Ask an Upholsterer

Do you have an upholstery question, need help, advice or professional support on an upholstery project. With 42 years of furniture upholstery experience, I may be able to help. My name is Joe Gramm, owner and upholsterer at Cape Cod Upholstery Shop. Submit your upholstery questions at the bottom of the page and I will try to answer them from a professional upholsterer’s perspective. Please allow a day or two for my reply.

To help me answer your questions, please include a link to photos of your upholstery project. Use a service like Dropbox or Google+  and include the link with your question.

3,912 thoughts on “Ask an Upholsterer

  1. I recently acquired a vintage sofa that has a beautifully carved frame and the seat is a wood “box” containing the springs that them fits down in the frame. Can you tell me anything about this type of constructed furniture?

  2. Wow. You are a gem to offer such help.

    Im recovering an antique couch from the 60sor 70s…my first couch.

    It has coil cushions and is made by hiatt corp.

    Should i go thru the trouble of re- tieing the coushions? Or go with foam. They are in great condition… Just a strange sensation to sit on a springed couch seat.

    They have no sagging but inside the fabric innerds look broken down. If it was tied it is no longer.

    Thanks for the advice.Kelley

      • What you’re asking about is called an “Envelope” style cushion. There are two parts to an envelope cushion, the envelope and the core.The envelope is the cover to the core.

        The envelope can be filled with down and feathers or synthetic batting. The core of the envelope can be either foam or springs (Marshall Unit).

    • The springs inside of a seat cushion are generally not tied. More times than not the springs are called a Marshall Unit. They are joined together by wire and covered with a cloth. So you may be able to just put a new cover on the Marshall Unit or replace the entire Marshall Unit with a new one of equal size. Spring cushions are still considered one of the best seat cushions, if made correctly.

      Otherwise, foam will work as well. I recommend using a 2.6 density foam with a medium compression of about 35 lbs.

  3. Hello Catherine~! I hope you can help me. I am a fairly experienced fashion and household sewer. I have upholstered a lovely large wicker chair and ottoman, have made down sleeping bags from kits and also a camping backpack. I am embarking on a Shabby Chic-ish slipcover project for my camel back sofa. The fabric I have is a nice heavy cotton twill. I have a down comforter I no longer use and would like to incorporate it into the project. Object; to make the sofa look more plush and comfy.
    Do you think it would be a good idea to sew the down pieces that I will cut to fit, into the seams of the cushion cover, the sofa arms, etc? What I wonder about is how it would hold up with washing? I will be using heavy duty upholstery thread, but since the down becomes so heavy when wet (I’ve washed it previously)…..I don’t know. I know I could fabricate the comforter to fit onto the sofa where I want it but then I wonder about shifting of the pieces, which is why my next thought was to incorporate it into the slipcover.
    Any ideas? Thanks! Kathi

    • Down and feathers are considered to be washable, but the more you wash it, the less effective they become as to loft and warmth. The faster you can dry it, the better.

      You’ll need to stitch the down parts of the slipcover so as the down can’t shift much.

      You’ll need to understand that your slipcover is not a traditional slipcover and treat it as such.

  4. Hello, I’m recovering an old sofa (early 20th century) that has been stuffed with horsehair. I stripped it to calico stage and the upholstery all looks perfectly full and firm: I put a new layer 4 oz polyester wadding over the calico, then the top cover. It looks great, however there is a squeaking noise when ever I sit on it: the horsehair creaks. Do you know how I can get rid of this noise? I havent put the back on yet so I’m prepare to start again if necessary.. also the back doesn’t creak and is exactly the same process. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks in advance,

    • It’s really impossible for me to know what could be causing the noise. I would describe horsehair as having a “crunching” sound vs a squeak. A squeak could be coming from wood rubbing on wood or the seat springs.

      • Thank you for your comment. It’s definitely not the springs, or the frame, and yes it’s more of a crunching sound. It’s very loud! I’ve recovered old horsehair before without a problem and as I mentioned the back is also horsehair and not crunching… mysterious!

        • Try to isolate where the noise is coming from. Isolating where the noise is coming from will be your best bet to solve the mystery. Sit on different parts of the sofa. It may be helpful to have some one help you. Sit where the noise is the loudest and have the other person listen at different parts of the sofa.

          If you’ve worked with horsehair, you know horsehair doesn’t squeak per say, it’s more of a crunching sound. Squeaking, when it comes to furniture, is more likely some part(s) of the sofa rubbing together.

          What kind of springs are in the sofa, coil or zig zag?

        • The main reason I find horsehair having a loud crunching sound is the horsehair is sitting on or covered with a synthetic type covering. An example would be horsehair directly sitting on synthetic burlap. Horsehair sitting on or covered with anything synthetic will have an exaggerated crunching sound.

          Make sure your horsehair is sitting on jute burlap. And make sure the horsehair is covered with a cotton muslin. Otherwise you should have a layer of cotton batting under the horsehair or on top of the horsehair to help neutralize the crunching sound.

          An other issue could be in the seat, there is a layer of “rubberized” horsehair. Rubberized hair can be more noisy than natural horsehair.

  5. What a wonderful service, there’s very little support in the US for people trying to upholster.
    I have 2 questions – first, I need sources for well made chair frames that use reliable but reasonably priced shipping.
    Second, since you’re in Cape Cod and i see a number of outdoor pieces: What’s the best way to protect both wood and outdoor fabrics from below freezing temps and ice? Even in the shed, pieces get Cold and both dry cold and the dry heat here are a big problem. Except of course when it’s a monsoon summer like this one but i suspect my furniture appreciates that more.
    We have some teak pieces, but i want a well made rattan set and i haven’t dared…. literature talks about the su and rain but never about snow or below freezing temps.
    Thank you again,

  6. I’m trying to help a lady who wants to get rid of a 3-recliner couch. I wanted to see if it might be good enough for her to donate it to a church yard sale. It turns out the reason is that the cambric on the foot rests and bottom is disintegrating. When you touch the fabric, it literally crumbles and she is constantly having to clean the floor to keep her cats out of the crumbled material. that same material on the inside area of the couch seemed to be in good condition. She said that the couch had sat on a rug that seemed to be deteriorating for a year or so before she got rid of the rug and put down laminate flooring.

    Have you ever seen this before? Any idea of what could cause cambric deteriorarte?

    I’ve got a picture of the top side of the couch at and as you can see it looks pretty good. The owner said it was around 6 or 7 years old.

    • Sorry for the late reply. I was away on vacation in an area that had little Internet or cell service.

      Your link doesn’t have an photo. But if the cambric is the only issue, it’s easy enough to replace.

        • I have seen it before, but I don’t know why it happens. Most cambric, other than cotton, is dacron polyester. Theoretically it should not disintegrate, but it does. I’ve seen it happen to cambric both exposed to air and light and inside cushions where it is not exposed to much air or light.

          I use a synthetic cambric called “Celestra”. A non woven cambric I’ve had good luck with.

  7. Hi. I’m not sure if u can help but I have a 4 yr old sofa with springs protruding upwards in 2 of the seat cushions. The biggest problem is that all the cushions are sewn into the sofa making it inaccessible without undoing the stitching all the way around and re stitching (fabric to leather). I have made a slit at one side and can see that the centre springs are broken and the foam surround is no longer holding them. I have tried stuffing some extra foam through the slit but it isn’t helping. I am wondering is it an option to fully remove the springs and replace with just foam? Also there is a tie going from the top cover through the springs, foam and down below the sinuous springs which I would need to cut to remove the springs – does this serve any greater purpose than to create the button like dent in d centre of d seat?

    • I think you will need to find a way to entirely remove the springs and padding and replace with new of the same or foam and dacron. The string, I assume is for a button.

      This is really a homeowner type of fix vs what a professional upholsterer would do. There is just way to much labor to take the seat apart, replace the padding and sew it all back together, by hand.

      So you’ll need to just get creative.. Or time for a new sofa. Keep in mind what you do on one cushion of the sofa will not feel the same as the other cushions.

    • Sorry for the delay getting back to you. Hopefully you’ve solved the mystery of how to get the back off.

      I can’t tell you exactly how it comes off if there are no visible signs of screws or dowels. What I would do is cut off the outside back and just start gently poking and prying to see where it is attached.

  8. Hi Joe

    Our company has been doing upholstery for a while now but we have recently run into a few issues. We do our best to correctly estimate how much COM we need for a project but occasionally we underestimate. For some lounge chairs recently we asked our customer to send a certain amount that we thought would be enough and when the project required more our customer insisted that we pay for the extra, amounting to over $1000. What I wanted to ask you was if it was standard in the upholstery industry to have some sort of disclaimer that allows for us to ask for extra if it comes to that without the cost being transferred to us?
    I certainly would appreciate any perspective you have on this.

    Sarah Asp
    MTC Studio Designs

    • To my knowledge there is no industry standard for this sort of thing. I think if you wanted the customer to be responsible for extra needed COM fabric, it would need to be stated in the contract.

      As the fabricator/designer, you’ve taken on the responsibility of estimating the fabric for your client. Unless stated in the contract, I believe you are now responsible if you’ve underestimated the yardage. I’m not a lawyer though.

      I would do either of these things:

      1) Have the customer be responsible for estimating the fabric. Unfortunately this is impractical for most clients to do.

      2) Have it in the contract the customer is responsible for any extra fabric needed.

      3) The best option is to order more than enough fabric. If you estimate 10.5 yards on a job, tell the customer 12 yards. I always order a bit more than I need. In your case, the upholsterer can inadvertently make a mistake, the pattern might require more than expected, there might be a flaw to work around. If you run out, you now have a potential dye lot problem.

      Figure out how much you need and add extra. It’s a lot better to have extra fabric than it is to deal with a customer, on who is to pay for more fabric and how to resolve a dye lot issue.

  9. Hi Joe,
    I have some troubles with the wood frame, it squeaks…
    I’m in Mexico and use pine wood, very common here and very strong.
    Just after building the wood frame I move it to see if is strong enough and squeaks a lot.
    A friend tells me is the humidity of the wood, other the staple used to build it.
    What do you think?

  10. Hi Joe,
    I’m working on a Wingchair. The seat is sagging so much as you can see from picture. Spring ties are in good condition. What method I should use to fix the sagging problem?
    I’m thinking about using Anchor steel webbing to help strengthen the bottom. Steel web should be more efficient than trying to use jute webbing for repair. However, I did some research and find Nerver Sag steel web and I can not decide which will be the most efficient for this situation. Would like your advice. Thank you.

    • I’m assuming the spring twines on the top of the springs are in good shape, which is why you want to repair them from the bottom.

      assuming the spring twines are good on the top, what I would do in my shop is remove all the webbing on the bottom. Then using a single spring twine, going both length and width, tie the springs so they sit straight and nail off to the bottom of the seat frame. Then re-web the bottom.

      When tying the springs from the bottom, do not pull the spring rungs together as you would tying the top of the springs. Rather, you want the springs to sit as if the were clinched or hand tied to the webbing.

  11. I upholstered a bench seat . It has a 3/8” plywood bottom and 2” foam. I stapled the material over the foam and pulled tight and stapled around tightly . It looks tight and good but when one sits it leaves a wrinkle. How can I prevent it from wrinkling?

    • It could be a few things:

      1) You don’t mention using a batting over the foam. Fabric directly on foam causes friction and the friction could cause the fabric to stick to the foam.
      2) Foam quality. Anything less than 1.8 density could cause this. Also a foam that is too soft.

      • Thank you for the info. I will try the batting first. I hope the foam is good but can’t tell if it is high density as it was what was there and I don’t know who put it when it was upholster. Is there a way to test the foam to find out the density?

          • Yes I know if I buy new foam it indicates density but I was trying to reuse the existing foam. Should I not do that?

              • Thank you so much!!! I was making myself crazy searching for “why do you use batting when upholstering” ! I’m glad I found out. I’ll be sure to use it. This will save trouble in the long run. It’s going to be my first “job” (need to fix dining room chairs) and I really want it to work out.
                Thanks again!

  12. Hello Joe,

    I am recovering Pennsylvania House Queen Anne dining room chairs cushions. After removing the old foam and batting, there is a rubber mesh stapled to the wood seat frame that the foam and batting sit on. I’d like to replace it with the same material. I have been looking all over to see if I can buy the rubbery mesh but can’t find it. I see some people are using strips of webbing or stapling on plywood. But what about this webbing material? It has last 40 years on this set, so it must be sturdy enough. Do you know if it’s still being made?

    • I don’t know where to get the stretchy burlap type material. I never use it. Whenever I come across it in a seat and it needs to be replaced, I use polypropylene webbing and a layer of synthetic burlap on top of the webbing.

  13. Hi Joe,
    For permanent outdoor seating,I need to make seat and back cushions. I will use quick dry fast foam for seat cushions.
    Do I wrap the quick-dry foam with dacron the same way I do on indoor seat cushions?
    What can I use for the back cushions besides using quick dry fast foam?
    Thank you very much.


    • Hi Aung,

      Wrap the seat cushions with Thermal Bonded Dacron. It comes in 1/4″, 1/2″ and 1″ thicknesses and varying widths of 20″-54″.

      An alternative to outdoor foam for the backs would be Firm Densified Fiber. Densified Fiber is a type of firm bonded dacron for use in cushions. It comes 4-3/4″. I haven’t used this product much mostly because I haven’t had a need to. But one thing about it is how to cut it. I haven’t figured out an easy way to cut it. So before you buy it, ask who you buy it from the best way to cut it to size.

  14. I plan to make new cushion covers for my wicker out of cotton duck (drop cloth fabric). I will pre-wash and dry it first. I have four questions. Which needle should I use, which thread, which stitch length, and can I cut across the width rather than running lengthwise for the 54 inch seat piece? Thank you!

  15. I found a beautiful cane backed chair with arms which is probably is a dining chair at the curb. We got rain and the fabric was soaked and gross. I took everything off to the bare wood. I purchased 2 inch thick foam and outdoor fabric. Do I need to use batting? Also is spray adhesive the best to adhere the foam to wood or do I need another type of glue?

    This is my first attempt at upholstery.

  16. I have 2 recliners with broken seat(s) edgewires that stabilize the zip zag springs. They are installed with 3 prong clips.I have new 15″ vinyl coated edgewire pieces.There are 2 edgewires per seat.If I go this route need to purchase clips and do I really need Osborne 445-3 tool or can I use pliers for the few clips needed. Should I remove the old wires (with bolt cutters) or leave in place?
    Should I leave on or remove all broken wires and tie off using Ruby Italian jute spring twing or use the polyester twing which is stronger/longer lasting?.Easier to do and doesn’t require special Tool? Thank you Ben

    • Hi Ben,

      You can use the polyester spring twine. Keep it simple. Just be sure the twines are tight so the springs stay in place. You can tie the twines off to the frame with #14 webbing tacks. You should be able to get the tacks at a hardware store, Home Depot, etc.

  17. Hi. I have recently started working at an upholstery shop. I have 25 years+ of sewing experience with industrial machines, but no professional upholstery experience. (The upholstery shop owners know this, by the way !)

    One thing I have noticed the shop doing, that drives me nuts, is that the fabric for piping is NOT cut on the bias. Some of it is cut on the straight of grain, and some is cut on the sort of bias, but never the true bias. I know for some applications this does not matter. Recently I had to apply double piping to dining room chairs, including the two head chairs with armrests with piping on the arms. I had a very hard time getting the piping to lay as flat as it should, and to go smoothly around corners. I have made mild inquiries about “Bias ?” but the owners do not seem to understand what I am hinting at. They were not trained upholsterers, and bought the business from a couple of old school types.

    Can you tell me what the (professional) deal is with regards to upholstery piping made on the true bias ? Other sewer says this does not matter, according to the previous shop she worked in. I see results that could be…better ?

    • I can’t speak for the industry. In my shop, I always cut the welting on the bias, except under certain circumstances. I find vinyl does not need to be cut on the bias. With fabric though, bias cut welting lays flatter and goes around curves much easier than welting not cut on the bias. This applies to cushion welt as well as double welt. Generally speaking, welting cut on the bias makes for a better looking, higher quality job.

      I do something a bit different though. I cut the ends of bias cut welt straight or square. I don’t like the look of a bias seam where the welt joins together. A straight or square cut end disappears better.

      I did work in a shop for a while where the owner insisted to match the welting cord to the cushion when it came to stripes. This would mean not cutting the welt on the bias. But even with stripes, I think bias cut looks best because it adds contrast to the cushion.

      I’m in agreement with you. Welting should be cut on the bias, with a few exceptions.

  18. Hi Joe,
    I have made a 72″ x 24″ piped, boxed cushion cover for a client using their material, which was a loosely woven, indoor/outdoor. To stabilize fraying I had to serge the edges.
    I noticed some puckering after piping the top and bottom plates.
    After assembling the cover and inserting the foam the puckering is significant.
    I experimented with needles from #16 to #20 with size 69 thread. I went with the size 20 in a Chandler industrial walking foot machine.
    Although I am wont to blame the fabric, I wonder if my choice of thread and needle might be the problem?
    Is the puckering avoidable? (I seem to have this problem particularly with Sunbrella)
    Would you redo the cover hoping for a better result?
    If necessary, how would you address a situation like this with a client?
    I appreciate your continued advice and expertise. Thanks so much!

    • Some Sunbrella is very difficult to sew no matter what you do. I find the toughest Sunbrella to sew is Sunbrella Canvas from the Elements line. It stretches in every direction and tends to pucker.

      One key to sewing Sunbrella is to use the largest stitch possible. I generally use a #69 bonded polyester thread. Try a bigger stitch and see if that helps. Make sure your thread tension is set right. And if your sewing Sunbrella canvas, just expect some puckers no matter what you do.

  19. When I took apart an antique settee the smaller, seatback springs were not tied diagonally. Can I skip the diagonal ties as i put it back together?

  20. Hi Joe,
    I’m stucked. Can not figure out how to make this smooth. Fabric is not stretchy. The frame is not wood too I don’t know what it is made of. When I shoot staple, sometimes it bends the staples and sometimes it will go in fine. I can pull staples out easily from the frame though. After I sew the case, and fit it on, pull the bottom to staple in the back but as you can see fabric is still wrinkled and I don’t know if my case need to be smaller or should I fill it up with a layer of cotton.
    Need your advice please.

    Thank you very much.

    • Hi Aung, You have a lot of bias action going on with your fabric because of the shape of your frame. And it’s extremely difficult to get the proper stretch out of the fabric when the font and back pieces are sewn together as one piece. Generally when the front piece can be stapled around to the outside back, you can work all those wrinkles out inch by inch. But with the outside back attached it makes it more difficult.

      I think your cover may be a bit to big. The wrinkles on the top indicate that to me. A tighter fit would mean less wrinkles. But again, this is a difficult piece to do in the first place and then combine all the bias stretching action with your fabric, makes for a difficult job. But I think in order to get rid of the wrinkles, your front and back pieces need to be cut so that they go on to the frame as tight as a drum.

      Wish I could offer more help.

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