An Upholstery Primer by Jack Carr
Webbing supports the springs of your sofa, or upholstered armchair. If it's worn out, the upholsterer replaces it, using one of three kinds: Nylon, which is serviceable and least expensive but not the longest wearing. Jute, an imported fiber from India preferred for quality and strength. And polyester, the latest in use and said to be very long lasting.
Webbing comes in strips about 3½ inches wide and it's stretched across the deck (or frame) and woven back and forth like the reed strips in a basket. Webbing is also put on chair seats that have pads and no springs. It is also put on seats and backs of fully upholstered chairs.
The 8-way hand-tied spring is a mark of quality and a byword in industry parlance. But the consumer can be somewhat mystified and is apt to respond with, "It sounds good but what does it mean?" It means you'll never be sorry.
The 8-way hand-tie uses a coil spring which is the strongest, most resilient, flexible and longest lasting. It practically never gives out, although a coil or two may give up and come loose or break.
To refurbish springs, the upholsterer re-attaches loose springs, replaces any if necessary, and re-ties the entire set, one by one. Each coil is sewn to the webbing (or attached with a metal clip), then tied to the coil next to it. Each row of coils is then tied front to back, side to side, and diagonally two ways, 8 in all. And all are tied on exactly the same level to make a symmetrical, even suspension for the most comfortable seating.
Different Degrees of Suspension
This smooth meadow of springs can be tied at different levels for different degrees of firmness. The more they are pulled down, the firmer the seating. Firm, medium-firm, or hard, the hand-tied coil spring will always have g-i-v-e.
Zig-zag springs are also hand-tied. They are an S-shape, simpler in construction, and are used in frames that take stresses differently and for which they are more appropriate. They have come into use more recently than the coil spring, and are differently attached to the frame, with clips.
Fillings provide the comfort on seats and backs of upholstered furniture, and also influence the shaping. They vary from down, which gives a rich, plushy softness–to hair blends for the firmest seatings.
Now that full, plump cushions and seatings are in fashion, down is used alone in matching pillows, and in combination with other fibers for the seating, as with a mix of rubber for smoothness and resilience. Down is the most expensive filling. It is seductively soft and is the traditional luxury filling.
Made in rolls of varying thicknesses, Polyester can be used alone or as a wrapping for polyfoam. Provides a smooth, rounded and soft cushion and is an excellent contemporary filling. Used with all styles of furniture.
Polyurethane foam is a popular and reliable material that does a good job at shaping and stuffing, and comes in different densities for different degrees of firmness: Soft, Medium, Super Resilient (SR), Firm, Extra Firm and High Resiliency (HR) for the most firm. Newer foams belonging the the High Resilience (HR) family offer a soft, initial feel and then firm up as more pressure is put on it... Yielding very comfortable and supportive seating.
Firmest of all, is hair. This used to be horsehair, the kind that plumped up the old Victorian sofa on which the properties of sitting stiffly on an unyielding surface were the manners of the day. Today, the filling is more flexible and inviting, and it's hogs-hair or cattle hair mixed with other fibers for a kindlier feel and better resilience. It gives first-class firmness and has a long, sturdy life with plenty of comfort and bounce.
Fillings are also chosen by the upholsterer according to the style of the piece. If it's tightly tailored, even though the cushioning is thick, a firmer filling will be used. If the style takes lots of tucking and draping, has soft, loose cushions, and you want both the appearance and the sensation of deep-down softness, a fluffier filling is used. You can talk this over with your upholsterer who will advise you, but the ultimate decision is yours. You're the one who's going to sit on it, and personal preference has the last word. Also, these materials vary in price so it's nice to know what you are getting and what you are paying for.
Padding is the material that goes on directly under your upholstery fabric. Its function is to fill out and firm up the contours of the sofa or chair (fully upholstered) so that the fabric sits smoothly and fits perfectly all around, without wrinkles or puckers.
Padding also acts as a buffer along the arms and back of a piece where friction and wear show up first, as on corners and edges. Cotton padding is considered the best because it wears long. The cotton is mixed with a bit of felt and fabricated in rolls. These come in different grades and a thickness of about 1¾" is considered a good padding. Polyester fiberfill is also currently being used as a padding and is providing excellent results.
Fabrics: Finishing a Piece With a Flourish
Everyone visualizes the transforming effect of the fabric on a re-created sofa or chair. As one young homemaker put it, the fabric "is part of the fun" of reupholstering. Fabric has character and personality. It speaks for your taste, your style. And in your own home, it can be as personal and individual as your signature.
The Fabric Advantage in Reupholstery
Fabric is also one of the two big costs in Reupholstery (the other is labor). So it's important to get good value as well as good fashion. The bigger the choice, the better the chance of finding a fabric that suits both your decor and your budget. This is where Reupholstery gives you the benefit of rich variety and enormous volume. The selection is practically endless.
A World of Choice
Big reupholstering firms can offer a thousand samples, imported and domestic. Smaller shops carry hundreds. All in different grades of quality. You can wind up with a good decorator fabric, which, when figured into the total cost of a reupholstering job, comes to considerably less than today's price for an expensive piece of upholstered furniture.
How do you judge for wear? A classic standard applies here, as used by the professionals: "The tighter the weave, the longer the wear." The standard is threads to the inch. One square inch of fabric with 8 or 10 thick threads doesn't have the strength of one square inch densely packed with 30 to 40 thin threads. Specifically: A woven cotton tapestry, where the colors and pattern are tightly woven in with colored threads, wears better than a cotton with the colors printed on. To check a fabric yourself, hold it up to the light. The less light that shows through, the tighter the weave. A good upholsterer will advise you also. He knows fabrics like the back of his hand and can clue you in to textures and constructions.
Fibers also make a difference in wear. Natural fibers, like cotton, take color differently from man-made fibers. They can be richer, more subtle. While the man-mades have resilience and strength. That's how the blends came into use. So cotton with polyester, for example, gives you the best attributes of both. Other blends will use nylon, acrylic, rayon. And man-made fibers alone (far advanced over the earlier versions) make many attractive long wearing pieces.
The appearance of certain textures will vary with use. Fabrics with a nap, like velvets and corduroys, look different in different lights, and show wear where they've been sat upon. Silks are more delicate, but many are fortified with a man-made fiber. And fabrics with highly textured surfaces, like loopy tweeds and homespuns can "pull" after a while. Flat weaves, like the cottons, damasks, jacquards, and close-grained tightly ribbed cottons stand up well.
Soil Resistance & Cleanability
For cleanability, each fiber has its compensating feature. Natural fibers absorb soil faster than man-made fibers, but clean better. While man-made fibers are more soil resistant, but don't always clean as well. Many fabrics are treated with soil-resistant finishes, but the finish doesn't last forever, so be prepared after a time, to have the upholstery cleaned.
Choosing An Upholsterer
Get recommendations from friends whenever possible. Check your local yellow pages or check out our online Upholstery Locator. Decide where to follow up, pick the shops and walk in. What you see is a good indication of quality of work. Large establishments usually have large premises. They occupy whole floors, or lofts, where you can get an eye-filling view of work in various stages of reupholstering; stripped-down frames, fillings, cushions getting the finishing touch in their full dress fabrics, pipings and weltings put on by hand, people at work tables doing the real skillful thing.
Smaller shops will have a piece or two on display, and if you don't see one, ask to see a sample of the upholsterers work. Making the rounds is no different from shopping for any other product. Also, look at the fabrics and then talk costs. It's a good idea to visit both large and small companies. In either case, the one you decide to work with comes to your house, looks at the piece you want re-done, and brings samples. A small shop can be just as effective as a large one in doing custom work, helping to carry out your decor and suggesting appropriate fabrics.
Visit Jack Carr's website at www.carrscorner.com