Upholstery 101: A Beginner's Look at the Trade

Whether you're hoping to have an old chair or sofa reupholstered or simply considering new pillows to dress up your space, learn the ins and outs of upholstery with insider terms and tricks.
Related To:

Tools of the Trade

Upholstery projects require special tools specific to the trade. At first glance, these tools may appear generic; however, each has features pertinent to the upholstery process. The small hammer is made especially for upholstery tacks, complete with magnetized tips to hold the tacks in place until each is tapped securely into a frame. What appears to be a pair of everyday scissors is actually referred to as "upholstery shears," which are designed specifically for cutting thick fabric without quickly dulling the sharp edges. Upholstery mallets are made with special care so as not to damage textiles; one has felt on its head's edges while the other has a head completely covered with nylon.


When an old chair or sofa has lost its firmness, it's usually the result of worn webbing, straps of burlap which are firmly fastened to the frame to hold cushions in place. In order to give an old piece of furniture new, sturdy support, the old straps must be removed and the new ones must be cut to size, then installed basket-weave style. Replacing straps can add minimal to moderate cost to an upholstery job due mostly to the labor involved.


Much of the upholstery process, particularly slipcover and bedding fabrication, involves pinning. This time-consuming task involves holding seems together temporarily to create perfect lines until stitching begins. Based on the size of the thread and the thickness of the fabric, various types of pins and hooks may be needed. Some are perfectly straight, allowing fabric to be tacked straight-on into a piece of furniture. Others have slight or drastic curves which allow the hooks or pins to loop completely through foam and/or batting.

Diamond Tufting

One of the most expensive upholstery styles is diamond tufting, a traditional technique popular with Victorian and Hollywood glamour-style interiors. A diamond tufted headboard or sofa back can cost up to double the amount of solid upholstery due to the meticulous skill involved. The diamond tufting process includes: holes being drilled into the backrest; batting added with holes cut to expose the holes drilled into the backrest; fabric cut to size and folded; and strips of fabric attached along the back which are pulled tight to create the tuft. To conceal the pulled fabric, buttons are added into the holes and tied through the backrest.

Studs + Nail Heads

Studs are attached with small teeth along the perimeter which bend inward to pierce the fabric. When adding nail heads to furniture, each is positioned into place over fabric stretched to a wooden frame, then applied by tapping a mallet until the nail head is flush with the fabric. Whether it's a round, square or rectangular shape, or a brass, bronze or silver finish, there are nail heads out there to fit just about any style of interior.


One of the finishing touches which makes sofas and chairs look tailored and polished is decking, the top surface of the piece concealed by the cushion. To save money on fabric costs, many upholsterers suggest purchasing basic white, black or beige cotton duck for use on the decking since it's hidden from view.


Springs are the element of upholstery and furniture design, particularly chairs and sofas, which add bounce, movement and support. After long periods of time, springs come loose from the chair frame due to weakened twine which holds the springs to the frame. All that's required from the upholsterer is new twine which is then re-attached to the springs and tightly tied to the frame.

Curve Grip

Have you ever looked at a curved sofa or chair and wondered how fabric was attached perfectly to it? That's all the magic of curve grip (also referred to as tack stripping), a material which holds fabric in place through metal teeth which close onto it in a jaw-like manner.

Attaching Curve Grip

In order for curve grip to be properly attached to furniture frames, welt cord (also referred to as piping) is properly positioned, then the curve grip is secured along the edges with a nail gun, tack gun or pin gun.

Attaching Fabric to Curve Grip

Once a back panel of fabric is cut to size to cover the back side of a chair or sofa, it's inserted into the open teeth of the curve grip. Once the teeth are pushed closed, the fabric is stretched, becoming perfectly flush with all edges of the frame, which results in a seamless look.

Welt Cord

Welt cord, also referred to as piping, is a finish material used on the edges of chairs, sofas and pillows. In order for custom welt cord to be fabricated, the upholsterer cuts fabric into thin 1-inch strips, wraps the strips around bare, white welt cord, then runs it all through the industrial machine where the fabric and cord are stitched together. When the same fabric used for upholstery is used for the welt cord, it's referred to as self welt. Cords made from coordinating fabrics are referred to as contrast welt.


A flange is a detail often used on bed pillows which involves a flap of fabric, usually 1 or 2 inches long, sewn along all edges. Traditional in style, flanges give the impression of a pillow being slightly larger in size.

Contrast Welt Cord

Contrast welt cord is an excellent way to bring a room's accent color into cushions, pillows or furniture upholstery. Not only does contrast welt help tie a room's color scheme together, it can also add a touch of graphic, outlining the architecture of a sofa or chair.

Button Tufts

Tufted furniture backs often involve buttons covered in the same fabric as the actual upholstery. In order to create this tone-on-tone look, the buttons come in two pieces: a front and a back. Fabric is wrapped around the front piece, then snapped together with the back piece which holds the fabric in place. Next, thread is placed into a small slot in the back of the button, allowing it to be tied in place to the frame or cushion.

Knife Edge

The most modern style of pillow fabrication is knife-edge. This entails no welt cord, but rather clean, straightforward stitching which results in a sharp, no-fuss edge.

Fabrics for Upholstery

When choosing fabrics, it's important not to fall in love with just any print or solid. Most fabric stores separate their fabrics into two sections: drapery weight and upholstery weight. Oftentimes, there are upholstery-weight fabrics which are light enough to hang properly as draperies; however, most drapery-weight fabrics are too thin to be able to handle the wear and tear needed for upholstery use. Make sure you are choosing fabrics specifically meant for upholstery use before settling on your favorite style or color.


To give chairs and sofas a finished underside, upholsterers add a material called Cambric. The thin textile is usually cut to size, then stapled directly over raw edges of upholstery fabric left along the underside of a frame. This finished look helps ensure that any raw edges will completely disappear should a piece of furniture be viewed from a low angle.

Shop This Look