Reupholstery Tips From a Pro

Including the most common mistake people make when choosing fabrics.

Matthew Haly
Photo: Glenn Glasser

New York City design-and-build specialist Matthew Haly doesn't soft-pedal when it comes to his craft. Thinking of reupholstering? Pull up a chair.

01 of 05

How long have you been in this business?

Matthew Haly
Glenn Glasser

My first job, at 15, was at an upholstery studio in New Zealand, where I grew up. So I’ve been at this for 25 years. I’ve had my own studio [] for 12 years.

There’s a lot of furniture today that’s not built for a second life—it’s not structurally sound enough to invest in. If you have a piece with a well-made frame, it’s probably worth it. Older furniture tends to be higher quality—something that was your grandmother’s in the 30s or 40s is more likely to have dowel joints than be glued together. That’s worth investing in.

It’s a time- and labor-intensive process that involves specialized skills. A well-done job can include stripping a piece to the frame, reinforcing the frame and the joints, replacing coil springs and zigzag springs—and that’s all before the cost and complexity of fill, padding, and fabric. The most common misconception is that reupholstering is just about fabric.

02 of 05

Is there a cheaper way?

Upholstery padding
Glenn Glasser

If the springs, padding, and frame are in great shape and all you’re looking for is new fabric, it’s a lot less expensive. But in my experience, by the time people are ready to have something reupholstered, it’s beat up on the inside.

There’s a huge difference when it comes to price. A down-and-feather sofa cushion costs about $650; foam could be $75. Down is very comfortable, but it compresses fast and doesn’t hold its shape for long. It needs constant refluffing to look good. That’s why a combination is so popular: A foam core with a down-and-feather wrap is soft and keeps its shape.

This is important. For both seat and back cushions, the ratio should be about 60 percent down to 40 percent feathers. A too-high percentage of feathers is bad—they’ll poke through the fabric. If you’re not sure what percentage your existing cushions have, unzip the covers and read the tags. Cushions could be labeled “down and feather” and actually have a ratio of five to 95. If you replace your cushions, ask the upholsterer for 60 percent down and 40 percent feathers.

03 of 05

What’s a common mistake people make when buying fabrics?

Matthew Haly pulling out staple
Glenn Glasser

Picking stripes or patterns for rounded pieces. The stretching of the fabric required for proper application will pull the stripe or pattern out of whack, and you’ll end up with crooked stripes or a warped pattern. A good upholsterer should be able to tell you what will work—and should be willing to say no if your choice isn’t right.

Unfortunately, dogs love every kind of fabric. In my experience, though, cats don’t like mohair, and they stay off it. As for kids, I have two—and, yes, upholstery is going to get damaged with little kids around. There’s no way to avoid it.

Get a bunch of bids. If you’re hearing $3,000 from five places and then someone says $1,200, run the other way. That’s what I call a chop shop. They’re not going to do a good job.

04 of 05

What constitutes a bad job?

Rolls of fabric
Glenn Glasser

When upholsterers put the new fabric right on top of the existing fabric with a layer of cotton in between, instead of stripping away the old stuff. Most people can’t tell right away, but in a couple of months they’ll feel the cotton bunching up on the back of the piece.

No matter what your upholsterer tells you, wash the fabric before you have slipcovers made. I promise you: It will shrink massively. Otherwise, the minute you take the covers to be dry-cleaned—which involves liquid—they won’t fit anymore. And if the upholsterer says you need 10 yards of fabric, buy 15.

The main thing to pay attention to is the spring action. If you hear an eee-eee-eee noise when you sit down, that’s not good. And it will cost you.

05 of 05

How do you care for upholstered pieces?

Matthew Haly in workshop
Glenn Glasser

Don’t sit on them. Seriously, though, I don’t do anything special—I’ve never vacuumed my sofa.

Avoid two-tone upholstery. Like a sofa where the front and the back are different colors. You might be sad that you did that in a few months. If you want to take a big design risk, do it with throw pillows. Keep the sofa basic.

Sometimes people come to our studio wanting to preserve things for purely sentimental reasons. And that can be perfectly valid. In a time when so many of us live far from our families, and when so much is disposable, it’s nice to have a personal piece of furniture in our homes.

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