Traditional upholstery

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…..

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…

 

Beauty and the beast

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

A few years ago some friends offered me a lovely old arm chair – it’s a 1930’s club chair that had been in Sarah’s family for years, she had been nursed on it as a baby and grown up with the chair in her family home. Here it is in the 1980’s with some William Morris fabric, a skirt and a very sweet dog. Oh and this is Sarah on her horse.

 

In more recent years, it spent some time in Sarah’s own living room with a new loose cover (made on the other side of the world but that’s another story). Really it needed reupholstering but this is a huge chair and it was going to be expensive! Knowing about my career change, Sarah gave it to me as a future project.

Beast

It is a beast of a thing, but I love it! It took two of us to lift it and we could barely get in through the front door and into the hall. Here’s what it looked like under the loose cover and stripped back to the frame..

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Chair growth..

So, I took it in to college as it provided me with lots of things I needed to practice – an independent sprung edge, wings and massive sprung arms. Working on it for just one day a week and doing the whole thing using traditional upholstery methods and materials – it took a long, long, long time, particularly those darn sprung arms! Here’s are some photos of its development…

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No-one puts baby in a corner

Actually they do and then they put her on a pallet at The Cass Upholstery end of year show 2015.

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Home sweet home

Since I’ve had ‘the beast’ back home, I’ve added some stripey cushions and matching 1930’s footstool. This is my favourite armchair to curl up in with a book. With footstool in position, it also provides the perfect spot for 40 winks on a Sunday afternoon…

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Two of a kind

Learning the noble art of traditional upholstery continues to be both hugely challenging and incredibly rewarding. However, it turns out that creating a number of matching chairs is a whole different skill in itself! So back in the summer, I brought two dining chairs into college to work on together.

Great legs

These chairs are Victorian balloon backs with cabriole legs and some beautiful carving. This style of chair dates from about 1840, so they are approximately 150 years old.

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Snap!

In order to create two matching seats, you have to apply each layer of upholstery to both the chair frames, weighing the stuffing and constantly measuring the height as you go.

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Woman on the edge…

Stitching is one of my favourite elements of traditional upholstery – it creates a firm edge, gives a seat its shape – and its key to creating two seats that look the same!

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A matching pair

Using traditional upholstery methods and materials on these antique chairs means that they not only look beautiful, but will now have many, many more years of life in them yet. And they look pretty darn matching too!20141101-234935.jpg

A curious case of deep buttoning

DSCF3122Deep buttoning is a rather curious thing…. Victorians introduced it in the second half of the eighteenth century to give ‘fresh decorative character to upholstery’ (David James 2008). Actually – they came up with it to torture upholstery students…  Traditional deep buttoning is very difficult!

Now, while it is not particularly popular in the world of contemporary upholstery, deep buttoning is definitely a skill you need to have in your traditional upholstery tool bag – hence my recent choice of chair to work on at college. A few of my fellow students also took on similar buttoning challenges and for a while the workshop was awash with much heavy sighing, a considerable amount of swearing and even some interesting horse-like snorting noises…

 A journey into deep buttoning

I thought you might like to share the journey……

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After many, many hours and a lot of effort – this was the end result… A very comfortable, deep buttoned Victorian slipper chair. 

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For sale!

A little bit of give…

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I decided to name my fledgling business – not after the season of daffodils, baby lambs and cherry blossom – but actually after the humble metal spring.

Springs are marvelously utilitarian in their look and feel and yet still manage to be beautiful. They create the foundations of a seat and contribute to it’s comfort and stability.

A brief history of the spring…

Before springs – you’d have just sat on fillings like hair, feathers or rags – with not a lot of give!

The Victorians introduced the double cone spring and by 1850, many seats, backs and arms were being built with these springs to provide comfort. These springs look very similar today and are still used in traditional upholstery. These are my favourite. Beautiful!

Victorian bloke

Double cone spring

Double cone spring

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Lashed spring

 
spring unit

spring unit

The first half of the 20 century saw lots of development to the spring – mainly to increase speed of making mass produced furniture and reduce costs. For example you didn’t need to know how to position and lash springs when inserting a spring unit – just pop it in!

Tension springs are often seen in 50’s & 60’s furniture and were used a lot in Parker Knoll chairs. Serpentine springs are the sorts of springs used in a lot of modern furniture – you’ve probably got some inside your sofa!

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Tension springs

Serpentine springs

Serpentine springs

 

So next time you drop into a comfy armchair – give a thought to the springs hard at work beneath your derriere!