Upholstery 101: Part 1

Perhaps some of you that know me, wonder what exactly it is I do at work. Maybe some of you live amongst some old, decrepit couch cushions; with their moth holes and obscenely visible stuffing. Conceivably, the smell of mildew coming off of that patio furniture has bested even the top “non-odour masking” brands of spray perfumery.
Well today is the day you will learn some of the carefully guarded secrets and dark sorcery of the upholstery seamstress!
*Mass hysteria*

Ahem.. Anyway. I was given the laborious task of making new covers for five patio chairs today at work. Of course, I was elated at the prospect. I’ve been on a diet of nothing but RV skirts and rig covers for months! So, with such a zestful project at hand, I decided I would be doing my readers (both of you) a great disservice by not documenting the venture, and ultimately, blogging about it. (This is my life now.)

I know that everyone has that item of furniture in their home that needs to be re-covered, re-sewn, or re-made. I know this because each and every time I let my job title slip, I am privy to a lengthy and gratuitous speech beginning with “I have this old…” and ending in “…could you fix that?”

No. I can’t.

Moving along. I understand that with the knowledge I am about to impart to you, you could possibly take matters into your own hands and just fix that old thing yourself, darn it! – And I would wholly support you in this endeavour, encourage it even. Just know, that if it is your first time sewing, if you do not have the proper equipment, if that old ____ is a family heirloom, etc: weighing the likelihood of success vs. the inevitability of tumult in this effort is a necessary step. Feel me?

With that knowledge, lets dive in:

First, find yourself a decaying relic of a cushion. (Note: I would highly recommend picking up some reject from the thrift store with which you have no emotional attachment whatsoever. This way, you have the opportunity to create something modern at bargain price. Look for something simple, with foam or stuffing that is still in good condition. Pillows are a great starting point.)

DSCN0138 DSCN0140

Here is what I started with. Please note the distinctive anthropological markings of the 1970’s.

Step 1: Mark

This is what you will do before taking anything apart. Do not even remove the stuffing from the heinous $1 cushion you just selected. This is how you will know how everything goes back together. Oh? This is the most simple pillow in all the world, and not even a blind mutant could manage to reassemble it incorrectly? FAMOUS LAST WORDS.

Mark the damn thing.


Personally, I never waste an opportunity to draw scissors on a cut line. I use a grease pencil to mark the fabric. You can buy these nifty blue ones here. Otherwise, chalk, dressmakers chalk, or pencil will work just fine. Now I cannot stress enough that it is impossible to mark something too much. Maybe you still think you don’t need to. But trust me: when that thing is laid out in 2-7000 pieces, and you want to weep because you can’t figure out exactly how it went together, you will wish you had. If something is really complex, it also helps to make a drawing of it before you take anything apart. Again, better safe than sorry is the strategy here:

DSCN0149 This is my drawing. Yes. I used a whole page. No. This is not something to be ashamed of. This is good planning. You probably deserve to eat some cheesecake because of this.

Ok. You have it marked. (where the corners go, where the zipper is, where any ties are, which side is the front, and anything else that is applicable.)  You have drawn it. You know it like the back of your hand. NOW you can start to take it apart. Either cut along the seams with scissors or cut the threads with a seam ripper or x-acto knife.

* Note. If your pillow is either square or rectangular, you can skip this step and just measure it with a tape measure, like I did. I then wrote the sizes of all the pieces I wanted to cut on my clipboard. DON’T FORGET to add some extra for a seam allowance. I always add 1/2″. It’s easy math and allows you some leeway if you make a mistake. *

If your pillow has curved edges, or is some treacherous trapezoid- variety shape, you will use the old piece of cushion as a pattern piece. More on this later.

Step 2: Cutting / Fabric

Maybe this could have been step 1… You need to buy fabric. There are millions of options, and you can choose whatever excites you. My only recommendations are that you DO NOT choose something that is very stretchy, DO NOT choose something you can see through, and DO NOT choose something that is too thick for your sewing machine to get through.

DSCN0146 Well, in my case the customer chose the fabric. Relish your freedom, people.

Now you will either lay the old piece of pillow on top of the new fabric and cut around it, (making sure you remember seam allowance.) or measure your square/ rectangle shape with a tape measure and ruler and mark with chalk. (or what have you.)

DSCN0155 And now mark it again because you did it wrong…

Once you have one piece cut out, if there are more of the same size, you can use that piece as a template and trace around it to save time.

Remember those ballasts you saved from the last time you had your fluorescent lights changed? Get those out now.

DSCN0156 and use them as weights for your pattern piece. (make sure they are free of mysterious goo first.)

Proceed until you have cut out all of the pieces you need.

This is as far as I made it in my venture today. Tune in next time to see this beast get in on the action:



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