At Your Service: From Drab to Fab

She was my favorite chair when I was a kid — I would wake up extra early on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and snuggle up with a blanket while everyone in the house was still asleep. Not even my older sister would sit on her because she knew she was my unofficial, official, seat. It’s where I sat as I received a lecture from my parents the first time I decided cutting class was a good idea. It’s where I held my niece for the first time because I was too nervous to hold her standing up. It’s where I told my parents I was moving to Philadelphia — and I wasn’t leaving without her. Not only did we have a history together, she also desperately needed a face-lift. I was just the right person to help her out.

My knowledge of the art of reupholstering was nonexistent and I had never held a staple gun before, so I knew this was going to be a challenge. I started by researching books online and found Upholstery Basics from the Singer Sewing Reference Library series (Creative Publishing international, 1997). It covers everything from tools to fabric selection and guides you through stripping furniture and putting it back together again. If you want to take your project to the next level, there are chapters on webbing and spring repair. Close-up photographs and numbered steps kept me from pulling out my hair many times.

“Production-line furniture is not worth reupholstering,” says Anthony Cocco, owner of an upholstery and furniture design company of the same name in Philadelphia and an upholsterer since 1976. He has seen the decline in furniture quality over the past 15 years. “The craftsmanship isn’t there and it would be less expensive to purchase a new piece,” he says. If you don’t have a good piece to work with — one with a sturdy frame — try looking for used furniture online (

Choosing fabric was the most exciting part of the process. I had an idea of what I wanted — something soft, modern and thick enough to hold up to the wear and tear that was sure to follow, but thin enough to work with — think hand-stitching leather versus linen. And, most important, it had to be a solid color. Patterns are pretty, but with my lack of sewing skills, I wasn’t going to chance trying to match up the designs. I eventually found my dream fabric at Calico Corners in Cherry Hill, where the bolts are arranged according to style, texture and color themes. Browsing through a room full of organized materials made my choice easy, and I ended up with an Aspen/Walnut faux suede. At $26.99 a yard, it was such a deal that I decided to get extra fabric to make decorative pillows. I was feeling very motivated at the time.

(estimated time: 10 hours)
Four thousand one hundred fifty-seven. That’s how many staples were in the chair and ottoman. OK, so maybe that is an exaggeration — after the first five hours I stopped counting. At first I removed them one by one, with a slight yelp of excitement as each staple popped out. I then carefully placed each staple in a small trash bag beside my leg to prevent the need for any emergency runs to the hospital for a tetanus shot. But I soon realized that being so neat was getting me nowhere fast. I finally enlisted friends in my staple-removing mission. I only had one staple remover, so I improvised and handed out pliers — they worked well for the really big staples in the bottom of the frame. Two days of intermittent staple-pulling later, I was finally ready to remove the fabric. Pulling the old fabric off was pretty easy once all the staples were removed, and I was careful to gently separate the fabric from the batting underneath so that I could reuse some of the batting. You may want to wear gloves in case of stray staples.

Batting (estimated time: 3 hours)
Seeing a naked chair can be a little intimidating, and I questioned my motives for this project many times at that point. How am I going to make this look like a chair again? Will this fall apart as soon as someone sits down? Doubts are normal, but they will fade. Mine did as I unrolled the thick cotton batting and draped it over the chair to see how much I would need for each section.
The batting is like the muscle of the chair — it keeps the shape while adding padding. I cut the pattern, using the old fabric as a guide. Then I used spray adhesive to apply the batting to the frame and reinforced it with staples. The cushions in my chair and ottoman were fine, but for some projects, the cushions may need to be replaced depending on their condition.

Fabric (estimated time: two days)
It was finally time to put on the fabric. I bought 13 yards, though I only needed about 10 for both pieces. Overestimating is always a good idea, and it never hurts to have extra fabric on hand for repairs down the road.

I couldn’t figure out the pattern samples in my book, so I decided to wing it. It didn’t seem that hard. I used a method I called the “drape and cut.” Now, I don’t necessarily recommend this method, but it worked for me. I started with the bottom front of the chair, again using the old fabric as a pattern. I could use my electric staple gun to attach it down around the bottom of the frame, but had to hand-stitch it to the top base, where the cushion sits. This took a few hours, and I had to use pliers to pull the stitches because the fabric was so thick.

I moved on to the sides, nervous about the fronts of the arms, where I had to fold the fabric over to avoid bunching. Luckily, I could staple the fabric to the front of the arms, since the arm panels (most chairs have these separate fabric pieces that are nailed to the fronts of the arms) would perfectly cover any mistakes. I covered these panels separately and nailed them in after the sides and bottom front were completed. My method may have caused the need for a lot of extra stitching than if I had just followed a pattern.
I moved on to the lower back section of the chair. This was the easiest piece to apply — it’s basically one large piece of fabric with no complicated folds. Plus, I could use the staple gun instead of sewing.

Finally I was down to the last section: the inside back. And of course, this was by far the most difficult piece to apply because of the curve at the top of the chair. I could staple most of the fabric to the frame to hold it in place, but when I was finished, it didn’t look complete — it was bunching at the sides and I couldn’t figure out how to make it look fantastic without removing the staples and just hand-stitching everything.

(One month later)
I let the chair sit alone for a while instead of losing my patience and went back to it later, a lot later. I started to sew everything, but after it took me more than three hours to cover about four inches, I knew there had to be a better way. I decided to start fresh, so I pulled all the staples from the inside back and bought upholstery tacks to finish the chair. Removing the staples was easy — I had definitely mastered this skill by now.

Hammering the tacks around the frame one at a time, I could see the chair finally coming together. “Patience, tools and time are the three most important things to have when reupholstering,” says Garistina. Knowing that I could take a break and having tools and materials that made my job easier saved me from throwing in the towel — and having a half-finished chair in my living room for years to come.

When I hammered in that last tack, I thought confetti might fall from the ceiling. I immediately took my cat to the vet to get her nails trimmed, and then called my best friend to tell her the news. In a fit of energy, I even started sewing some throw pillows with my extra yardage. My good old chair had a new and improved look, and I could finally take a seat.