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Re-Upholstering 101: How I re-upholstered my swivel armchair

Holy SMOKES……..this post is WAY overdue!  I hinted way back in October that I was working on re-upholstering a chair for Chloe’s nursery, from a chair that I bought from a thrift store about a year before that.  I finally tackled/finished it (except for the seat cushion) before the holidays and then I saved it to share until after the New Year.  But OOPS, it got pushed back.  And then other projects cut in line.  And then all that ugly sickness hit our home last week.  Whew! (P.S……we’re buying a home too.  Can I throw that in there, while I’m throwing out other excuses??  I know, I can’t believe it either!  Our very 1st HOME!!!!)



Anyway, that old velvet-y blue rocking chair is no more………and has been replaced by a clean textured white one.




And hooray……Chloe’s nursery is now complete!  Yeah, I know, a white chair??  In a nursery?!!  But our bedrooms are upstairs, where no food is allowed, and shoes come off once we walk in the front door.  Also, her nursery doesn’t get a lot of traffic…..just a lot of sitting and rocking.  So the white wins! :)



It took several days to re-upholster but once I got going, it was very satisfying.  And all the details came together so nicely.  And I think you’d be shocked how much sewing is NOT involved.  (So, don’t even tell yourself you can’t do this because you’re not a whiz on the sewing machine yet.)


***The fabric is from Joann’s. Isn’t that texture great?




Now, there’s a nice little upholstered chair, sitting in the nursery corner……ready to be cozied-up in.




It’s where we sit and do one of Chloe’s favorite things in life……Story Time!!!




So glad it’s done.  And I’m so glad I took the time to re-finish it!





Would you like a little mini lesson in Re-Upholstering??



WARNING:  There are tons of pictures in this tutorial.  TONS AND TONS!  Re-upholstery projects are all different shapes and sizes but the main idea is all the same.  If you pull it apart, one piece at a time, it’ll go back together the same way.  And watching the process unfold piece by piece, will hopefully help some of you tackle your own re-upholstery project.  So get ready for some serious picture scrolling!! :)


To get started, you need to buy fabric.  A thicker upholstery fabric works best.  If you use a printed upholstery fabric, keep in mind that if it’s a high traffic piece of furniture, the print will most likely fade.  So, if you want to use fabric with different colors for your upholstery project, try to find some where the colors are woven in.  (However, if this is mostly a decorative piece of furniture, printed would be just fine.)


I found this guide online at Restoration Fabrics that can be used as a quick reference:




I bought about 5 yards to finish off my chair.  I found my fabric at Joann Fabric and used a 40% off coupon but there are less expensive options.  Always check the discount rack in the back of the store, dig through your fabric stash, browse through the old curtains at the thrift store, etc.  If you think re-upholstering is too expensive……look harder!  You can probably make it work somehow! :)



Now…..the FUN begins!


Before you start tearing things up, take pictures.  Lots of them.  Take a picture of every corner and fold and pleat……just so you can reference it if you need to.  Lift the fabric, take pictures of how things were put together, and then take more.  Because you’ll thank yourself later. 



Now, start on the most outward piece of fabric and start taking the fabric apart.  You’re probably going to be shocked at how much a piece of furniture like this is NOT sewn.  So, don’t stress the sewing too much! :)  Layer by layer, your piece of furniture will come apart and you’ll want to take pictures of how you took it apart as well, because you’ll work backwards putting it back together.


For my chair, I started taking apart the bottom skirt first.  There were staples everywhere.  So I dug around and pulled out tons of staples……and kept a little bowl right next to me to drop them into.







Then, I took the back panel off the chair by sliding my flat head screwdriver into the side and pried it open.  I could see that it was a tack strip (a row of nails along a strip of flexible plastic) holding the back panel on… it all pulled up together.



I continued to pry it open…



And then started working on the side panels, which were attached with the same tack strips.  Then I kept peeling more and more layers off my chair.








Until whew, it was all bare.  Then, I started with the last thing I took off and decided to begin right there.  I placed the piece of fabric for the front base of the chair, right down on my new fabric, and cut around it.  There is only very minimal sewing involved with upholstery projects… cutting doesn’t have to always be exact.  ***Just be sure that you cut any sort of pattern or print in the same direction, if you can help it.  Floral or messy prints won’t matter.  But if you have something that is uniform and goes in a direction, be sure that it goes in the same direction every time you cut.



Then, I started to re-attach it, the very same way it came off.



For each arm rest, there was a bit of piping.  I unpicked the old piping because I wanted that sturdy plastic cording to use.  So I cut out a strip of fabric and re-sewed a strip of piping for each of the chair arms.  (Need help with piping?)


Then, I attached them the same way they were taken off.


Now……let me introduce you to a little secret weapon: Cardboard Tacking Strip (I bought mine at Joann’s).  This stuff will give you a nice crisp edge when you re-upholster something. Just take note when it was used in the original chair and then you’ll know when to use it.  (It may have been plastic in your furniture though……but the cardboard is common and still works really well.)



Here’s an example of how it works.  I cut out a piece of fabric to cover one of the arms and on the wrong side of the fabric, I lined up a piece of the tacking strip down on top of the fabric, and butted it up against the piping that I already attached to the front of the arm.  Then I stapled the tacking strip down.  The cardboard tacking strip will give the fabric a nice edge once I flip that fabric back over.  Without it, you’d be able to see where each staple was placed and it wouldn’t be a nice clean line.



And just like it was before, I folded over little pieces of fabric before stapling down the tacking strip, to give the fabric some fullness after turning the fabric over.



See?  And once the fabric is flipped back over……’s nice and clean.  It makes it look as if those fabric pieces were sewn together.  But really, it’s the tacking strip placed right next to that piping, from the underneath side.



Then, I pulled the fabric for the arm rest back and down and stapled it in place in all directions.





Next, I cut around the large piece of fabric for the tall section of the front of the chair.  And then attached it the same way it came off.  And tucked and folded and stapled around the top back of the chair.  (For some reason, I didn’t take many pictures of the process while stapling all those folds around the top back of the chair.  But it’s so unique, I’m not sure how many other chairs are actually done that way.)



Next, the outer sides of the chair.  I started on one side and cut out the fabric.



And used some tacking strip down below the arm rest and stapled the fabric down in place. 



See?  This stuff will give this a nice clean line.



This is what you’ll need next…….another secret weapon: Nail Tacking Strip (I bought this at Joann’s too).  It’s basically a sturdy piece of cardboard (that is still a bit flexible) with a bunch of nails embedded in it.  In my chair, it was a plastic strip with nails in it but I’ve also seen it as a flexible piece of metal with nails coming out of it.  If you can re-use your strip, great.  Otherwise, whatever variety you find is great.



This nail tacking strip will go in face down right below that line of piping.  But when I lay the fabric on top and before I turn it under, I will line it up right on top of the piping.  Play around with yours and see where you need to align it before attaching the fabric and rolling it under.



Then, I cut a piece that was just the right length for the side of the chair.


Then I placed the strip down right on top of the piping (and used the seam as my guide) and then started pulling the fabric down pretty snug onto those nails.



Then, once all the fabric was in place on the nails, I began turning the nail strip under and tucked all the extra fabric under to be hidden.



To get a nice pretty corner, fold the fabric under nicely and out of the way.



Then use a rubber mallet to pound the nails into place.  (If you don’t have a rubber mallet, cover a regular hammer in a thick towel.)



Then, I pulled the other sides tight and stapled them into place……..just like chair was done initially.



Next, I did the same thing with the back panel of the chair.  I stapled in the tacking strip up top…..



Then, pulled the fabric down and added some Nail Tacking Strip to both sides to hide the fabric edges along both sides.




Now, the skirt around the bottom of the skirt. 


Not everyone’s going to have a skirt for their chair and even if you do, the process would probably be different……so I’m not going to show super detailed instructions on how to put them together.  But here’s what I did.  I took all the pieces apart (label them with tape if needed) and placed them down.



Then, I took apart the piping and reused the plastic cording and made some new piping.  (I didn’t cut it on the bias because it didn’t need to go around any curves. I just straight strips of fabric for the piping.  More on making piping here.)






Then, I started pulling each piece apart, one at a time, and kept the lining from each pieces so that I could re-use them.


Then I cut around each piece of fabric.


And then re-constructed it the exact same way it was taken apart. (Take picture while you take it apart, if needed.)


Then, I pinned each flap to the bottom of the chair, spaced exactly how you need it.


Then, keeping that spacing exactly how it was, I pinned the piping right to the top of the flaps……which keeps the flaps all together in a long line.


Then I sewed the piping right down.


Next, I marked exactly where the flaps would go, minus the top raw edge of the flaps/piping.  Then, I marked a little line with a pencil all the way around.


Then, starting at the side towards the back of the chair, I placed the strip of flaps upside down and facing downward…….and then started stapling it down right below the line of piping.  The piping really helps with giving it a nice clean edge so you don’t need to use the tacking strip.  But also, if you used the tacking strip here, it would be really thick to staple through.


See?  Then, once you pull the flap down, it looks nice and finished.  Now, finish stapling all the way around the flaps and pull the flaps down for good.  (It helped me to run a hot iron along the flap, to give it a flat finish.)



And lastly, the seat cushion.


Again, every cushion will be a little different but here’s a few pictures of what I did.  I took lots of pictures of how the cushion was sewn together….


…..and then started picking it apart.


Until the whole cushion was in pieces.


Then I re-cut every piece:


And I even picked out the zipper to re-use it……but then ended up running the zipper of the end of the cut zipper and then couldn’t put it back together.  So if you’re re-using a zipper, be careful with it!  But I also pulled out the cording to use to re-make the piping.



And then re-sewed the center strip of the cushion back together.


Then, sewed the cushion back together.


Just remember, take lots of pictures while you take your cushion apart, so that you can remember exactly how it was put together.


Then stuff your cushion inside of it’s new cover……….and your chair is now complete.


Whew!  All that work.  TOTALLY worth it!!!! :)


Now enjoy!





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Ashley Johnston

Administrator at Make It & Love It
Ashley Johnston is a professional DIY costume maker, sewist, crafter, and owner of Make It & Love It. She is a mom of 5 and a wife to a very patient (with the craft clutter) husband. In case you’re wondering, she always chooses crafting/sewing/designing over mopping/dusting/wiping base boards……but bathrooms/laundry/full bellies are always attended to. Whew!

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Hi, I'm Ashley

Hi, I’m Ashley—the DIY-enthusiast behind this crazy blog!

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