Dec 7
2018

Part 2 Restoring a Victorian Fainting Couch – Tear Down Time

So you REALLY want to restore a fainting couch. Well welcome back! If you didn’t catch Part 1, read on. In Part 2, we’ll explore the rationale for my fabric choice, briefly explore the tear down process, and how I chose the fabric.

Demo is the love-hate part for me, and you’ll soon discover why. Might be the same for you. Tell me some of your beastly tear downs in the comments. Love with no judgement here. On to the project, Her Majesty the fainting couch awaits!

Don’t faint over demoing your fainting couch

Relax. It’s demo time. No, you won’t be using a sledge hammer. I know, it would be fun. Now put it away. Most demos require smaller tools. Not a hammer, but a tacker. Not a Magic Bar, just a 6 inch nail puller. You must kill it with kindness.

With that being said, demo is “fun”. What I “like” about it is the archaeological dig aspect of it. Peeling back the layers of time, sometimes literally, is very revealing. You see the evolution of its life, and I find myself mulling over who owned it, what it experienced, and how it was treated. This is what fascinates me. It’s the heart of why I enjoy antique furniture.

And yet, demo=work. Sometimes very hard work. Sometimes it doesn’t cooperate. There is a lot of pulling, removing staples and tacks, and removing old filler. I’ve pulled tendons in my arms and worn out my back and knees from pulling, squatting and assuming awkward positions.  If I could just sit back and watch, maybe I’d relish the demo process more. Like I said, love/hate.

Ahhhhhh…ahhhhh….AHHHHH….CHOO-wah-wah!!!

Did I mention the dust? Oh, the dust. When you assume another person’s stuff, you really never know what you’re tearing in to. Just like house demo, there could by anything, and I do  mean ANYTHING hidden beneath decades of use.  Relax though. I don’t want you fainting over the demo of a fainting couch. Just be smart and be proactive in your approach. She’s like a stray dog. You don’t know where she’s been or what she’s carrying. I have encountered my share of critters. This one had a little mouse residing in its belly at some point. Mice may be cute, but mice=mice poop. Ain’t got time for that.

Back to the question at hand…

To restore or to renovate, that is the question. In Part 1 I left you with a teaser. This is real dilemma though. One the one hand, you have the purists who are committed to the preservation of architectural salvage. I am not opposed to that school of thought. And to be truthful, I lean in that direction. The destruction of historical treasures (yes, even just old furniture) makes me angry. Not everything old is worthy, but there are certain pieces that do demand our attention.

This is one of them by my perspective. I think the attraction was its place in the home. It was more than just a piece of furniture; it was iconic for its time. Its place is consequential and not incidental. In other words, this couch was in its original home because mainstream society demanded the woman of this house must be corseted to be cultured. If she were corseted, or her guests were, there would inevitably arise an occasion warranting the need to recline and breathe.

This to me is no mere armchair. This is history.

Let’s do the time warp, agaaaaaiiiin!

Admittedly, I’m no purist. I go where I flow. I’ve chosen to employ the hybrid approach. I will need to restorebut I also want to introduce her to the 21st century, gently. Since we’re being honest, I have two dogs, this isn’t a museum, so I also want to be practical.

The fabric I’ve chosen has both contemporary and period flavor. Velvet was trendy, as were prints. But a

Rudisel Velvet Metal

velvet print would not be something one would find in rural Mississippi where it came from. Unless you were really wealthy, furniture was locally sourced. Fabric could certainly be imported, but being in the textile hub of the country, it’s not likely. Against my personal preference, I will be using gimp braid. I’m not a fan, but it’s practical, easy to apply, and will give a consistent, clean finish to cover my staples. I’m excited to see the finished product. I think it’s going to be very elegant and lighten up the massiveness of the fainting couch!

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!

I know what you’re thinking. How can a large pattern with a dark background lighten things up? It’s the large pattern that does that. Remember in my blog How to Choose Upholstery Fabric we discussed pattern size vs furniture size. Because this is such a massive piece, we can get away with a large graphic. Because the pattern has so much ivory in it and we can see most of the pattern and the repeat across the body, that little light is really gonna shine!

Such a deal!

Spoiler Alert: shameless plug coming.

I love this fabric for several reasons:

  1. It’s an EXTRORDINARY VALUE
  2. It’s high end
  3. It’s durable but has flow. Rudisel Velvet Metal has a backing that reinforces the fabric, yet it still  drapes. When it’s tufted, the folds will cooperate to the degree I demand minus the  hassle factor.
  4. It’s a brick pattern repeat. That means less waste when we pattern match.

Ok, we get it, why the long winded rationale?

I want you to know not just what I chose, but why I chose it. Choosing fabric is not easy. You might like something, but there are factors to be considered when making the right choice. Way back in my tender years, I thought you could use any kind of fabric. I wanted to save money, be savvy and all, so I used everything from blankets to shower curtains. I learned the hard way that being penny wise and pound foolish is a real thing.  You want your hard work to live on. I want furniture from the past to continue to live, not just sit around looking pretty. That for me, is respectful of history.

So there. Now that we’ve covered that, it’s time to dig in.

Safety First

Three strongly recommended items you should use for tear down:

Gripper gloves

Why gripper gloves? Because they grip and protect. You can find them in the garden section, work section at most retailers that carry home improvement items. I personally like the nitril coated ones. Better quality ones are also puncture resistant which is important when you’re around exposed staples and tack nails. You’ll thank me later for that advice. Also, make sure they are lightweight and breathable. Avoid the rubber ones. Spend what you’re comfortable with. Just remember that the better they fit, the better they will work for you when you need to grip and tug on fabric.

And before you ask, no garden gloves with gripper dots won’t work. They don’t fit right. You need the nitril or the rubber palms.

Dust mask

 

As I said, you  never know what you’ll encounter. I guarantee that when you tear down really old furniture, the fur, horsehair, feathers, fiber, whatever is gonna fly! And you don’t need to be breathing that stuff. It will really give your fainting couch project ironic meaning. Use what you like. I like the cloth kind. They are antimicrobial and block dust and allergens. If you have allergies, you need this (and a double shot of Flonase!).

Eye protection

The fur will fly, and you don’t want old fibers in your eyes. Tear down is a dirty job. Don’t dress up and don’t work if you don’t want dust. Because dust is gonna happen but you don’t want to be fainting on your fainting couch. Get over it. Put your flip-flops on and move on.

A picture’s worth a thousand words…or minutes!

One of the biggest mistakes and best lesson I ever learned was the consequence of not documenting your progress. You think you’ll remember, but trust me, you won’t. If you document, you’ll have reference pictures. Even when you aren’t sewing anything, it’s easy to forget. You think that seat platform is easy enough to remember. With all the other parts to remember? Well, you have fun with that! Label and document, okay.

Smile!

So we’re going to document two ways. First, we’re going to photograph each section as it comes off, taking a before and an after. Second, we’ll label each piece as to what  part it is and indicate with arrows what direction it “north” so to speak. Of course, this project has only a couple parts. Nevertheless, I’m going follow my own advice and practice good habits! I know it’s time consuming.

Let’s look at a previous project:

First, I photographed the actual deck so I could see how it was placed.

After removing the deck, I labeled the pieces according to part and placement. This was the lesson I learned  that the hard way from a past mistake!

Here we go!

What tools do you need?

Staple puller or a small hammer with a claw

Electric or pneumatic stapler (Don’t cheap out here, see my notes*)

Hot glue gun just in case

Long tufting needle, at least 8 inches

Buttons for pulling and a second set for covering (don’t waste money on covered button blanks, just cover plain old buttons.)

Bailing twine for retying springs

Waxed lacing twine for tufting

Good, sharp scissors

Small pliers that grip

Everything mentioned above in the safety section

Small children to clean up after you

Materials needed

5-7 yards of fabric, your choice – I recommend medium-heavy weight

5/8″ buttons of your choice or covered button kits using matching fabric (Depending on your project, you’ll need anywhere from 50-200. I need 153)

5-7 yards of gimp or trim of your choice (I’m avoiding the whole nails thing, but if it’s your thing, then you do you!)

1 1/2 ” Dacron padding per your project needs ( I needed 12 feet)

5-7 yards muslin

1 1/2-2″ foam padding per your project needs (I needed 12 feet)

Polyfill on-hand just in case

*Do NOT try to do this with a handheld household electric stapler, even if it says heavy duty. Trust me, it’s not, and you’ll end up pounding in and bending or removing more staples than you care to. If you have an air compressor, a small stapler Like the one by Wen works great. If not, rent, borrow, or buy a crown stapler. I have a Roberts. It set me back around $100.  If you plan to do other projects, you’ll be glad. The 20 gauge staples are hard to find, but you can order them. I like these smaller staples despite the fact they are harder to remove, because they allow me to get in to tight spaces and do closer work such as tuck pleating.

You gotta tear it up, shake it up, make it up – as you go along.

First to comment the artist and title below wins a free prize!

There is a process, but sometimes you do make it up as you go along because even when they’re identical twins, no two are exactly alike.

As a rule, you work backwards. Bottom to top, or dust cover to wherever it ends. You can usually see where it goes. I like to remove trim where it’s convenient. Here, I removed it first.

Since the gimp braid was just around the perimeter, I went ahead and removed it. By doing this first, I could pull the fabric off easier too since it loosened things up a bit.

After lifting the end, I could clearly see all the layers. That’s important because you can see what you’re up against early on. Note the straw layer. It was a good and fresh as if it was new despite its little former house guest. Nevertheless, I still sanitized it and used organic bug spray.

Mmmmmmm…comfy. I kinda know how the Baby Jesus must have felt.

In all her naked glory. Note the dropcloth underneath. When you pull off the padding, you’ll understand why!

Little things matter…

As much as I wanted to stop, there was a spider web of mess underneath once all the buttons were pulled. All the anchor ties from tufting were hanging like cobwebs throughout the interior. They had to go, if for nothing else than my OCD. Thankfully this also revealed that the springs with very little exception were loose. I had to tie a few of them, which I expected. But just

Thankfully there weren’t any actual spiders in this spiderweb mess of string!

to see it in that tight condition after well over 100 years was unimaginable!

 

If you laugh at me, Ill never speak to you again! Yes, those are my Ethan Allen chairs. In my defense, they are getting recovered, and I lost my sawhorses in the move. As usual, I overestimated my fabric needs. But more is better!

It’s a “tuft” job, but somebody’s gotta do it!

I could write a whole series on tufting. This was a HUGE project as far as tufting goes. It takes four hands because it takes 5-ever! I felt like a mechanic climbing and sliding under that couch for days on end. On the bright side, the floor got really clean. I did use a makeshift mechanic dollie to make sliding easier. I also recommend using a light on the underside. If you don’t have sawhorses, you really can use four sturdy chairs. Just make certain they are sturdy and be safe. Other than turning it on its side, your options are pretty limited.

Let me also recommend a thimble and grab those gloves! It’s hard to push your tufting needle through.

  I know you want to know why two sets of buttons.When you start pulling down to create that tuft, you can pull your thread right through.

I doubled my thread, then doubled it again using a long lead and threaded it through the holes leaving two leads on top. I threaded the needle from below and pushed that through so I had to lower leads to loosely tie off. I pulled the cushion “down” from the top with the small buttons and tied them off at the desired depth. I added the covered buttons later by tying them to the top thread and adding a bit of hot glue under the button on the knot for security. It let me really torque down on that twine without damaging the fainting couch or the fancy button. A little more work, but a time saver in the end.

Tufting and tying. As easy as 1, 2, 3…154.

And now, the end is near…

Regrets, I had a few. But I did it my way! Once I got through all those buttons, Stapling, trimming, and gluing (yes, gluing because it looks neater) the gimp was like a breath of fresh air. When the dust cover went on, I nearly fainted with relief. This was by far the hardest project I’d ever done, surpassing even the salon styling chairs. There were times I wanted to give up, truly.

It was worth the work. I’d gladly do it all over again!

 

 

1870s Empire Revival Fainting Couch BEFORE

AFTER

Ironically, I may have to as I’m sad to report that less than a week after placing it in the family room, Elsa, pulled off five buttons, dug a hole and pulled out a substantial amount of stuffing. I’ll spare you the gruesome picture.

Niiiiicccce. So next post will be entitled “Let’s make a no-sew slipcover”! Until then…

Sew n’ piece my friends,

Mary

Don’t let that sweet smile deceive you!

Postscript update

In case you were wondering what I did with the fabric that came off…If I can, I always upcycle. It’s not always possible or desirable. In this case, I couldn’t bear for the antique fabric to be discarded.

So I took a risk and washed it. And waited with baited breath. It didn’t shrink. It faded a tiny bit, but it didn’t even ravel. It was a testament to old technology. It was damaged and showed its age where time had left its mark. But it only added to the character. I patched where needed and created a one of a kind coat that I’ll never wear (LOL), but will have a place should I ever dress up as a pirate or just want to make a hearty statement over a pair of jeans. Of course if anyone wants to buy it, please feel free to visit my ETSY store!