It has been exactly two years since my two Great Grandmother’s vintage couches made their way from my Uncle’s house to mine. It has been one year since I found some lovely, burnt orange, affordable fabric to use for recovering the sofas. Just a few days ago, I finally found the time, energy and bravery to start working on the huge job of reupholstering them.
Like I mentioned before, the original upholstery fabric on the sofas was trashed. Years of daily use and an unfortunate incident involving what was described to me as a “spilled pizza” took its toll on the upholstery.
Since the fabric was in such bad shape, I managed to find two inexpensive blankets from Ikea to hide the dirty sofa fabric until the time came when I had the fabric and time to begin reupholstering the sofas.
As you know, I live in Wisconsin and it is not very warm this time of year. However, a few days after Christmas, the temperature outside jumped to a balmy 47 degrees, giving me the perfect window of opportunity to strip the old upholstery off the first couch out in the garage — because there is NO WAY I am opening up a dirty vintage couch in the house. I decided to start with the more disgusting of the two sofas, and the one that looked least difficult — the larger sofa without the arm.
After removing the fabric on the bottom of the couch (and five hundred tacks), my suspicions were confirmed. This is a well-built couch with metal coil springs, padded with horsehair and cotton batting. The springs and horsehair were in good shape, and the cotton batting is mostly in good shape so I decided to keep them, which is what the upholstery book I have been consulting suggests. It is cost prohibitive to replace horsehair these days and modern day foam has a much shorter life than the good old stuff like horsehair. Keeping the couch innards will save me a ton of work and money on the project.
Other than a few spots where the cotton batting had shredded and fallen off, it was clean and in good shape. All of the ick on the upholstery fabric seems to have stayed there and not passed through to the padding.
I made sure to add a little extra batting along the front and a few spots on the sides where the cotton has deteriorated. That dark stuff peeking out from behind the cotton is the horsehair.
I bought a large roll of polyester batting (the kind used for quilting) at a local fabric store. It is thin and mostly acts as a way to keep the cotton batting in place while I work on the sofa, plus it is a buffer between the old cotton and the new fabric.
Prior to removing the old upholstery fabric, I knew it was shot, but I had no idea how dirty and worn it actually was until I discovered the difference between the parts of the fabric that had been tucked inside the couch and those parts that were exposed.
The fabric I had originally thought was beige was actually off-white when new! GROSS. Besides a handful of old popcorn, most likely left over from my Uncle’s bachelor days, there were no other surprises waiting for me in the bowels of the couch.
Close up of Bernhardt Spellbound Cayenne fabric from Modern Fabrics.
Once the couch frame and padding was vacuumed and brought back inside, it was time to crack open the 23 yards of fabric I bought last January. I purchased the fabric from Modern Fabrics, a company that collects perfectly good, overstock and leftover fabrics from large furniture companies, saving it from being thrown away. They resell the fabric at a fraction of the original cost — giving the general public a great deal (I got all 23 yards of fabric for about $300 delivered). A win win!
Next, I had to open up the terrifying sewing machine. Yes, I know — it is really not that scary. But for some reason, I am more intimidated by a sewing machine than a power saw. Go figure. This particular sewing machine is a Singer model 99, made in 1942 and belonged to my Nana, who was quite the seamstress. My Mom says nearly her entire wardrobe up until high school was made on this machine, by my Nana. My Grandfather, who I called Bob, built this cabinet himself. The family history continues!
Other than a few short instructions from my Mom on how to thread the machine, wind a bobbin and my attempt to sew a five inch long scrap of fabric last summer, I have never used a sewing machine in my life. I didn’t even take anything like Home Economics in high school. My bad. I had completely forgotten how to thread the machine and wind a bobbin since my lesson in July, but luckily, the original manual was still kicking around in the cabinet, allowing me to give myself a refresher course. After a few tries, I managed to get the old iron lady up and humming.
My next task was to identify which sewing machine foot was the zipper foot, since my upholstery book mentioned that you can use a zipper foot to make welt cord, and my sofas needed loads of it. There weren’t any pictures of the zipper foot in the manual, but there were several other, more involved “feet” shown. By process of elimination, and a quick internet search, I was able to identify the zipper foot. Hurray! (Note: I am SO GLAD I didn’t have to use the ruffler foot. That is one complicated piece of machinery. Have you ever seen a ruffler? SCARY!)
I estimated that I would need about 24 yards (72 feet!) of welt cord to complete both sofas. Since nearly every part of the sofa was attached to welt cord, I decided making the welt cord would be the first order of business. I used an old yard stick I found in the garage to cut the strips of fabric on the bias, then pinned all the strips together as instructed in the book and sewed them into one long strip of fabric. Then it was time to sew the welt cord into the fabric. It took a little practice, and I went very slow.
Any time I felt frustrated or worried about the sewing, I thought about my Nana, who would be so proud that I was using her machine. I thought about Great Grandma (who I never met) and my Grandma being so proud of me for fixing their old perfectly good sofa to use in my home. I felt like I had three angels sitting on my shoulders the whole time giving me praise and pointers. After about four hours…
…I had 24 yards of awesome welt cord! I danced around the house holding the massive pile of welt cord and feeling a bit like Rapunzel holding her long hair. My husband was amused with my antics. (Note: I cut the strips much wider than I needed to because I was using thick welt cord (12/32) and I had never used a sewing machine before. Mom reminded me you can always cut extra off but it is very hard to put back on, so I erred on the side of caution.)
Using the old fabric as a pattern, I carefully cut out the fabric pieces, sewed them together very slowly and then tried the finished piece out on the sofa.
It fits! And it doesn’t look half bad! I’m sure it will look better when it is actually attached to the couch, but for my first foray into sewing, I’m pretty darn proud.
On deck for the upcoming weekend, I’m going to try and sew the slightly-more-complicated seat cover. Fingers crossed!
My hope is to have this sofa finished — or mostly finished — by the end of January. Since it is only the 6th, and I don’t have a whole lot on my plate for the month, I think I can really accomplish this goal. January, February and March are the perfect time of year for me to work on this kind of project because spring, summer and fall are almost always packed to the gills with spray painting, yard work, gardening, and doing other repairs and revamps to the exterior of the house. Gotta make use of these cold winter months cooped up inside, right?
UPDATE: A few of you have asked which Upholstery book I am consulting — I found Spruce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Upholstery and Design (http://www.amazon.com/Spruce-Step-Step-Upholstery-Design/dp/1612121373) to be a very helpful resource for anyone attempting to reupholster. Lots of photos, everything broken down into manageable chunks of information, and a great glossary with explanations of materials and tools needed to get the job done.