The first tip is to consider the thread you’re going to use. Your furniture has a lot of use. If you’re sat on your sofa reading this think about how it’s impacting the fabric and seams. As your body pushes the filling to compact the material is pulled down also and this causes stress on the seams. If you’ve ever worn clothes that are too tight (guilty) you’ll have noticed how this extra pressure on the seams causes them to give. You don’t want that to happen to your sofa after you’ve spent lots of time making them (and it’s hard work).
So when I started to upholster my couches I made sure to buy thread that was specifically made for upholstery. I got mine here and even though it was expensive it was well worth it. You can alternatively use a zig zag stitch to make your seams stronger, but I would highly recommend this.
As you can see by the picture the spoils are big as they’re designed for professional machines. However I just place mine in something beside the machine and it continues to work fine.
As with the thread your choice of needle is essential. You’re going to be going through thick fabric designed to take a lot of stress, so your needle will face a lot of stress too. I was delighted with how these needles worked, they didn’t snap and considering I’ve broken a lot of needles when I sew that’s saying something!
When selecting the material you need to consider how strong it is and what you’re using it for. I’ve used lighter fabrics on dining chairs when I’ve upholstered them in the past and, even though they looked stunning when I first did them, they didn’t wear well over time. They’ll have to be redone soon meaning not only more time but additional cost too.
If it’s something like an occasional chair you can use mid-weight fabrics, but you have to be honest about how often it will be sat in. For example this Queen Anne chair is only ever sat in when all our other seats are taken when we have a lot of people over – so high days and holidays. So a mid-weight fabric was fine for it.
I use this chart from here to assess how much material I’ll need, but I always order more than necessary by about three metres. It means that if something should go terribly wrong I have additional material quickly to rectify the situation- and as it takes a long time to reupholster a sofa or chair you don’t want additional days waiting for new fabric to complete a frustrating project.
Also if you ever have a section of your upholstered piece ruined beyond redemption then you can replace that section if need be. No matter how good Vanish is (and I always have a bottle of the spray around for wine spills and it’s been a life saver) it can’t fix holes. My original sofa fabric has holes in it from wear and although there was a patch of fabric so I could salvage it prior to having the time to cover it it’s still a patch, even though it’s successfully concealed (for my tips on this look here).
5. When selecting the design think about this
Does it have a big bold pattern? If so you’ll also need to think about pattern repeat and the additional material you’ll need to make sure the pattern ‘flows’ throughout the sofa. This is tricky – this was the first sofa I upholstered with a pattern and, although it’s not a deal breaker, I wish I’d thought more carefully about how I was going to match the pattern when I was cutting out.
This leads me on to the next topic too…
6. Buying fabric as inexpensively as possible
Good upholstery material is expensive. A durable, heavy weight fabric is going to be setting you back at least £20/€25 euros a metre. Since a regular couch require up to 16 metres, excluding piping, then that’s a lot of money (for my pocket anyway). It’s still less expensive than a new couch, but the whole point of learning this skill is to save as much as possible.
What I do now is go on eBay and put in ‘upholstery fabric’ in the search engine and then in the criteria options on the let hand of the page I tick over ten metres, bail and whole rolls. You see when a fabric is distincontinued as fashion and seasons change there are often half or whole rolls of fabric that are removed from general sale an de they pass into the hands of discounters who sell them as whole batches on eBay.
So for example, as duck egg blue goes out fabric in that shade passes on to discounters.
I bought th fabric for the sofa above for £50 for 27.5 metres and it cost me about £30 for delivery. I used eBay uk because there doesn’t seem to be a similar discount system in France. However even with the cost of delivery it works out at about £3 per metre!
As we have two sofas I stick to similar tones so that I can buy sufficient fabric in this way.
7. Wash the fabric before you start
I didn’t do this once and when I did wash the fabric it shrunk significantly. Luckily it was the first couch I’d covered and I’d sewn them too baggy and after washing they fit perfectly. For obvious reasons I wouldn’t want to chance repeating this experience and risk them going too small next time.
As upholstery fabric is expensive you may want to consider whether you choose a contrasting piping that’s premade or make your own piping. Making piping is relatively easy, however it takes a lot of fabric when you consider the price. So you may save time and money by buying piping separately.
In terms of the sofa above I used the same fabric and made my piping as there was a significant amount left over.
9. Re-use fabric from elsewhere
I’ve trawled second hand shops before searching for good quality, mid weight curtains that have been kindly donated by someone. I’ve used this kind of material to cover occasional chairs too.
I’ve mentioned the first couch I covered, which I don’t use in our living room now as it’s a sofa bed. I’m probably going to use it elsewhere and I think I will cover it again in more neutral tones. It was pink velvet and with the lilacs seemed too feminine in our new living room. However I hated wasting the fabric, so I dyed it and covered another chair with it. Once you learn the skill of upholstery covers it can be very beneficial in getting a new look relatively inexpensively.
I spoke in this post about how I used Pinterest as a source of inspiration for design details. I’ve also used it to find upholstery how tos. They’re so good I decided to do this list of tips rather than my own!
11. Unpicking V pinning
In order to get a pattern for your sofa you can do it one of two ways. You can remove and unpick all of the previous covers, preferably salvaging zips, cord for piping etc as you go. To do this it’s best to have a marker with you to label each piece (cushion 1 front, cushion 1 side, cushion 1 back etc) as well as details such as whether it’s joined to the other parts by a seam, with piping, has a zip fastening etc. It’s also a good idea to get you phone out and photograph each section as you taken it apart to give you a record to refer back to in case how you’ve marked each piece suddenly stops making sense.
I tend to use that method when a cover is beyond any chance of saving for obvious reasons. However if that’s not the case, and if feeling the original material through the new fabric isn’t an issue, I take the material still in its entirety and pin it to the part I want to replicate. I then cut an approximate size of the piece and use that as a pattern to make a cover for the top of the upholstered piece.
I will do this as a unique post later because it bares explaining in detail. However it’s far better in your initial upholstery attempts to go with the unpicking method if possible. There will be trickier areas where you will have to work out how to make a slipcover work – you’ll have to ensure the material fits neatly on the seat of the chair frame and under the cushions for example. Previous experience will help you do this.
12. Placing the new ‘pattern’ to get the most out of your fabric
As I said in fabric selection you need to be able to ensure that any pattern is used successfully prior to cutting. Back to this sofa you can see how the couch cushions have the main focus of the pattern centrally to the cushion cover. If you flip these over you’d see that it’s not the case the other side. It was only after I’d cut out the first part of these that I realised I needed to be thinking about doing it! Lesson learned.
13. Use pinking shears for the hems
I haven’t the capacity on my machine for a blanket stitch to protect the edges – at least I don’t think I do, not an expert sewer – so I use these to stop fraying.
14. Cutting before mitring
This is an obvious, but so essential it bears spelling out just in case. Upholstery material is thick. A piece of fabric, sewed onto piping grosgrain, then another piece of thick material! If you’re not mitring you’ll find it won’t fit under the sewing machine foot.
15. Design details for mistakes
The first couch I covered I didn’t notice that the previous cover that I’d unpicked and used as a pattern didn’t actually fit anymore. I’d bought it second hand and the cover had evidently been washed and had shrunk. As a result when I went to put the new cover on it didn’t fit. It took me ages to realise what had happened and I confirmed it by spreading the old cover along to back of the couch – it was too short!
I was so frustrated. What was I going to do? All the cutting had taken place and there was no material big enough to replace what was needed. Unfortunately as the cover has now been used for my new arm chair as I’ve previously said, I can’t show you the eventual outcome. However what I did was make a sort of capped sleeve of pleated fabric to create extra width.
Simmilarly when I reused that material I found there wasn’t a piece big enough for the back of the sofa. So I divided what would be the back into three parts and made a button, fastening feature to disguise it. The back of that chair you can now see below.
16. Alternative fastening
Just because you have your ‘pattern’ doesn’t mean you can’t make intelligent changes. My original couch covers were very fitted and it was always a struggle to get them on and off when they needed cleaning. So when I recovered this couch I used a flap and butting fastening. A great way to make it easier and prettier!
17. Zip foot
Obviously you have to use a zip foot for the zip closing, but to be honest I keep mine on throughout. Thick fabric and piping elements make the material a challenge to handle and it helps with my use of time to just use this.
18. Make sure that you organise your time
I spent a week working pretty consistently on my last armchair, so you need to know from the outset this will take some time and plan accordingly. Obviously you can cover the sofa with a throw, but you don’t want a naked sofa around a long time – particularly if you have little ones around. I stripped an ottoman to cover recently, went to the kitchen to do something and found my youngest had torn holes out of the foam!
Which leads me to…
19. Remember your mirror images
Unless your going to re-use zips etc you can just unpick one back cushion and one seat cushion. Then reuse the pattern with the opposite side to create a mirror. It means at least one set of cushion covers will remain on the couch at all time throughout and that’s less of an opportunity for little fingers.
It also means you can unpick the back cushion, make the two cushions, then unpick the base cushion for the same reason.
Obviously if you use the pinning method above you don’t have to strip the sofa or armchair of the current material and therefor you can spend longer completing the project.
20. Upholstery staples
When upholstering with a staple gun you must ensure your staples are fit for purpose. This means making sure they have sufficient depth, so always buy the largest staples to fit your gun and a heavy duty staple gun that fires well.
I’m about to do a post on covering the main body of a couch with a scalloped edge so stay tune for that; hit subscribe and follow on Instagram and Pinterest to be alerted when it comes out. Any comments – or tips you want to add – I’d love to hear from you!
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