Tips and Tricks Upholstery 101

We’re smiling with you!

So ya wanna do your own upholstery…

Awesome! Go for it! You’ve got chutzpah! Upholstery isn’t rocket science. But a hasty approach could spell doom. With a few basic tips, you could avoid a reckless ride down Epic Failure Boulevard and a costly stay at Wasted Days Motel! (Been there, done that, got the T-shirt!)

In this post, we’re not going to learn HOW to upholster, rather, we’ll look at some things to avoid, a few flair tips for points, and maybe just a hack or two for good measure! It’s Upholstery 101, and I promise there won’t be a quiz.

I remember when…

I remember when I was terrified of upholstery. My mother-in-law could make anything from boat covers to slip covers. I was impressed, awestruck, glassy eyed with envy. I could sew. Heck, I could sew in my sleep! Why did it look so hard?

It looked hard because I looked too hard at it and couldn’t see the simplicity. Without the simple faith of a child, I couldn’t grasp the concept that it wasn’t any harder that what I was already doing. I could sew by a pattern. I could adjust and adapt existing patterns. I could even cut down a garment and remake it using  the garment itself as a pattern. Once I quit trying to make it rocket science, I could finally see that it was just a different kind of pattern. And like a pair of pants, with only minor exceptions, there are only so many pieces to a pattern that come apart and go back together the same way.


Yes, Virginia…REALLY.

Tip #1 I do? Or I don’t…that is THE question

Let’s get real. A lot of the furniture today is not reincarnation worthy. You will always get what you pay for, but even expensive furniture can be poorly constructed. I’m always amazed when I tear into a couch a client says they paid over $1000 for to find cardboard and joints put together with screws, nails or even glue. Unfortunately, I will likely have to make repairs to shore up the piece. Unless you know the bones of your piece, it’s hard to tell. If you’re doing your own work, and that’s what we’re talking about here, take the time to peek. You don’t have to do invasive surgery. Removing the dust cover from the bottom is usually sufficient to tell and can be easily put back or replaced should you decide to scrap the project and keep or resell the piece.

Why is reupholstering so expensive?

This question comes up frequently. People mistakenly think reupholstering is all about the fabric. It’s not. That’s like saying car repair is all about the parts. It’s a very specialized skill that involves a laborious process. That’s not to say you can’t do it. However, complex projects that involve coil springs, or zig-zag springs, fixing padding or structural mends take time. Not every upholsterer takes it though. It makes me sad to do a project that like a roof, has layers because the upholsterer didn’t want to be bothered with stripping the piece down. Not only is it time consuming, it’s downright hard sometimes pulling hundreds of staples or tacks. OY! My husband once remarked that my “hobby” (he keeps calling it a hobby) was hard. It can be. I will tell clients upfront that I don’t charge for teardown, unless I run into a major catastrophe like the one I just described. While you will save yourself buckets of money doing your own work, it’s not always going to be effortless. But when I consider the pride of doing my own work, it’s always worth it to me.

Tip #2 Take the teardown SERIOUSLY

While we’re talking about teardown, keep in mind it’s more than just tear it up. It’s a critical step. Like putting on your make-up, there’s an order to it that, if ignored, will have you looking like a really hot mess!

Label EVERY piece! Trust me, you’ll forget if you don’t

Work from the bottom up. Last on, first off. Label every piece. As you work your way back to the beginning, you will see the process unfold. Pay attention. Details matter. Skipping this step could easily spell disaster.


Got it? Good.

Teardown is also the time to assess your piece for what needs replacing, repairing, etc. I recommend doing this BEFORE YOU ORDER FABRIC. You’ll thank me later if you discover the piece wasn’t even worth it in the first place. Also, you can use those pieces to help you estimate yardage.

Tip #3 Soft fabric, warm fabric, buy it by the yard. Happy fabric, pretty fabric, here’s my credit card!

Oh my. So tempting, I know. Upholstery fabric can get very expensive. There’s great fabric available for under $10/yd. But for higher end designs, it’s not unusual to pay over $20/yd. If you’re doing a couch that calls for 11 yards, ordering 15 just to be safe is not a cost effective plan unless you plan to make a lot of coordinating pieces or copious amounts of pillows! So you want to measure carefully and buy what you need.

Now, with that being said, mistakes happen. So having a couple extra yards isn’t a bad idea, especially if it’s your first rodeo. You can always use the extra yardage to make antimacassars (that’s a $12 word for arm and head rest covers), throw pillows, a valance, whatever. You could even make an extra cover for a cushion, just in case. Here’s a basic guide for estimating yardage.

Tip #4 Remember Tip #2

Now that you know I’m serious about the teardown, let me tell you the next nugget.

You do NOT have to reinvent the wheel.

That’s correct. You’ve already done half the work just by carefully saving and labeling your pieces from the teardown. Upholstery, (basic, we’re not talking about a major complicated project) is really just a big puzzle you have to put back together. And just like it helps to have the picture on the box for reference, taking pictures of the project as you go and labeling your pieces will help you create a beautiful picture.

Each piece is just a pattern waiting. Using your teardown as a pattern template will almost guarantee a perfect fit. Just remember that trimming occurs during the process of upholstering a piece, so if you notice that your piece was cut close to the edge, make a notation on the piece to add X number of inches do you don’t literally cut yourself short and have no room for pulling through and tacking.

Note!!! This does NOT apply to cushion covers which must be cut carefully and the seams be sewn the same so you don’t make it too big. This ONLY applies to arms, backs, platforms (the part a cushion sits on top of), anything that will be pulled or stretched around an area.

Tip #5 It’s okay to be a little biased…

And by that I mean cutting on the bias, or across the grain from corner to corner. When making piping, you’ll get a better turn around corners and avoid a bunchy look by cutting your pieces on the bias. Here’s a tutorial from a great archived blog that will give you the skinny on what to do:










Hack #1

Reuse the piping. If you can get the piping off in one piece, outstanding! You can cover it again as long as it’s in good shape. I’m a fan of repurposing if you haven’t figured that out!

Hack #2

Fluff got no more stuff? If your foam is looking a bit low-down, you can revive it providing it’s not deteriorating or crumbling. If that’s the case, ditch it. To revive foam (the yellow or white cell foam), take a steamer and hold it along the flat surfaces, top and bottom, and the sides. Miraculously, you’ll see it begin to plump right back up. Now if only I could deflate my thighs the same way…

Hack #3

Fit the cushion last! Wait to make the seat cushions until last. Sometimes, we tend to add extra stuffing to the sides, platform or back. When this happens, it changes the space the cushion will occupy. Dry fit your cushion foam BEFORE you cut out the cushion pattern and make it. This way, you’ll avoid a lot of refitting.

Hack #4

Recovering a chair seat doesn’t have to be an order. Dining room chairs and wooden arm chairs with padded, covered seats don’t have to be torn apart. Simply add a layer of fresh batting and cover the seat being careful to pull the corners evenly. Change your look as often as you want! For a quick change at the holidays, Do a temporary cover with double stick carpet tape. Voila!

Hack #5

Hack, hack, hack…oh what the hack. You don’t need to buy fancy button cover kits. Take any shank style button. Cut a circle about twice the size. Check and trim as needed to avoid bulk around the shank. Sew a gathering stitch around the circle with sturdy thread. Pull slightly to gather. Place the button inside the pouch you made. Pull the stitches tightly and take extra stitches as needed to pull the gather tightly and create a smooth covered top. Secure with a good knot and trim.

You’re welcome.

Sew n’ piece my friends!