The term upholstery may be used to describe any work centered around adding padding, webbing, springs, leather covers, or fabric covers to a piece of furniture. Seats are the most common pieces to be upholstered, but upholsterers take on projects besides them. While not often at the forefront of people’s minds, upholstery has a fascinating history.
The word upholstery has its roots in the Middle English word upholder, which was used to denote tradesmen who “held up” their goods. Today, the term is often applied to domestic, automobile, commercial, airplane, and boating furniture. It may also be used in reference to mattresses, but the underlying techniques used in bedding differ substantially from the other categories.
There are two types of upholstery: traditional and modern. Common traditional upholstery materials include coil springs (since 1850), coir, straw and hay, linen, scrims, and wadding. Multiple types of animal hair, such as that from a cow, hog, or horse, are also utilized. By contrast, modern upholstery is centered around newer synthetic materials such as vinyl, dacron, and serpentine springs.
A trained upholstery professional is called an upholsterer, while an apprentice in this field is referred to as a trimmer or outsider. The old-fashioned term “upholder” is still used occasionally as well, but it now refers to a specialist in furniture repair more than someone who creates new upholstered pieces.
The beginnings of upholstery may be traced back to 18th-century London, when a guild called the Worshipful Company of Upholders started handling all aspects of interior decor. Prior to that date, the guild specialized in providing textiles, upholstery, and fittings for funerals. Many upholsterers would partner with a skilled cabinet-maker to create quality furniture at this time.
The traditional capitals of upholstery are Grand Rapids, Michigan and Hickory, North Carolina in the United States, and many skilled upholsterers may still be found there. Likewise, Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire in England is known for its upholsterers in the UK and many throughout Australia. Furniture re-upholstery continues to be in demand throughout the world, with many businesses catering to this market.
Traditional methods of upholstery evolved over centuries to cushion chairs, sofas, and seats before the invention of plastic foams and synthetic fabrics. A solid wood or webbed platform was used as a base, with the upholsterer adding springs, animal hair stuffing, lashings, grasses, or wool to make it more comfortable. The new material had to be added by hand via top stitching, blind stitching, bridle ties, flocks, and/or wadding, so it was a fairly labor-intensive process.
Europeans first became interested in what is now called upholstery during the Middle Ages. Most decorations in use at that time would now be referred to as “soft furnishings,” but simple canvas and leather platforms were already in use. Some coverings were elaborately decorated, foreshadowing the eventual role upholsterers would play in interior design.
Chairs began to be padded in the early 17th century, but the techniques behind it were still rudimentary. Stuffings were simply piled on a wooden platform and held in place by a nailed-down decorative piece of fabric. The result was a dome shape sloping toward the seat. Common stuffings at the time included grass, feathers, sawdust, and animal hair derived from goats and deer. The Livery Company banned the use of the animal hairs in England, classifying it as a misdemeanor worthy of a fine.
More advanced techniques began to emerge in the late 17th century. Curled horsehair became popular as a stuffing material because it was easy to hold in place via twine stitching, a technique with origins in saddlery. This allowed the stuffing to be distributed more evenly and maintain its intended position. Tufting ties were also introduced around this time to make squab cushions more stable. Some seat fronts also had stuffed edge rolls for additional support and stuffing. The net result of all of these innovations was to make the shape of furniture padding more controllable.
The 18th century saw the introduction of what are now known as “classic” upholstery shapes and techniques. Upholsterers mastered the art of upright and sloping lines, offering more comfort and visual appeal than earlier designs could offer. The border was eventually replaced by a single piece of strim or linen tacked to the frame of the stuffed seat. The combination of a locked blind stitch and top-stitching (in which the side and top surfaces are pulled together to bring the stuffing up and produce a firm top edge) also emerged in the 18th century. The net impact of these changes allowed expert upholsterers to ably compliment the elegant lines and proportions used by furniture makers of the period.
The Victorian Era’s love of opulence and comfort impacted the work of upholsterers as well. New mass production techniques made upholstery affordable for all segments of society, while the development of superior steel springs and new lashing techniques separated padding from the wooden frame for the first time. This allowed upholstery on the seat, back, and arms of a chair to be completely separated from the shape of the underlying frame, opening up a bounty of new design choices. New and complex stuffings became available, edges were elaborately shaped into rolls, and fabrics could be buttoned into soft, padded shapes.
Automotive upholsterers may also be called trimmers, motor trimmers, or coach trimmers. The term coach trimmer dates back to the early days of automobile manufacturing, when car frames were produced and then sent somewhere else for soft furnishings, roof linings, carpeting, and soft tops. Customers were frequently permitted to custom order each of these features, lending a personal touch to their new car. Over time, automakers began incorporating trimming services into their own in-house production lines.
Trimmers have many of the same skills used by furniture upholsterers, plus the ability to work with carpeting. Today, they generally work in automotive design or in aftermarket trim shops helping to restore, repair, or convert vehicles to their owner’s specifications. A few premium automakers continue to employ skilled trimmers as well, such as Aston Martin.
Commercial upholstery includes all upholstery services offered to businesses, including restaurant seating (such as booth seats, bar stools, and dining room chairs), church seating (including pews and chairs for the congregation), and medical furnishings (such as chiropractic tables, examination tables, and dental chairs). Any business with a waiting room or lobby will also furnish them through a commercial upholsterer. Some retailers also have upholstered walls. Speak to our local Box Hill upholsterer if you need any help with this.
Marine upholsterers repair and replace the seating, cushioning, headliners, carpeting, and headliners on boats. The biggest difference between marine upholstery and other types is that the elements have to be considered on the water. All materials used must resist dampness, sunlight exposure, and hard usage. Brands such as Morbern and Spradling offer special marine-grade vinyls specifically for nautical use in a broad range of colors and styles to please any boating enthusiast.
Marine-grade vinyls are rated according to how well they perform in the following categories: rub counts, cold crack, and mold resistance. Stainless-steel hardware such as screws and stables are often utilized to limit the risk of rust. Alternatively, Tenara thread and Monel staples are new products for fastening vinyl on a boat. Any wood used must also be marine-grade.
Finally, high-density plastic foam with a thin plastic film over it is frequently used to keep out any water that might otherwise seep in through the seams. Smaller cushions using closed-cell foam may sometimes be used as flotation devices too.
The purpose of any sewing machine is to reduce the amount of manual labor required to stitch fabric and other materials together with thread. They were invented to help clothing companies become more efficient during the first Industrial Revolution. The first working sewing machine is generally credited to Thomas Saint of England, who produced his invention in 1790.
Home sewing machines allow one person to sew items using a single stitch type. The fabric glides into and out of the machine easily, eliminating the need for traditional tools such as needles and thimbles. This makes the process much less time-consuming than it would otherwise be.
Industrial sewing machines are usually larger and faster than their home-use counterparts. They are also more varied in their size and appearance, and more specialized in the tasks they can perform. Costs can also vary wildly between competing models.