Adventures in Upholstery: Introduction

April 15th, 2013

Most of my textile work to date has been focused on garments. Imagine my excitement (and trepidation) as I embark upon my first upholstery project!

The book I’m using for reference — a gift from a dear friend — suggests a small tufted footstool would be good for my initial endeavor. But I don’t believe in starting slowly.


Here’s the turn-of-the-century parlor suite I’m going to upholster. Without knowing much about wood, I’m going to guess it’s oak. There’s a sofa, a divan, an arm chair, and two side chairs. My mother found them, in this condition, years ago in an East Coast antique store. Her baby brother (whose childhood nickname was Flash) convinced her to buy the lot on the spot. My father was not so quick to appreciate it however, and it lingered in their basement for over a decade before Mom decided to ship them out to me in California. Actually, they’re just the thing for our early 1920s redwood cabin living room. (The house was originally just the single room — later 20th-century additions expanded it to a luxurious 3 bedrooms, 2 full baths.)

Furniture Detail

The carving is very art nouveau!

Furniture Detail

Legs on metal casters are typical of parlor furniture from the second half of the 19th century through the early 20th. They made the heavy pieces easy to move around on carpet so the rooms could be rearranged for various uses.

Furniture Detail

Don’t you just love the open arms? And they’re very strong. The whole thing is quite solid actually.

I sort of wonder who removed the original upholstery — was it the antique store? Perhaps it was in such tatters that they thought the pieces would sell better without it. Or maybe there was some awful intermediate treatment featuring cartoonish flowers from the 1970s…regardless, it’s completely gone. It’s a shame, since the suite would be much more interesting, not to mention valuable, if it were intact. But then I would have to worry about ruining it by using it. So maybe it’s better this way.

I wonder how common these suites actually are? Here’s a page from the 1897 Sears & Roebuck reprint, featuring a couple of similar sets (the two on the bottom):

Sears Catalog Page

Based on this, it looks like my suite is missing the rocker. Darn! I adore rocking chairs.

  • Melissa says:

    Good luck Eva! I have a few unfinished upholstery projects in our garage, so I’ll have to get your expert advice when I actually decide to tackle them. By the way, what fabric are you using?

    • eva says:

      Ooooo — we were talking about having an upholstery bee. I know a couple other people with pieces to cover. Sure beats quilting. I’m still up in air about fabric — just not cut velvet ;-).

  • Nick says:

    Good luck Eva, but NOT OAK. Looks like birch stained to look like mahogany. Oak has a very strong grain. This appears to have been stained and lacquered to look like french polished mahogany which was a budget conscious trick. If these were oak, they’d be SO HEAVY. These would look beautiful with an art nouveau damask or cut-velvet (which doesn’t hold up, however.) xxoxo

    • eva says:

      Thanks Nick! Believe it or not, on a different page of the Sears Catalog, they gave those very same options — oak, or french polished “mahogany” birch. You’re good. Very good. Cut-velvet would be drool-worthy, but alas, not drool proof.

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