is determined by the furniture design and the materials used. However, generally the rolling process is employed:

Once the upholstery foundation of webbing, base hessian and springs is fitted to the frame, the first layer of stuffing is applied. This is usually a fibrous, fire-retardent material or foam. In the past, this would have been horsehair. This is secured with bridle ties and a layer of hessian is applied.

The second layer of hessian is stitched and secondary layers of foam, cotton felt or wadding are used. A third layer of padding (cotton felt and wadding) is then added to seats, arms and backs for extra comfort.

The finishing touches

Finishing and covering is the icing on the cake! What will make the furniture come to life is the choice of fabric and finishes. Your colour scheme; the shape of the furniture; the style – modern, elegant, ornate; the materials used for the frame; the way the furniture will be used – every day or special occasion; all of these things will affect what fabric and finish you choose. But this is the moment that puts a smile on every upholsterer’s face – when the furniture becomes the star of the show.