Monday, October 31, 2011

Upholstery Conservation

A few weeks ago, one of my marquetry students stopped by the shop and asked me if I wanted a chair. In his pickup was this chair, made around 1880 or so, with all the original upholstery intact, although in very poor condition. One foot was broken off and a carved finial was missing.

I cannot say "no" to free antiques.

After the repair and refinishing, I began to conserve the upholstery foundation. Note the previous post on this site where I am taking it apart.

The method used to upholster this chair is amazing. During the 1870's the art of upholstery reached a very evolved state, and the taste in furniture was for elaborate and complicated upholstery designs. Not only was the fabric and trim exotic, but the method of tying springs to achieve comfort was very advanced.

The opportunity to examine and conserve an example, which has survived for over a century was too much to pass up. Here was another chance for me to sit next to the master who created the upholstery on this chair and learn from his work. Layer by layer, as I took it apart, I understood what he was doing and why.

The selection of stuffing, for example, is revealing. The initial layer of stuffing is straw, which was not expensive, and provided a rather hard edge when stitched. On top of that was Spanish moss, a medium expense, designed to provide a medium layer of resiliency. On top of that was curled horsehair, one of the most expensive materials, chosen to provide a softer top. On top of that was a thin layer of wool cloth batting, which prevented the hair from sticking through the show fabric.

Of course, the burlap and muslin was rotten and torn; that is usual. The proper conservation method is to replace the burlap and muslin, while conserving all the original stuffing, and adding stitching to hold it all in place, like it was done originally.

This series of photos shows the work to restore the seat and sprung back, up to the muslin. The seat has a wire front edge, so the stuffing must be sewn to that, as well as on the sides of the seat to hold an edge. The back is interesting, in that it contains 4 small springs in the center of a stitched edge. As you can see, I needed to re stitch the edges and sew the springs to hold them in place.

The last photos show the chair in muslin, ready for show cloth. I haven't covered the armrests yet, but they are in place.

Sitting in this chair is like sitting in a catcher's fit so comfortably you do not want to get up.


Anonymous said...

You mention the evolved state of later (but still old) upholstery techniques. When you do still older repairs, do you apply these? i.e. the spring tying etc. or is it "put it back the way you found it" even if you know of a better technique?
This would seem to be a challenge to preserving vs improving vs contaminating with modern. (The most egregious offense in my mind was the usage of scotch tape to "repair" the dead sea scrolls,)
Since furniture is a practical item as well, certain time tested "improvements" might have their place as well as purely museum style restoration. Your thoughts?

W. Patrick Edwards said...

You raise some good questions. As much as possible I do not change anything when I do restoration. It should be exactly the same as when it was new.

Your comment made me think of the broader question of conservation versus restoration, and I posted a new entry today as a result.

I am sure this is not the end of this thread. Thank you for your feedback.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I too am reupholstering an old parlour chair. it has diamond tuft back and straw stuffing. The materials are breaking down, the gimp trim is disinigrating, probably from too many years in a sunlit window. At one time there was a mouse that made a nest up under the chair, so i dont want to reuse the straw. What can i use instead? You mention horsehair, but I'm not sure who would have that locally.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

I purchase horsehair, in different qualities, from F. P. Woll & Company, in Philadelphia.

They offer 15% Horse/85% hog
50% horse/50% hog.
50% polyester/50% hog
100% horse
100% cattle

They will be happy to send samples of each.

There is also an alternative the French use, which is available in the US through the company Houles. It is called "crin vegetal" in French and you can Google that term. It is a substitute for the straw.

Anonymous said...

I hope you are open to practical criticism and advice from someone who specializes in Traditional Upholstery. IMHO you clearly need more practice in Traditional Upholstery skills. Your spring ties should be neater, and you should take more care with your fabric edges especially the corner folding. Your stitching should be regular and there are regular stitching patterns to creating edges that are missing.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

I am always open to any positive criticism to my work. I am a woodworker who also tries to do upholstery. I have seen the work the students did in France at ecole Boulle, and I would obviously not be in that class of work.

In this project, my efforts were to simply conserve the original stuffing foundation. I tied the springs on the back with tufting twine as did the original worker. My stitches were not intended to shape the edge; just to hold the original edge in place on the new burlap/jute webbing support.

I am pleased that you and others who know more about upholstery than I do are reading this post. Please do not hesitate to share your tips and experience with me. I will be pleased to include them on my blog so that others will also learn.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Your comment made me realize I never posted the final results of this project. I just went back and took a photo of the chair which is now shown here on the subsequent post to this thread.

I had a fabric which was nearly identical to the original. I stitched a cord across the seat front and found some nice decorative gimp trim.

It is a very comfortable seat.