Traditional Upholstery Techniques vs. Modern Upholstery Methods

You’ve finally found that “unicorn” of auctions and quaint little second-hand shops—the ultimate antique chair you’ve always wanted. It’s a little banged up, but you can fix it, right? But once you get it home, you realize it needs more than just a little TLC, and you start looking at upholsterers in your area. Should you go for traditional or modern upholstery? Is there even a difference? 

Find out all about traditional upholstery techniques vs. modern upholstery techniques in this in-depth review of upholstery methods for antique chairs. 

What Are the Differences Between Traditional and Modern Upholstery Techniques?

If you’ve ever sat in a well-maintained antique chair or sofa, you’ll know the difference between traditional and modern upholstery techniques. For starters, the feel of furniture done in either of these styles is distinct from the other. 

Traditional upholstery techniques use materials that are different and predate the modern era’s “quick-serve” materials that are more widely available. Where modern upholstery techniques rely on softness and durability, traditional upholstery techniques follow age-old methods that were first used centuries ago. 

Even today, traditional upholstery techniques still use specialty materials like horsehair stuffing, unique hand-stitched stuffing methods, and layering of materials that is significantly different from modern techniques. 

Where modern upholstery methods can upholster a chair in a matter of hours, a chair upholstered in traditional methods may take days to finish. Given how long it can take to finish a chair in the traditional style (not to mention the higher cost), you may wonder why anyone would bother. Simple: the quality is unreal. 

Let’s take a closer look at the methods that have survived centuries.

Traditional Upholstery Techniques

When you feel the solid quality of a traditionally upholstered furniture item, you know you are dealing with a unique quality. However, there are pros and cons to choosing traditional upholstery methods over more modern ones.  

Pros of Traditional Upholstery Techniques 

  • Solid feel and great ability to carry weight without sinking into the chair
  • Extremely durable methods
  • Valuable investment when reupholstering an antique chair or furniture item to retain its authenticity 
  • Traditional upholsterers may have greater experience in furniture restoration, which can help revive more than just the upholstery 

Cons of Traditional Upholstery Techniques 

  • Cost of traditional upholstery techniques is often a lot more expensive than modern methods due to the materials used
  • It can be difficult to source the materials used for traditional upholstery, depending on where you live
  • Traditional upholsterers are not always available 
  • It takes longer to finish a furniture item in a traditional upholstery technique  

Modern Upholstery Techniques

Modern upholstery methods aim to produce quality upholstery that is convenient, fairly affordable, and quickly finished. Modernly upholstered furniture items offer that sink-into feeling that we associate with comfort, but there is always a trade-off for certain gains.  

Pros of Modern Upholstery Techniques

  • More affordable materials and costs
  • Convenient to find an upholsterer
  • It suits most furniture items
  • Faster to upholster in this technique
  • A soft feel makes furniture more comfortable
  • Better insect-repellent qualities of modern materials

Cons of Modern Upholstery Techniques

  • Modern techniques don’t suit antique furniture 
  • Materials may be of inferior quality if not ordered through a reliable upholsterer
  • Fabric can easily pinch or pleat if incorrectly upholstered

How to Decide Which Upholstery Technique Is Right for You

Deciding whether you should have a regular upholsterer or a traditional upholstery specialist work on your furniture item is often difficult. Here are a few considerations:

  • Are you likely to sell the item at top price later, such as with an antique? Then get a traditional upholsterer.
  • Do you want soft comfort that will be great for chilling and watching Netflix? Get a modern upholsterer. 
  • Is your upholstery fabric mid-range quality? Get a modern upholsterer. 
  • Have you bought the best quality natural fiber upholstery fabric? Get a traditional upholsterer. 
  • Can you afford the cost of a traditional upholsterer? Is it possible to use one close to you, or will you have to pay shipping costs? Your budget decides for you here.

What Goes Into Traditional Upholstery Methods?

The process of traditional upholstery is lengthy. It originates from the first upholstered furniture of the Persian and Egyptian empires before being refined during the Victorian era when large stuffed furniture items were popular. 

Here is a basic overview of what you can expect if you have a traditional upholsterer restore and reupholster your furniture item:

1. Strip Down

The furniture item is stripped of all upholstery, fabric, hardware, and padding down to the frame. It takes a long time to do this as many of these layers are compressed onto the frame, and working harshly can damage the furniture frame. 

2. Repairs

The frame has likely suffered some damage due to age, and any areas that may require repairs are carefully and expertly renovated. Joints are repaired using similar joinery methods—many aren’t in everyday use anymore. Authenticity is the order of the day. 

3. Support

The furniture item will have different support methods, from coiled springs and S-springs to simple webbing. Whichever method of support was used is what will be used—it will just be new. Balancing the pressure of the support system is essential to evenly distribute the sitter’s weight to the whole frame. The support starts with a sturdy webbing system. 

4. Spring Health

The springs will likely need to be replaced in the chair support system. Sourcing antiqued springs can be difficult, and the upholsterer may need to get creative, but there is great value in replacing the springs with similar design springs to maintain the same seating feeling. 

5. Covered in Hessian

Hessian is a fabric that has been used for many years, and it’s authentic to the antique style of furniture items. A layer of hessian is applied over the springs, tacked into place on the frame, then sewn to the springs to maintain their placement. 

6. Large Loops and Stuffing

To help keep the padding placed over the springs, large stitches are threaded through, and the first layer of stuffing is pushed into these loops. The stuffing of choice is animal hair (usually horse hair) or vegetable fiber like coir or coconut fiber. 

Once all the fibers or hair are placed for the first layer of padding, a loosely woven hessian fabric is tacked over this with some give in the fabric to keep the hair or fibers in place. 

7. Stitching Time

Using large-scale needles, the top layer of hessian is secured through to the spring layer. The padding is shaped loosely with these stitches to maintain seat quality. Next, the upholsterer will use stitching to build a frame structure around the edge of the padded seat. Creating a sturdy padded edge is important to keep seat (and back) cushions from collapsing. 

More stuffing loops are added for the next layer of padding using more fibers or animal hairs. This layer is not stitched as firmly, which gives softness to the overall finish.

8. Calico or Cotton and Woven Padding

In this next step, the second layer of fibers used for padding is covered with a natural medium woven calico or cotton fabric. This layer keeps the stuffing where it belongs. Woven padding is added to soften the top layer further. Some upholsterers may use synthetic padding to use as a softening layer. 

9. The Upholstery Fabric

Applying the upholstery fabric requires that the fabric is first secured with a few tacks to place the fabric without causing pleating or creases. Applying fabric and securing it around elaborate furniture corners can be challenging. 

The upholsterer needs care when nailing, tacking, or stapling fabric to the chair frame, as antique furniture can be somewhat brittle. Trimmings are added to finish the authentic image. 

The Final Covering

When deciding which method of upholstering you prefer, remember that money isn’t the only consideration, and the final decision is asking yourself what you want to do with the upholstered item. 

I chose an ultra-modern look and my local upholsterer, who has proven himself talented. The finished look was an eclectic merger of authentically antique finishes and comfortable fabrics that benefit from the latest technology. Which upholsterer would you choose? Why not let Kovi help you decide on a quality upholsterer near you?

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