All Covered Up: The Art and Lexicon of Upholstery

The side by side nail head trim is called toe-to-toe nail head.

While in my shop one day, I had a phone call from an obviously agitated man. Actually it happened more than once but that’s another story.

With some desperation in his voice, he wanted to know where in town he could find someone to replace all the cloth on his chairs. I calmly told him the phone book was full of shops that could help him. He told me he had looked all through the “A-Ps” in the phone book and couldn’t find a single business that did “apholstery.”

Of course he didn’t find anything—since the name of the trade is “upholstery,” but that demonstrates the lack of knowledge commonly found on a subject that is so important to people interested in older and antique furniture.

A covering draped over a frame has been the standard for basic seating from ancient cultures to as late as the Renaissance. By the 16th century, the situation was eased somewhat with the use of cushions, followed by springs in the 18th century and coil or helical springs by the middle of the 19th century.

The double cord around the edge of this chair’s upholstery is called a double welt.

One of the mysteries of upholstery to many people is how fabric is measured. When an upholsterer says a chair will require three yards of material, does he or she mean square yards, linear yards or what other measurement?

He means “fabric yards.” Fabric is manufactured in a specified width, commonly 54 inches.

When you go to a fabric store you will see rolls of fabric hanging on a wall or laid out on a table. Each roll generally is 54 inches wide and a “fabric yard” is a length cut from that roll that is 36 inches long and 54 inches wide.

The pattern in fabric generally runs from side to side across the width. The upholster must take into account the extra fabric needed to match the pattern both down the length of the fabric and across the width. That’s why it always looks like it takes a lot more fabric than necessary to cover a given piece of furniture. A certain amount of the fabric is lost in pattern matching.

Pattern matching and the 54-inch width is why you often see a seam or even two seams in the back panel of a 7-foot-long sofa. The fabric has to be pieced to make the pattern match across the width. That occurs when the pattern runs across the width. But some fabric is manufactured with what is called a “railroaded” pattern. That means the pattern runs lengthwise on the fabric, not across the width. Railroaded fabric can be used to make seamless back panels in couches.

Aside from “fabric yards” and “railroaded,” upholstery, like any other specialized field, has its own vocabulary. Here are few of the important tidbits of upholstery lingo:

A gimp—the braided decorative trim—can be easily seen on the edge of this seat.

Gimp: No, not an injured athlete. It’s the braided-looking decorative trim used on the outside edge of upholstery;

Welt: The cord wrapped in fabric used to trim more modern upholstered pieces;

Double welt: Two cords used instead of one in the welt;

Toe-to-toe: Describes nail-head trim when the head of each nail or tack touches the next nail or tack;

Finger-spaced: Describes nail head trim that is spaced out, approximately the width of the upholsterer’s finger;

In this rocker, the jute webbing, which holds the springs, has broken and must be replaced. The black lower liner is called cambric.

Cambric: The dust cover, usually black, used on the bottom of an upholstered piece to keep things out of the springs or frame;

Button-tufted: Describes a piece when buttons are installed on the surface and pulled tight through the webbing to give the seat or back a bold texture;

One of the many techniques upholsterers use is button-tufting, which can be seen on the back of this sofa.

Jute: The material used to make the 4-inch-wide webbing on the bottom of the frame that supports the springs and padding;

Upholstery pins: Thin, coiled and sharp decorative pins used to hold armrest and headrest covers in place. They literally screw into the fabric without damaging it;

Marshall units: Spring units used in cushions that contain a number of small coil springs enclosed in a frame and covered with muslin;

Muslin: A thin strong closely woven cotton fabric, usually unbleached white, used as a utility fabric to cover springs and unfinished upholstery;

Pirelli webbing: The 2-inch-wide rubber webbing used in place of jute webbing in modern seating;

Zig spring: A type of spring that has a zigzag pattern instead of a coil spring used in modern seating;

Batting: The material used to pad the edges of seats and frames, usually made of bulk cotton;

Eight-way tie: The method used to tie the top of coil springs to each other and the frame to present a stable uniform surface below the fabric and padding.

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