Wills Furniture – Caring for your Upholstery

When considering re-upholstery or care for those valuable family heirlooms and prized antique furniture, we believe it’s best to seek expert advice. Here we reprint the tips from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum on caring for your upholstery with some added material from Wills Furniture.

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Upholstered furniture is both decorative and functional. Whilst it is intended to be a part of an interior decorative scheme, its main role is to provide comfortable seating. Not surprisingly, regular use results in considerable wear and tear. As a result, much antique furniture has been reupholstered, often many times. Even today, it is all too common for upholstered furniture to be stripped down to the frame, old upholstery discarded and replaced with new. The consequence of this can be the loss of all original materials and evidence of original techniques. Thus furniture that survives with its original upholstery intact is unusual and often of historical interest. And this is where fine craftsmanship and generational knowledge is required.

Upholstery top covers, like other textiles, are particularly susceptible to damage from light. Case or loose covers made of silk, linen or cotton were used historically to prevent expensive upholstery from being damaged by dust and light. These covers were removed for honoured guests and on special occasions. Case covers can be used to protect upholstery textiles from light damage. [They are used in many historic houses to protect upholstered furniture during their closed season.]

Cleaning spills

The first thing to do is to blot immediately with kitchen paper to absorb the liquid. Repeat this until you have removed as much liquid as possible. Don’t be tempted to use heat, for example a hair dryer, to speed the drying as this can cause shrinkage or permanently fix stains. After blotting, stop and consider whether to accept the remaining damage or try to remove more stain. If in doubt, limit your remedy to blotting and consult an upholstery or textiles conservator for further treatment. At Wills we can give accurate and sensible information that will assist in preserving your valuable furniture or we can provide recovering and reupholstery as is required.

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In some cases it is possible to lightly dampen the surface with water, then blot away as much of the water and stain as possible. This process can be repeated, drying by thoroughly blotting between each stage. However, upholstery is composed of many layers. If water or other liquids are used, it isn’t always possible to keep the effects on the layers separate. You may find that colours in the top cover have run or that tidelines have formed as dirt is drawn up from the lower layers into the textile cover. Both of these problems can be permanent and attempts to remove the stain can simply extended the area of damage.

Reupholstering chairs, Lounge Suites and Sofas

Perhaps the most common mistake made when reupholstering is the indiscriminate use of ‘traditional’ upholstery materials and techniques. Many of these techniques were developed in the 19th century and, when applied inappropriately, produce upholstery profiles that are bulky, over-stuffed and historically incorrect. The best way to avoid this common pitfall is to consult someone familiar with historic upholstery and or upholstery conservation.

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You may find evidence of original upholstery on the chair or piece itself. It may be possible to select an unobtrusive place (usually at the back) and carefully lift a small length of top cover. Look underneath for earlier covers or fragments of earlier covers. Tacks and tack holes can provide evidence about the original upholstery. The earliest tacks were handmade and have faceted heads whilst later machine made tacks have flat heads.

Successive generations of upholstery tend to multiply the number of tack holes in the frame (and do considerable damage in the process). If all the tack holes are used by the present layers of upholstery, it is likely that you are looking at original materials. Alternatively, a regular pattern of old tack holes may provide evidence of original decorative nailing.

If there is no original upholstery left, then it may be necessary to commission reupholstery. Upholstery conservators often advocate the use of stainless steel staples over traditional tacks as they cause considerably less damage to original frame components than traditional tacks and therefore extend the life of the original frame.
It can be difficult to obtain fabrics and trimmings with historically appropriate, let alone accurate, weaves and designs. Fabric may be specially commissioned for valuable pieces in museums but this is very expensive and not a realistic option for most people.

Cleaning upholstery

If you want to clean historic top covers on upholstered furniture, please check with our upholsterers first if possible. It is worth remembering that the tacks used to fix the top cover are usually nailed well into the wood, and the head of the tack is often deeply impressed into the textile. Trying to lever the tacks out, especially if they have rusted and weakened the textile, is almost certain to tear the fabric.

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At Wills our craftsmen will be able to minimise damage when removing the cover and will know what cleaning method is most appropriate. Another problem is that upholstery fabric, when originally fitted, is stretched under tension and then trimmed. If removed, it can be difficult to refit because there is insufficient fabric remaining to allow it to be retensioned.

It is worth remembering that drop-in seat frames should be returned to their original chair. Frames are not interchangeable within sets. It is common to find that top covers on drop-in seats have been added one after the other, sometimes with addition of a layer of wadding. You may be lucky and find the original cover and profile is still intact underneath. However, if enough layers have been added, the additional bulk acts as a wedge and forces the chair joints apart or breaks the rebate where the seat sits in the frame.

For really valuable upholstered furniture its always best to consult with and engage a professional, experienced and knowledgeable upholsterer. At Wills we are more than happy to provide advice and pricing on how best to care for, restore or refresh your valuable antique and traditional furniture.

Call Wills on 03 9815 0111 for a free, no obligation quote.

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