Author: Spring Upholstery

My name is Nicki Tarr. I am passionate about upholstery. It’s a wonderful artisan craft that brings together so many elements I love… working with traditional materials and tools, and restoring wood to its former glory. I am lucky enough to spend my days learning my craft and using my hands to create things that are both useful and beautiful.

Renovating a Victorian sofa

A while ago some clients approached me about renovating their much loved Victorian sofa. They had bought it in London 35 years ago for £50 and when it became worn out, they decided to invest in this beauty rather than replace it.


The upholstery was very old and worn, but the frame was in good condition.

Here are some photos of the rebuild…

Despite the challenges of a drop arm, here she is, all rebuilt with traditional upholstery methods and materials and dressed in a wool & flax fabric with new seat cushions.

Stuffed and stitched

Before…

A while back, I bought a set of four Victorian balloon back dining chairs to restore and sell at Artist Open Houses during the May Festival. I wanted to showcase the amount of work and skill that goes into traditional upholstery but also illustrate how traditional antique furniture can be made to look contemporary and stylish.

This is a shot of one of the chairs before it was stripped back and the stuffing I discovered in the seat. An eclectic mix of the original seaweed & coir stuffing and some more modern bits of what looked like a massacred nylon teddy!

 

During

Here are just a few of the layers that go in to building a traditional seat… The final picture shows the different stages of seat stitching.

 

 

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…its quite tricky finding a way of taking a photo of four dining chairs with stitched seat pads that shows them in all their glory. Here are some of my attempts!

 

After

So here are two of the finished product, all dressed up in yellow Velvet  with Houles double cord.

 

These beautifully made frames now have new, traditional seat pads that are built to last and contain sustainable materials, not teddies… You can buy these as a pair of bedroom chairs or as a set of four dining room chairs. There’s two on display at Aymer Arts Open House which is on 1 Aymer Road, Hove – no. 13 on the West Hove Trail. Open every weekend through May from 11 to 6pm.

Guess who’s coming to dinner..

A lovely customer recently asked me to reupholster four dining chairs for her. She had inherited them from her parents who had been given them by their neighbour – Aunty Win.

The fabric reminded me of the carpet bag that Mary Poppins pulled a standard lamp out of…. Anyway, I digress! They were lovely solid frames but they needed new seats.

Here’s some of the processes that went into rebuilding the upholstery…

Webs, springs & lashing

Hessian and stuffing

And lots of stitching

After the second stuffing and calico, I really enjoyed using the beautiful Welsh wool fabric that my client had chosen. Its made by Melin Tregwynt Wool Mill in Pembrokeshire.

Now, I really want to make my own carpet bag with that old fabric…..

Super…what?

Suparest…

Suparest were an English furniture manufacturer back in the 1930’s. They made some interesting pieces usually with some form of bentwood in the design. I found one of their chairs and upholstered it for a friend a few years ago – see previous blog ‘Silk stockings & Bed Springs’.  Last summer, I came across another rather special one…

As you can see it was in a bit of a sad state, covered in grim red vinyl and the beautiful wood had been covered up with brown paint. However, its potential was singing to me so I bought it. You know I like a challenge…

Bit of background

This chair was made around 1930 and is a great example of Art Deco furniture.  Its two bow-shaped, beech timbers are steam bent all the way round to form the legs as well as the arms and backrest – a very clever design. The two sides are connected by crossbars and the upholstered spring unit is hung on the frame.

Back to the frame

I stripped back the upholstery and took the frame to be dipped to remove the brown paint.  Even naked it looked gorgeous, so we included it in our ‘Beneath The Surface’ exhibition to illustrate the beauty of the inside of chairs.

The rebuild

The original spring unit was beautiful but quite saggy so I sent it off to Wade Springs in Nottingham where they cleverly ‘reverse engineered’ me a new one! Then I set about rebuilding it. As 90% of the upholstery is attached to the metal spring unit, each layer has to be hand sewn into place… At this point I discovered that new spring units are quite sharp – youch!

Then onto the padding, first the coir, then a layer of rubberised hair which was sewn to the spring unit again (forgot to take a photo of that stage!) and then a layer of cotton wool felt.

The fabric

Any chair with an inverted curve needs a fabric that has some stretch to it, so a wool felt seemed like the perfect option. This fabric is a hard wearing wool felt by Camira that comes in great range of colours. I’ve used it to create a hand tailored cover – basically you cut and fit fabric together with pins, take it back off the chair frame, sew it together and then fit it back on. It may sound simple, but believe me its not…

This top fabric layer and the back all had to be sewn in place again.

And here she is all finished! An unusual Art Deco chair fully restored to her former glory in some smart contemporary fabric. This chair was sold to some lovely people this May as part of the Brighton Artists Open Houses 

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Going green

This old sofa is owned by a lovely Brighton artist who paints fabulous watercolours. It once belonged to her mum and she wanted to make it comfortable again and give it a new lease of life.

The sofa had originally been upholstered using traditional methods and materials so I used the same approach to keep it true to its original form. Here’s what was underneath the fabric.

Once stripped back to the frame, I began rebuilding the upholstery, starting with new stitched and stuffed arms.

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Then a new sprung back:

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Some fabric…

And a new sprung, stitched and stuffed seat…

Some more fabric, plus hand sewn arm facings…

Some cushions and all done. I love the brilliant green!

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Take me to Vancouver Island

I’ve been meaning to write a blog about this beautiful old French nursing chair for a while now. The owner was moving back to Vancouver Island and wanted to have the chair reupholstered before she left. She loved the hessian and webs exposed at the back and wanted to try and retain as much of its character and history as possible.

The frame had some woodworm which was quickly treated and its cover was a beautiful raw silk that was very frayed. When I took off the cover you could see the original colour of the silk where it had been tucked inside the frame and had not been faded by exposure to sunlight. You could also see the threads of the raw silk… Beautiful!

The back upholstery was in fairly good nick so I just rebuilt the seat. These were the beautiful old Victorian springs inside which were a bit too distorted to reuse. I’ve kept them though as you know I’m partial to spring and these are beauties.

The back was left open so that the lovely webbing and hessian could be seen – all framed with deep pink velvet and piping. I chose a piece of the brightly coloured original silk to secure to the outside back.

I like to think of this chair eventually sitting in its new home in Vancouver Island. I’m quite jealous really – lucky chair!

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Photo by Crusoe Weston

Below the surface

Traditional upholstery is about so much more than the fabric that covers a chair. Underneath the surface there is layer upon layer of work to create, build and sustain the shape of the chair. All achieved mainly using these and a few simple tools… I know, I’d never make a hand model!

People are often surprised by the cost of traditional upholstery, so I thought it would be worth showing quite how much work goes into it…

The Arms
There are over 10 stages to build traditional arms – even more if they are sprung! Here are just a few…

The Back

This is going to be a buttoned back – which is why the edges are being built up first to create a well for the buttons… Rest in peace Princess Leia.

The Seat
And at least another 15 stages to build a sprung, stitched and stuffed seat. This one has an independent sprung edge for extra comfort…

And here it is, hand built and stitched – before its top cover. I often wish I could leave them in their underwear like this…

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So why bother?

So why bother with all that palaver, when you can just use foam and get the job done much more quickly? Here’s why…

Sustainability The materials used in this chair are all natural and biodegradable, apart from the metal springs and they can be recycled. Foam is an oil-based product and will sit in land fill for hundreds of years.
Longevity A chair built with traditional materials and methods will last a long, long time, literally decades beyond the life of a modern piece of furniture made with foam.
Tradition This is how these antique chairs would have been upholstered over 100 years ago. To retain the integrity and authenticity of an antique piece of furniture its important to use methods and materials in keeping with its origins.
Celebrate and keep British craft alive! These skills will die out if we don’t keep using, sharing and teaching them…