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Caring for Your Upholstery

Gilded and upholstered armchair, 18th century, designed by Robert Adam and made by Thomas Chippendale. Museum no. W.1-1937

Gilded and upholstered armchair, 18th century, designed by Robert Adam and made by Thomas Chippendale. Museum no. W.1-1937

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 is 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.

The main aim of upholstery conservation is to preserve evidence of original materials and techniques. This is not usually compatible with keeping seating furniture in daily use. If you are interested in preserving original upholstery for the future, it is necessary to limit use or forego it altogether. Broken webbing, for example, may be supported by inserting a sheet of Perspex (with holes to allow air movement) under the seat frame. A fragile textile top cover may be protected with thin netting. In both cases, this will prevent further damage but will not be robust enough to withstand use.

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.

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

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.

Unfortunately, as interest in historic upholstery is a comparatively recent development, there are few specialist conservators available. You may need to undertake your own research into what the original upholstery profile and fabric should be. It may be helpful to review books on historic interiors, contact one of the larger auction houses or consult museums with large historic furniture collections.

You may find evidence of original upholstery on the chair 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, consult a conservator. 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.

A conservator 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.

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