Thursday, April 29, 2010

Quick semi-tutorial on reupholstering the "that's so nineties furniture"

I saw that commercial with the denim furniture designed by Cindy Crawford and loved it--the furniture.  Buying it was not going to happen, though.  So, having tackled reupholstering before, I decided to do it again.  This set used to be a well-worn gray and mauve, stripes and flowers set from around 1995.  The kind everyone is selling on Craigslist.

Reupholstering is time consuming, but not really difficult even if you've never done it before. The sewing required is almost exclusively of the straight line variety.  And, it can be relatively inexpensive.  The fabric for this whole set was around $175 using coupons and sales.  I still had enough to make pillows, the lap quilt on the back of the sofa, Elliot (star of my last post), and further crowd my sewing room stash. This is not an in-depth, step-by-step tutorial, but, rather, an overall guide including information I have gleaned from my many early mistakes.  I hope that this will make the process easier for others who will be taking on the challenge.  There are tons of videos on the web showing the specifics such as sewing on piping. Start with a small chair!

Among the mistakes I made with earlier pieces was avoiding things that I thought would make the job more difficult such as the piping and skirting.  Those things turn out to be far easier that I thought they would be and are the very things that make the furniture look like professionals did it.  Check out the front of the arms and cushions here!

and here:

I am NOT a great seamstress.  I sew very little clothing because it more often than not doesn't turn out so well.  Doing the piping actually makes my corners which are not always so great look much better. Skirting is little more than some folds of fabric, filled with stiff fabric, and stapled in place.

As for the how-to part, most of what you need to know you will learn in the process of deconstructing the original fabric.  I take apart the pieces and use that fabric as a pattern.   Use a seam ripper to take apart the cushions AND LABEL EACH PIECE.  You can write right on the old fabric.   Use a narrow screwdriver to dig out the fabric stapled to the wood frame AND LABEL IT.  Can you see what one of my early mistakes was from those caps? 

Take pictures of the construction prior to deconstruction.  Take pictures of seams on cushions near the zippers, any pleats in the fabric around the arms or cushions, the fabric UNDER the cushions, the back of the furniture pieces.  Note what pieces of wood the arm and base seat fabrics are stapled to and whether the base seat fabric goes on first or the arm fabric.

Careful deconstruction is as time consuming as construction, but it is well worth it. It's a great activity to do while watching television or listening to books on CD.   I listened to Christopher Moore's Fool on CD while deconstructing this set.  It is without a doubt one of the funniest (in a very bawdy and wild way) I've listened to and the reader is perfect for the book.

Iron your "pattern" pieces so they will lie flat.  In order to have a more symmetrical piece, fold the "pattern" pieces at the center--almost everything will be the same on both sides aside from, possibly the zipper sections-- and place the center on a fold of the new fabric.  Sometimes the original fabric has stretched through use or in deconstruction so that they are no longer symmetrical.

Label each newly cut pattern piece as well.  You might want to use small pieces of paper and pin them on for this.  Remember that the fabric needs to be taut in the cushions and to pull firmly when stapling pieces on.  Fabric has some stretch and will loosen with time.  If the cushions are loose, resew a seam or two. 

Supplies and materials:
  • First, if at all possible reuse the original piping material, zippers, stiff materials in the skirting, cardboard strips in the edges (you will find them in the process of deconstructing),  the fabric under the seat cushions, and, of course, the cushions.  It is likely that they are a better quality than what you will get at the store, they are free, and you're recycling! So, be careful with the deconstruction.  I haven't had luck reusing the nail strips (again, you will find them if you don't know what they are), but you can buy them at Joann-kinds of stores, online, or maybe use upholstery tacks from the same sources.  Tacks look great on some pieces.
  • Use a heavy fabric and plain old thread.  Joann's often has upholstery fabric on sale.  I've had good luck, though, with  the heavyweight denim from the regular fabric section for this set and for cushions on an old church pew.  In my first attempt at reupholstering, I used fabric on sale that was a style already on the way out.  My "new" furniture was out of style at birth.  I try to find fabrics with staying power in the style department--something that will not make you think of eras gone by as in, "that's so eighties."  You might also need some batting if your furniture is well worn to smooth out cushions, arms, etc. 
  • You will need a seam ripper, heavy-duty stapler, staples long enough to get well into the wood of your furniture, thin screwdriver to get out the old staples (and misplaced new ones), and a hammer for the staples that need a little extra help getting in tightly.  
  • You need a sewing machine that will handle fairly heavy fabric. I have found that most of them do just fine.  I have used an old Kenmore and some newer Brother machines that were all fine.  If you don't have one check with friends.  So many people have machines they are no longer using.  They might be willing to let you use it, sell it cheap, or even given it away. 
My final advice:  don't be a perfectionist.  No one is going to pull out cushions to see how well your zippers are sewn in.   If they do, they are either not friends or very insecure.  And if you are the insecure one, stifle the need to point out what you feel are flaws when people are complimenting you on a job well done.  I have found mistakes during deconstruction by the professionals that are comparable to mine such as pieces of fabric sewn together to compensate for fabric cut too short.  Do be willing to use the seam ripper (carefully), however, if you think it is worthwhile to resew something.  Take your time, don't rush it.

I'm new at this sharing by blogging.  If there is something that needs to be stated more clearly or corrected, please feel free to let me know.  I'd be glad to clarify anything, and someone else may benefit from the correction. 

I'd love to hear from others who do this.  Feel free to add advice in the comments. If you are encouraged to give it a try, I'd love to hear how it worked out, too.


  1. You did a beautiful job~it makes me think maybe I could do this.

    What kind of stapler did you use?

  2. They look gorgeous! I have a chair in DS's room that I am planning to reupholster in denim but I have to finish a few other projects first.

  3. I'm impressed... I'd have made slipcovers,, reupholstering is alot of work!
    Great Job!

  4. Thanks, Suzanne. Until recently I always used just a heavy duty Arrow stapler. Now I steal my husband's small air compressor that came with a staple gun as one of the accessories. There are still some times where the Arrow fits in better for tight area. The Arrow stapler requires physical pressure both in squeezing the handle and pressing against the wood. The air gun requires ear protectors--it's loud!

  5. Sandy, I thought about doing slipcovers. I have actually never done that before. Having recently purchased a family room set that I call Adirondack style and my boys call ugly, slipcovers may be in my future:-)

  6. Your furniture looks wonderful and your tips are great! I've re done our couch three times and denim was the middle redo. I loved the way it looked and wore around the seams just like blue jeans and I kept it for a long time. Now it is chocolate brown twill, talk about a change! You are right, take it slow and easy and have patience with yourself!

  7. Thanks for this tutorial I have found it very helpful. I have made an easy slipcover for a simple sofabed but never a task such as this. I am tempted to have a go at reupholstering our three piece, the leather is in terrible condition but the wooden frame is in perfect condition and the size is perfect for our room. I am quite handy at the sewing machine but my husband hasn't got much faith in me doing this, I feel a bit more confident now that I have seen your own work. I think I will go out and look at some fabrics now! Thanks, Karima x

  8. Oh wow that looks VERY NICE! You did an awesome job and I love them!! I feel like I could do it but knew it would be time consuming. Going to try it one day! My family actually had an upholstery shop when I was a kid and I always loved to go to the place!!! My uncle has retired so he doesn't do it anymore. I have tried in the past to get him to video himself redoing something for me so I could learn how to do it. Don't think he wanted to do that. lol

  9. You've done a marvelous job on all the pieces! I love, love the afters and your decor. Thanks for the hints too!... sk home furniture