TEXT BY SARAH STEBBINS
“You can really stand out from the crowd by taking furniture with an interesting shape and putting an interesting piece of fabric on it,” says Rachel Ambrose, who has run Portland’s cult favorite Home Remedies furnishings and fabric shop for 12 years. Think: an antique barrel-back settee in a nubby bouclé or a Louis XVI–style chair in a modern botanical print. Reupholstering can transform a family heirloom, flea-market find, or dated piece you might otherwise get rid of, potentially saving it from the incinerator or landfill, where the Environmental Protection Agency says more than 12 million tons of furnishings end up each year. Right now in Maine, the process isn’t especially cheap or speedy, but if you heed the advice of the experts in our guide, it can be well worth the investment. “When people see their finished piece, it’s a big moment,” says Pete Faris, of Pistol Pete’s Upholstery, in Yarmouth. “They’re like, ‘my year-long dream — it’s perfect.’”
PICK THE RIGHT PIECE
An item is generally worth reupholstering if it’s sturdy and well-made, with a hardwood frame held together with mortise-and-tenon, dowel, or tongue-and-groove joinery, as opposed to glue and staples. Mid-century and earlier pieces often fit this criteria. “You don’t want to do your Pottery Barn sofa,” Ambrose says. Older pieces are also apt to have hand-tied coil springs beneath their cushions, which upholsterers prize above newer “sinuous” springs or webbing. “People say that in the older furniture, you sat in it and nowadays you sit on it,” says Faris, who learned to upholster while designing props for theater sets. “Some of the cushioning is in those coils, and, when you lose that, you have to compensate with denser foam that’s not as comfortable.” Still, Faris works on plenty of contemporary pieces. “People recover things because they’re used to the proportions, the scale,” he says. “It has nothing to do with quality; it just works for them.” Other items have sentimental value. “We’ve done chairs that were pretty brittle,” Faris says. “But they were Mom’s chairs.”
“Reupholstering is not a money saver,” Ambrose says. Between fabric and labor, expect to pay as much as you would for a new piece of similar quality and design, and possibly more. “I compare it to getting a custom suit,” says Keaven Hartt, of Portland’s Willa Hartt upholstery shop, who started out recovering an 1800s loveseat for her thesis at the city’s Maine College of Art & Design and now sits on the board of the National Upholstery Association. “You’re paying for something that was made just for you.” After asking for measurements and photos, or checking out a piece in person, an upholsterer will provide a labor estimate that can range from $400 for a simple ottoman to upwards of $1,800 for a sofa. If repairing the frame, replacing padding, cushion inserts, or springs, detaching fabric adhered with staples (as opposed to easier-to-remove nails common on older pieces), and/or complex pattern matching (see below) are involved, those numbers will go up.
FOCUS ON FABRIC
Synthetic “performance” textiles and leather are the most durable, easy-to-clean choices, while linens and cottons are best saved for occasional chairs “where no one is going to be eating pizza,” Ambrose says. Consult a material’s “rub count,” an industry measure of abrasion resistance: 12,000 will suffice for lightly used pieces; opt for 16,000 or higher for the family sofa. You may save by purchasing upholstery fabric from an outside shop — a few local stores carry small selections — as opposed to an upholsterer, if he or she will work with it. Hartt recently stopped accepting customers’ fabric because “people kept bringing me stuff that frayed or had zero stretch,” she says. (The moral: confirm yardage and textile choices with your upholsterer before buying.) Other frugal moves include choosing a solid fabric or one with a small pattern repeat, which require less material and less (or no) work on the part of the upholsterer matching up the design. But beware of bargain textiles, Faris says. “Are you really going to want to look at a piece of furniture with cheap fabric on it for the next 20 years?”
BE PREPARED TO WAIT
Heightened demand during the pandemic, coupled with a pervasive labor shortage, have left Faris with a waiting list 50 projects deep. New customers can expect to sit tight for more than a year before their piece is completed. “Pre-pandemic, it was six months,” he says. Other shops we spoke to around the state have six-to-14-month wait times. Simple requests, like recovering the cushions on a Morris chair, can usually be done quicker than, say, reupholstering a chaise. One way you might inch ahead in line: Work with an interior designer, whose professional perks may include faster service.
Three transformations show the magic of new fabric.
Keaven Hartt gave this 1930s chrome Springer chair, designed by Karl Emanuel Martin “Kem” Weber, better-fitting cushions in rich honey-colored leather. Moore & Giles Mont Blanc leather in caramel, $525/50-square-foot hide. willahartt.com
With a fluffed-up cushion and a bold, botanical print, Pete Faris made a frumpy 1960s French-style armchair fabulous. Fabricut/Kendall Wilkinson cotton-linen in Arboretum, $52.50/yard. pistolpeteupholstery.com
Oversize polka dots are a pleasant surprise on this antique Empire-style settee with a carved-wood frame, reimagined by Rachel Ambrose’s Home Remedies team. Schumacher Full Circle linen in Faded Black. $196/ yard. homeremediesmaine.com
Upholstery fabric is heavier, thicker, and, at 54 inches, wider than other types. After you’ve zeroed in on a color or pattern in a material that’s appropriate for your piece (see Focus on Fabric above), bring a swatch home and examine it in different lights to ensure you love it before committing.
1. Walter G Flores linen in Pacific Blue, $280/yard
2. Gardiner polyester velvet in Azalea, $70/yard
3. Shirley polyester in Stone, $41/yard
4. Kels Haley Textiles Maze cotton-linen in gold, $140/yard
5. Wayne polyester in Lakeland, $38/yard. Available through homeremediesmaine.com.
All the Trimmings
Dress up plain stitching with cording, fabric-covered welting, or decorative tacks or embellish the base of a seat or skirt with upholstery tape or fringe. Contrasting stitches are another stylish update — that costs nothing.
1. Fabricut Oolong 105 cord in Putty, 3⁄8 inch, $28/yard
2. Fabricut Ikata 125 tape, 2.62 inches, $44/yard
3. Stout Vibrato 2 Nugget fringe in gold, 2 inches, $57/yard
4. Stout Natasha tape in ebony, 1⁄2 inch, $28/yard. Available through homeremediesmaine.com.
A Fly DIY
Upholstering a flat padded headboard, footstool, or dining chairs with drop-in seats are projects anyone can do. Simply remove the old material and affix new fabric with a staple gun, pulling tight and folding and tucking at the corners. Portland photographer Erin Little spiffed up her vintage Facebook Marketplace dining chairs with toweling fabric from the city’s Z Fabrics. “It was a very cheap, easy way to freshen up the room,” she says. Moda/Pieces to Treasure Lakeside cotton toweling in black. $7.29/yard. zfabric.com