Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Upholstery Conservation

Home Sweet Workshop

I love having a business in a historic commercial district which is unique. What surprises me is that I have continued to exist in this location for so long without spending a dime on advertising.  All around me are restaurants, theatre events, clothing shops, gift shops and just about everything you would need for a diverse shopping experience.  Then there is my shop.

My store/workshop/school is just off the main street and directly across from an elementary school.  Like living next to the ocean and listening to its perpetual sounds, I have enjoyed the sounds of children playing and singing "happy birthday" for as long as I can remember.

My storefront looks like an old house, and there are trees and plants, and the windows are full of mahogany furniture.  I prefer the low key image.   I work here and, if you ask anybody in the business, this is where you go when you need specialized antique restoration.  Same place.  Same business.

So, one of the neat things about working like this is that I never know who is going to ring the doorbell.  Sometimes it is for antique restoration, sometimes upholstery, sometimes people want to see the school, sometimes it is for odd jobs which I refer to other businesses.

Last week the bell rang and I discovered an elegant Victorian walnut parlor chair, in the Renaissance Revival style.  It had its original finish, original brass wheels, and what appeared to be an early upholstery job with wool mohair.  There was some evidence that it had been re upholstered only once before, perhaps 80 years or more ago.

Wool Mohair With Cat Hair Added

When I removed the upholstery, my suspicions were confirmed.  There was the original upholstery, where the maker had used horsehair for the tufted back, and straw and Spanish moss for the sprung seat.  Then there was a second effort, when the springs were repaired and the mohair was put on.  During that effort, the upholsterer took the time to conserve the stitched edge of the seat foundation and all the stuffing on the back.  He simply added a bit of horsehair to the top of the seat, and some cotton filling in the button area to improve the tufting.

Original Stuffing with Cotton Added
Cord Held By Second Knots On Back
I removed all the upholstery and nails, saving everything.  I repaired the wood frame and reset the springs, adding new jute webbing, sewing the springs to the webbing, tying the springs with Italian cord (8 knot), and adding new burlap.  Then I carefully replaced the original stitched edge and all the straw and moss and stitched them in place.  A top covering of new burlap completed the seat restoration.

First Knots in Place, Cord Removed
As to the back, I was careful to keep the stuffing in its place.   This is not easy, as the hair was put into the channels in clumps and these clumps move around when the covering is removed.  I noted a neat trick that the original upholsterer from 1850 or so had used for the tufting.  Normally, we use a small bit of cotton to keep the knot on the tufting twine from pulling back through the burlap.  In this case, the worker used a length of spring cord, which he placed along the tufts to keep the knots from pulling through.  Neat trick.

To repair the back, I first tacked new burlap to the frame.  Then I carefully placed the original stuffing in place on the back, making sure all old tacks and rough edges of the original burlap and muslin were cleaned up.  I kept the cotton repair the second worker had added, as it now had become the shape of the tufts.  I measured out the spacing on the new muslin, transferring the pattern from the mohair fabric. To do this, I first iron the mohair fabric to return it to its original dimensions.

Original Stuffing In Place

I have found that visually laying out the tufts is better than trying to measure them and be precise about spacing.  The reason is that the early upholsterers were experienced in this work and would tuft by eye. They were pretty good, but not precise.  When you try to use old stuffing and be precise, it doesn't always fit.
New Muslin Ready for Fabric

That is the reason that, when I was done and looked at it, I noted that the third channel on the lower left was wider than the one next to it.  I thought I had made a mistake, so I went back to the photos I took of the chair before I took it apart.  In fact, I had exactly copied the work of the original maker.

Professional Upholstery Conservation

That was a relief and a confirmation that I was doing a good job.  In another 80 years, I am sure that the next guy will discover the same thing, if he pays attention.


JC said...

Patrick, I had trouble posting this comment, so hopefully you don't get it in duplicate or triplicate.

Patrick, since I'm in the upholstery trade now (as well as doing antiques restoration as a hobby), I thought I would add my 2 cents.

First off, great job at retaining the original shape and character of the stuffing. I would maybe have adjusted that bottom third tuft, but it also adds character, so I'm on he fence.

The real comment I wanted to make, however, was about the tacks. Is there a specific reason you chose to use tacks in the restoration? I tend to love the look and "historic accuracy" of tacks, but having been in upholstery as a full-time job for nearly half a year, I've found that A: they don't hold extremely well in old wood (large sections of tacked fabric can usually be pulled off a frame fairly easily), and B: on a previously tacked frame, they add significant damage to the wood. For this reason, the company I work for prefers to use staples (which leave the tiniest of holes), and we will use tacks on the bottom fabric where it's visible.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

JC your observations are important and your question raises the issue which has been discussed since the end of the war among upholsterers.

First issue (you didn't raise) is whether to use foam. We will wait for another post to address that.

Most importantly, whether to use tacks or staples. That is the real question. I have had previous posts on this question, but I will give you my thoughts here for simplicity.

As a traditional upholsterer, I respect the trade and wish to perpetuate it for the next generation. For that reason, I never use staples and continue to spit tacks.

However, I take the time to prevent further damage to the wood frame. I remove all previous tacks and repair the holes with wood as necessary, or mastic (Old Brown Glue and sawdust) or just a coating of hot OBG. One of the neat things about OBG is that it penetrates the tack holes and cracks well and also remains flexible enough to accept new tacks.

I also take into consideration the size and spacing of the tacks. I use the smallest tack which will do the job. Often a #3 tack is enough for fabric, however it is often necessary to use a #12 tack for the spring cord.

Another consideration is the show cloth. In working with the client, I strongly advise against selecting a wild, modern fabric for antiques. I point out that style and fashion changes, and by choosing a modern fabric, the object will be recovered more often in its life.

When I do the work, I suggest it should last at least 75 years, so pick something traditional and appropriate. Most of the time, I get my way. I point out that the real client is the object. The owner is just a custodian. Try that approach.

I have seen real damage caused by staples, when the upholsterer uses the staple gun in excess. I remember a period 1790 New Hampshire wing chair which required two months of my time to remove the staples properly.

I also can argue that staples do not properly hold the fabric. You can test this by pulling away fabric held by staples, and then trying to pull away the same fabric held by tacks. No contest.

I think the real reason is that people today do not want to put tacks in their mouth. Also, there is a certain talent to driving tacks home with a hammer just next to the show wood with a certain confidence that can only be gained by doing that for years.

This question may become irrelevant, as supply houses no longer carry tacks, tack hammers and tack pullers. I remember the last time I asked for tacks. The response was "Don't you have a staple gun?"

Same problem with horsehair. Same problem with 50/50 cotton batting. Same problem with quality muslin or burlap. Try and find wool mohair!

JC said...

Patrick, I realized I had never checked for a reply to this thread. I appreciate your in-depth reply.

I am definitely 100% against foam in any antiques. In certain cases it's up to the client and we don't have much choice, but most of the antiques we work on retain all their original stuffing with the occasional addition of limited new materials (usually just trylene used on side panels and backs).

What I love most about the old materials is that they last virtually forever (with the exception of straw, which eventually turns to dust (but is replaceable).

I find it odd that you mention having a difficult time finding tacks and related tools. As far as I know, they are still quite easily available, however, the same can't be said for good quality burlap and muslin. The muslin we buy is pretty cheap (tears easily) and costs 4$/yard (which is somewhat cheap, but not great considering the quality).

What is 50/50 cotton batting? The traditional cotton batting we use is a big roll of "rough" cotton (with little seed bits etc in it) and I'd say it's about an inch thick without any compression. Some call it cotton felt, but I've never heard any references to 50/50.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

In California, all upholstery products must meet a standard defined by the Bureau of Home furnishings, as described in Technical Bulletin Number 117. Cotton is by nature resistant to burning but many types of cotton are treated further by Boric acid to make them meet this higher standard. There are also genetically engineered cotton types which are designed to be fire resistant.

The ratio of material in the cotton batting is the ratio of "linter" to "binder" which are the different parts of the processing of the cotton plant.

The first number is the soft, fluffy part and the second number is the tougher part. Quilters use a different ratio than upholsterers, since quilts are washed and upholstery needs to be more durable.

Normally, my upholstery supply house has two types: 85/15 and 50/50. I prefer to use the 50/50 as it makes a more durable stuffing over time.

On the other hand, no local San Diego supply house has carried upholstery tacks or even tack pullers for over 15 years. This is a city of guys and their staple guns. Some of the upholstery jobs I've seen make me think they have fully automatic machine type staple guns, and love using them.

Not to mention the special clips they apply to the bottom of the springs to save the time it takes to sew the springs to the webbing.

Guaranteed to make you bleed.