How to reupholster a couch

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Living in New York, then moving to DC
Living in New York then moving to DC


Welcome! A few issues back, I told you I was on the hunt for a sofa to replace our in-the-meantime couch. This being a capital-P Purchase, it’s taken some time to winnow down the options. This week, I’m asking you to weigh in on my four finalists. Plus, read on for some tips from the interiors pro behind White Arrow on reupholstering a vintage sofa—a route I couldn’t take this time for practical reasons, but will at some point in the future. —Kelsey


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Like any furniture search, this hunt for a replacement sofa is not without its constraints. My husband and I are adding to our family later this fall, so comfort, durability, and price point are all major factors—as in, an armless vintage Italian showpiece upholstered in a linen/silk woven blend does not square with the realities of a human infant.

I’m still really particular, though. Luckily, the breadth of choice in today’s furniture market means we don’t have to totally forgo style for comfort, or vice versa. I found four sofas that fit our qualifications—including being able to fit through our front door—and now I need help deciding. (Yes, they are largely gray. As much as I love marigold yellow, I’m not sure I can commit, at least for now.)

Tell me which sofa you think I should choose in the comments!


Four two-seater sofas, three in gray and one in green.
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Clockwise from top left: A) West Elm (dare I???), Harmony 82-inch down-filled sofa in Stone performance twill; B) Vitra, Mariposa 2.5-seat sofa by Barber & Osgerby in light gray/forest Laser fabric (pictured here in Iroko dark green); C) Lulu & Georgia, Arlen 90-inch sofa in gray Crypton performance fabric; D) Blu Dot, Sunday 82-inch sofa in Agnew Gray cotton blend fabric.

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Now, one thing I often fantasize about, and maybe you do too, is buying a vintage sofa and reupholstering it. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands (and possibly a degree from FIT or RISD), you’ll want to leave this to a professional. But where to even start? And how much should you expect to shell out?

I enlisted my own expert, Keren Richter of White Arrow, one of the crucial friend-sages I mentioned a few weeks back. Keren designs interiors that are so beautiful they hurt to look at. And like any professional designer worth her salt, she has amassed a truly impressive backlog of practical tips—which I queried her about below.

Keren says there are, in fact, two ways to go about recovering a sofa: slipcovers or full reupholstery.

“The slipcover look can work if you’re aiming for a minimal vibe,” she says. “It’s having a moment right now and there are some nice streamlined silhouettes out there, especially when they’re made with fabrics that drape well.” For those going this route, to mitigate the potential damage of kids or pets, Keren advises stain-proof fabrics. “On the cheaper end of the spectrum,” she adds, “vendors like Bemz create custom slipcovers for Ikea furniture.”

By contrast, the cost of going whole hog on reupholstery depends on where you live. And that cost, Richter points out, can include “time, energy, and expense.” For people in New York City, for example, labor expenses are high due to the cost of living. “Don’t forget to factor in [the time and expense of] delivering your furniture to the workroom,” she adds, “plus the cost of your fabric and shipping it.” Read on for more intel.

Kelsey Keith: Why reupholster, then? It sounds like a pain.
Keren Richter: I’d suggest reupholstering furniture if the piece in question is something that has sentimental value to you, is worth the upgrade due to the quality of materials and construction, or if you’re interested in designing a home that has pieces that are perfectly tailored to your needs or design aesthetic.

The advantage of buying vintage items from Craigslist, Ebay, [or] auctions, or repurposing heirlooms, is you can take a piece that has (a) lasted generations, (b) is made with real wood, and/or (c) was made by an important designer, then customize it in any amazing fabric or material you like. [Ed. note: A great example is the shearling-covered Nanna Ditzel chairs Richter designed for a client in Brooklyn.] It’s better for the environment. And you have a story of the process and a personal connection to its transformation.

When should I skip it?
I wouldn’t attempt reupholstery if you’re looking to save significant money in comparison to furniture at big-box stores. When furniture is made cheaply and a vendor can buy in massive volume, it’s impossible to compete with those prices unless you sacrifice quality or your time.

If I decide to go for it… what kinds of options do I have?
Endless! I’ve seen furniture recovered in rugs and tapestries and all sorts of upholstery-grade material like bleached denim or metallic leather. You can add tassels, fringe, slipcovers, braiding, and nailheads. You can select the fill, the softness or thickness of your cushions. There are fabric houses that offer sumptuous fabrics like mohair, rich velvets, and a rainbow of color choices with all sorts of durability—color fastness, indoor/outdoor fabrics, stain resistant. It’s perfect for those who know what they want—and if you aren’t sure what you want, you can always hire a designer who does!

Here are a few more upholstery pointers from White Arrow:

YARDAGE

Budget 3-8 yards of fabric for armchairs, 3 yards for dining chairs, 10-16 yards for sofas, 16-34 yards for sectionals, and 1/2 to 2 yards for pillows. Here’s a handy calculator.

FABRIC

—The cost of fabric can range from $5/yard all the way up to $200/yard! Do the math before you buy.
—Many fabric houses only sell “to the trade,” but fabric.com and other online vendors are good routes for non-professionals.
—Do make sure fabric is listed as “upholstery grade,” and avoid materials like viscose that are impossible to treat when stained.
—Printed fabric will require more yardage than solid (all depending on how you want to run the print on the piece of furniture).
—Leather is sold by the hide, as opposed to fabric, which is sold by the yard. You can get yardage estimates from the workroom before purchasing.
—Don’t forget to factor in tax and shipping to the workroom. If you want to see the fabric first, you’ll need to request a CFA (“cutting for approval”) shipped to your home first, to make sure the color and material are correct. [Ed. note: There are still some bricks-and-mortar fabric stores left, which you can obviously visit in person, although they’re getting more scarce.]
—There are all sorts of “performance” fabrics like Crypton or Perennials that are great for those with pets or children. For fabrics that aren’t stain-treated from the get-go, add a treatment like Protexx or Scotchguard.

ESTIMATED LABOR COSTS

Prices depend on the quality of the workroom and the business’s experience. Other factors include the sorts of fill you use (down or foam, for example), whether the fabric is “knit backed,” and if you are rebuilding a piece from scratch or simply swapping out its fabric. With all that in mind, you should budget $500-$750 for an armchair, $1,200-$2,500 for a sofa, and $2,500-$5,000 for a sectional. And don’t forget the cost of delivery! (Usually $200-$400 if you live in a big city.)

Are you totally enamored with Keren yet? Make sure to follow White Arrow on Instagram for more delicious design tidbits.


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