Vickie Rayls of Rio Linda got the Early American maple rocker along with her husband.
“It’s a family heirloom that’s been in my husband’s family for generations,” said Rayls as she worked on the bones of the old rocker. “It’s been re-covered a number of times; it had been Naugahyde. I figured, with some beautiful fabric, I can make it mine.”
So, Rayls took an upholstery class at Triad Plus Home Fashions in Roseville and got rolling on her rocker.
“This is so much fun,” she said. “Now I know a lot of other things I want to get done.”
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DIYers are discovering the joy of upholstery, the process of covering furniture with fabric. Many of them stumble onto it out of necessity.
“When I got married, I had all the family hand-me-downs for furniture,” said Jennifer Mason, who now teaches upholstery at Triad. “I took an upholstery class and got hooked. I started picking up chairs at garage sales.”
A new covering can add decades of usefulness as well as update a tired or worn look, Mason said. Getting started often is the hardest part.
“Our busiest time of year for (upholstery) classes is January – everybody makes it a resolution,” said Bonnie Treadway, who teaches several classes at Triad. But upholstery also makes a good summer project, she added, “when it’s too hot outside to do anything else.”
It can intimidate beginners, said upholsterer Amanda Brown, author of “Spruce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Upholstery and Design,” who opened her furniture redesign studio in Austin, Texas, in 2007. “I remembered the struggles I had. I needed help – and a dictionary.”
Upholstery has its own lexicon of specialized terms such as gimp (woven decorative trim) and bridle ties (hand-sewn stitches that attach padding to furniture).
“Until you know the little tricks it looks impossible,” Brown said. “But step by step, inch by inch, you can break it down and get it done.”
Fear of needle and thread stops many would-be upholsterers, Brown said. “But upholstery doesn’t have that much sewing; it’s more hammering and stapling.”
Brown got the upholstery bug while in college. Her first project was a thrift-store couch. She re-covered it with yards of blue and tan plaid, all held in place with safety pins. She pushed the couch back against a wall to cover the attachments.
Later, she took classes in upholstery and discovered she had a knack for redesigning furniture. New fabric gives it new life.
Brown sees upholstery as a natural progression for DIYers and interest in interior design.
“People are going back and doing things with their own hands,” she said. “You see the process, and upholstery fits right into that. Also, we’re saturated with so much design information these days, people are rolling up their sleeves and getting into interior design.”
Costs to reupholster furniture prompt many people to give it a try, Brown noted. Professionally re-covering a simple chair can be $100 to $200; a sofa, more than $1,000.
“There’s a lot less guilt when you do it yourself instead of shelling out the big bucks,” she said. “The best approach: Start small and simple. If you can get through a simple project, see the before and after, that gives you the confidence – and the bug – to do it again.”
Since starting the upholstery class eight years ago, the staff at Triad Plus have seen all sorts of projects. One woman brought in a sectional sofa, piece by piece. Another made a project out of an antique fainting couch “in silver and turquoise,” Treadway said. “It was real bling.”
The students can work on anything they want so long as they transport it to and from class. Overwhelmingly, the students in Triad’s classes are women, Treadway noted.
During a recent class, Jeanne Powell stretched blue fabric over the seat of a vintage rocker nearing its revival.
“It was a see-through chair when I started,” she said, noting holes had been worn through the fabric. “It was full of straw; fortunately, no rats.”
This was a project she had in mind for decades, Powell added.
“I found this rocker in a junk store when I was a college kid,” she said. “I’ve lugged it around forever with its old cover and saggy seat. I finally decided it was time to do something. The hardest part was picking the fabric and making the commitment.”
Like Rayls, Marlene Meagher also was inspired by family history. She has a beloved midcentury modern swivel chair that became her introduction to upholstery.
“Everybody loves this chair,” said Meagher, a substitute teacher from Carmichael, as she tucked and pinned welting into place. “My family has had it since the ’60s. It brings back childhood memories. It spins around 360 degrees.”
Although she loved the chair, Meagher was not crazy about its red-and-black-striped tweed upholstery. She decided it was time for a change, opting for a ’60s-style blue-and-green polka dot pattern on a textured beige background.
At first, Meagher took her chair to a professional upholsterer. “They actually took it all apart, then decided they couldn’t do it,” she said. “So, I took it over.”
The curved lines of the circular chair challenged the short-cut methods used by many professionals, noted Mason, who teaches the classics.
“I prefer the Old World methods,” said Mason, as she helped with the chair. “Most pros use metal strips and staples; that’s OK, but that’s difficult with curves like these. When you’re learning, go slow. Use tacks and hand sew. You can see what you’re doing.”
Now, Meagher is learning to hand sew with a curved needle.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Meagher said. “Jennifer is a fabulous teacher. She’s very patient and takes you through step by step.”
Mason prefers tacks and stitches to staple guns because they’re more forgiving.
“People think, ‘I’ve got a staple gun; it’s easy,’ but anyone who has tried to take something apart knows staples are a lot of work,” Mason said.
Plus removing staples can tear up the fabric – and your fingers.
“You can move the tacks around fairly easily,” Mason added. “You just tap them in halfway until you’re happy (with their position), then hammer them in. Same with hand sewing; it gives you a lot more control. And if you want to do it over, you can easily rip out the stitches.”
Because most furniture – at least those pieces meant to last – will need to be reupholstered at some time.
Rayls kept that in mind when doing her first class project, a simple bedroom chair.
“On a slat inside the chair back, I wrote my name and the date and that I did this chair in my first upholstery class,” Rayls said. “So, whoever does it again (in the future), they will know some of the history of that chair, or at least what I added to that.”