Thursday, May 9, 2013

Learning a new skill by Lynn Davy

Bums on Seats – Lynn Davy has a go at upholstery for the first time...

(Anybody who has ever taken an upholstery class, look away now!)

A couple of years ago I inherited a rather nice battered old chair that belonged to my granny. It’s been around as long as I can remember, and it’s looked like this for as long as I can remember...

Which means it hasn’t been re-upholstered in (ahem) fifty years or so.

This wasn’t a problem until one day I was sitting on it (it’s become my crafting chair, it lives by the table in my studio) and something cracked. Up to that point I hadn’t really thought about what a chair seat might be made of, or how it might be made at all, but I took the seat part out of the chair and had a look.
It didn’t look good.
The webbing was all floppy and torn, and the fabric was coming off the frame. Not only that, but when I took the rest of the fabric off, I found that the wood at the front of the frame had cracked.
The original fabric was velvet and must once have been a really vibrant deep red although the top had faded to more of a russet-orange.
I peeled it off to see what the cushion part was made of. There was a lot of dust (thankfully I had taken my repair project outside into the garden by this stage) followed by layers of kapok (I think) and fluffy grey wadding, which turned out to have a previous seat cover mummified inside it. This must once have been a bright floral fabric – I have no idea how old this layer is, maybe 1930s, maybe older? – underneath which was a layer of sheep’s wool that looks to have been collected straight from the barn or perhaps straight off the sheep, complete with bits of straw. Also some scarily sharp tacks that had been entangled in it at some point during the upholstering process...

And holding it all up was a layer of hessian, maybe specially purchased, maybe a bit off an old sack.

 By this time I was beginning to feel that the whole construction was reassuringly low-tech and might not be beyond my ability to fix. I was also beginning to suspect that my granny (a fearless and practical lady) might have been the last person to re-upholster this chair seat. And since I still had granny’s tobacco tin full of tacks – which I’d been using for experiments in dangerous beadwork – plus a whole box of her vintage tools and hardware, not to mention several drawers full of her carefully hoarded fabric remnants, it seemed a good idea to take on the challenge and have a go myself. First job was to get those tacks out. And there was a tool just right for the task... anyone know what this is called?

I left the tacks that had held the crumbling velvet, as a sort of archaeological record of the chair’s history, and I glued, screwed and wired the broken bit of wood back together. I had intended to replace it with a new piece, scavenged from an old bed frame, but the clever joints at the frame’s corners would have been beyond my carpentry skills!
Next step was to replace the original webbing – the remaining sound parts were too short to be re-useable but I found a strap from an old computer bag that was long and strong enough to be used instead. I don’t know why the tacks are in that pattern but they were that way on the original straps and I presume the original tacker knew what he or she was doing. Unlike me...
Since I had no hessian, I used a double thickness of a heavyweight curtain fabric instead. Nailing it on was surprisingly easy and very satisfying, although that tapered shape was a bit of a challenge. I suppose I should have trimmed the fabric first. But this was all going to be inside the cushion, so I just folded it over and added more tacks.
For the cover, I used some gorgeous blue Sanderson fabric salvaged from the loose covers that used to be on granny’s old sofa. This I did cut to shape, not particularly accurately it has to be said, but I figured that so long as it was big enough, the edges would be underneath so a bit of wonkiness wouldn’t matter. I did try to be clever and get the pattern centred on the seat. Or was it the seat centred on the pattern? Anyway I reassembled the old cushion in reverse order on top of the new cover...

Then I stretched and nailed and hit my thumb and said a rude word and nailed some more and remembered how to do ‘hospital corners’ for the corners and took in a pleat or two where the fabric was loose and rediscovered why they say ‘sharp as tacks’ and added a few more tacks for luck until I reckoned it wasn’t going to fall apart if someone sat on it...
I turned it over with much trepidation and guess what? It looked like a chair seat again! And the pattern was still more or less in the middle. I will admit to doing a happy dance at this point.
Then I had an Awful Thought. What if I’d added too much fabric and it didn’t fit in the chair frame any more? Only one way to find out...

It was interesting learning a new technique from scratch. I’m sure I’d do a better job next time. It definitely hit the same spot as the beginner-level bookbinding that I dabble in from time to time: nicely low-tech and imprecise and with ample opportunities for using recycled and repurposed materials. And a great excuse to play with granny’s vintage tools, which are just such a pleasure to handle and use.

And now I can sit on my crafting chair again. I think granny would be proud!



  1. Looks fab :) Something i've always wanted to try but haven't had the guts..or the chairs! :)

  2. Come and do mine, aw, go on:) It's fab Lynn.

  3. What a great story. Did you put the old layers of fabric back inside the chair too Lynn?

  4. I did indeed Julia, all except the velvet and the hessian, but I haven't thrown those away... I've got something in mind for them!

    Thanks for the nice comments ladies. The chair is being sat on every day and so far it's holding up fine!