The Basics of Upholstery


Upholstery is hard.

A lot of my writing on this site is about explaining the basics of design. I like to think that I can tell you the right questions to ask yourself, give you a few pieces of advice, and send you out to make great design decisions. But with upholstery? If you’ll pardon the pun, there’s a lot to cover.

At its most basic, upholstery just means furniture with fabric on it. That includes your sofas, club chairs, and ottomans, of course, but also upholstered headboards, dining room chairs, and maybe even your bar stools. Upholstery makes things soft and comfortable (and has other benefits, including dampening the sound in a room), and well-built furniture can last a long, long time through the miracle of reupholstering. But the process is done by hand, with costly fabrics, and it’s expensive. It’s certainly not something you want to do over in six months because you didn’t get it right and can’t learn to live with it.

There are about a million decisions to make when you’re buying a custom piece or reupholstering something you already own. Here are a few of those million things to keep in mind.

  1. Assess the item.

If you’re thinking of reupholstering, first decide if the item is worth the trouble. In general, antique chairs and sofas are of a higher quality and probably worth the expense, though something poorly made may not be. Remember that new fabric won’t help an uncomfortable piece, because that new padding won’t make a difference if the seat is too wide or the angles are all wrong. It’s best to think of reupholstering as a way to bring something you already love back into its prime.

  1. Choose the fabric.

Obviously, if you’ve got dogs or kids running around, you can skip that Instagram-perfect white upholstery because you’ll never keep it clean. But there are plenty of other things to consider, such as sun exposure, the feel of the fabric (some people hate the feeling of sliding around in a satin settee), and even whether you tend to rest your arm on the back of the couch when you watch TV. Stiffness, durability, and texture will matter more the more you use the piece.

  1. Pick a color.

My usual advice in home design is “Go bold!” but I’m going to be a little more cautious here and tell you to make lasting choices. Upholstery — especially of large items — works best as a grounding color, in a neutral or main accent color. If you want to be dramatic and bold, there are always throw pillows. And if you do go with a bold color, keep the pattern subtle.

  1. Pick the pattern (or not).

Consider the lines of the piece when picking stripes or detailed patterns. When you stretch the fabric over curves, you might end up with a distorted version of the pattern you fell in love with.

  1. Find the right upholsterer.

Ask around for success stories from your furniture-obsessed friends, but be sure to get multiple bids for a reupholstering project — you’d be shocked at how prices can vary. One very important thing (and I am not kidding about this) is to make sure that there’s no smoking allowed on the premises. Even just one worker enjoying a cigarette on his lunch break can stink up a sofa for years.

  1. Remember, it’s not just changing the fabric.

If you’ve got a well-built piece that is dated beyond simple wear-and-tear, a good upholsterer can change cushion shape and thickness, seat height, and even the shape of the arms. In most cases, you’ll also have lots of freedom with buttons, pleats, skirts, and piping.

  1. You’re not off the hook if you buy new.

Most higher-end furniture companies offer a COM option (that stands for Customer’s Own Material), in which they’ll upholster a new piece with your fabric choice. I love the custom option, but be aware that the supplied fabric is going to be less expensive, that the manufacturer is experienced with shaping it to the frame, and (perhaps best of all) that you can actually see a piece completed before you decide to buy.


If you are considering buying new, I have to spend a minute talking about furniture from Cisco. I love the lines of these pieces and have recommended them to many of my clients. In Nashville, you can test them out (and see what they look like in recommended colors) at MarketPlace Interiors.

Tell us about your biggest upholstery success (or disaster) in comments. Bonus points for stories involving cats or red wine.


Mary Spalding is a Nashville based interior designer with over 30 years of experience. She has overseen countless home revitalizations, renovations, and restorations. She can be reached with your projects and ideas at

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