Upholstery Story

This is an essay that I wrote for a college writing class. This story essay describes some parts of the upholstery process.

Frazzled, but Recovering 

By Stephen Winters        June 11, 2002

Have you ever wondered what happens to those old worn out sofas? My wife and I run an upholstery business out of our home. Customers don't just magically come to us. We keep a display ad in the local West Salem Newspaper, and in both Salem telephone directories, all have our family portrait in them. I think that it helps people feel familiar and comfortable with us as they think about having their well worn furniture recovered.

The process begins when the telephone rings. "Winters." I use our last name in answering calls, just as a big business might say, "Mervyn's." Since we use the same telephone line jointly for our business and our personal calls, this serves as both a person and a semi-business approach of how to answer the phone.

I hear the client reply, "Hello, is this the upholstery shop?"

"Yes," I answer. "What can I do for you?"

"We have an old sofa that we'd like to have recovered. Could give me some idea as to what that would cost?"

"I'll need to ask you some questions about your furniture," I respond. "so I can have a better picture of what it looks like. How long is your sofa?"

"Its about seven feet long, I think. Just a minute," He pauses. In the background, I hear, "Honey, long is that sofa?"

"Seven feet," Comes the faint reply from his wife.

He comes back on the phone, "Yes, its seven feet long."

"How many loose cushions does it have," I ask.


"How old is it?" I ask this question because furniture of various ages was made in different styles and levels of difficulty. It also helps me to know how much work may need to be done on it.

"We bought it when we moved to this house," he says.

"How long have you lived in your house?"

"Just a minute," he replies. Then, softly in the background I hear, "Dear, how long have we lived in this house?"

"Don't you remember honey?" his wife responds. "We moved here just before Johnny was born. He's thirty-three years old now. It's a shame he's not married yet. Do you think he's going to marry that girl he's dating now?"

"He's not interested in that." He tells her, and then he comes back to me. "We've been here about 33 years."

This 3-way dialogue continues as I ask him a few more questions. "How many loose seat cushions does it have? Does it have any loose back cushions? Are there any buttons? Is there a skirt? Does it have a low back or a high back? Do the springs and the frame seem to be in good condition? How long has it been since it's been recovered?" I may ask a few more questions, and then I try to give him a rough idea of what it will cost. "If it's what I'm thinking it's like, then it would probably run about $900 to $1200 for labor and fabric. That could change once I actually see the furniture." I also ask him how soon he needs the furniture recovered. Frequently we are booked out several months before we could start on his job. If he is in a rush to have it done, then I may refer him to another skilled upholsterer.

I realize that our services might not be a good match for everyone who calls. Each client has different needs and expectations. Some want their furniture done quickly, while others would like it covered inexpensively, and a few clients appreciate high quality work and are willing to pay for it. They know from experience, "You get what you pay for." These are the type of clients that our service best satisfies. As I give the price over the telephone, I try to qualify which type of customer is calling, and give them appropriate answers. When the expectations, prices, and schedule dates are clearly explained at the beginning, we each know if we want to proceed any further.

Giving the phone quotes before we go out to give an in-home estimate saves the customer and us time and frustration. Many people are unfamiliar with upholstery and have no idea what is involved or how much it costs. Clients typically give several different responses to our phone quotes. Most are calling to find out the cost, to decide if they want to have their furniture recovered, or to buy new furniture. Some just gasp as they hear the price; it's a lot more than they expected. Others will politely say, "Thank you, I just wanted to know how much it would cost. I'll call back if I'm interested." Lastly, some callers have already had furniture recovered in the past, and are familiar with the costs. Many of these ask us to come out and do an in-home estimate. Once we agree upon a time and date, I enter their name and information into our computerized appointment calendar, and set a reminder to prompt me two hours before the estimate. I also add the directions to their home into the computer.

When the scheduled day arrives, either Emmy, my wife, or I will call the client about an hour or two in advance, to confirm the appointment. After this, I load the fabric samples, my picture-book, a clipboard, blank work orders, carbon paper, clean scratch paper, and a calculator into the van. Before I leave, I check the directions, or look on a map, to plan how to drive to their house. Upon arriving I gather the office supplies, my picture-book, and a few sample books, and go into the house. During the usual one to two hour estimates, I show pictures of my work to the clients and get them started looking through the fabric samples. Then, I'll look at the sofa, checking the frame and the springs, and measure the cushions for new foam.

As I start figuring the estimate, I often chat with them to pass the time and to build a rapport. We may talk about the history and quality of their furniture, about our families, occupations, and different places that each of us has lived. As the clients finish looking through some of the sample books, I take those books out to the van and bring in more. At this point, they have some time, if they need it, to talk privately, until I come back inside. When they find a fabric that they like, I finish the estimate, filling in the fabric pattern, color, price and totals. After explaining each itemized charge to them, I tell them that they don't need to make up their minds right now, that this is just a free no-obligation estimate. I've learned from experience not to push or coerce them in any way. I try to be helpful and give them all the information that they need. I only want to recover their furniture if it is a good decision for them, as well as for me. Some decide to think about it, because they can't find a fabric they like, or they are not yet ready to proceed. However, many decide to go ahead with the job. I say to them, "I need a deposit of about one-half, so that I can order the fabric." After they write the check, I record the payment on both copies of the work order, have them sign at the bottom, and give them a copy. I inform them that "I'll order the fabric tomorrow morning" and that I'll call them when I'm ready to do the piece, in a couple of months. When we are finished, I take everything back out to the van and return to the shop.

After bringing the samples back into our house, and hanging them up, I take care of the record keeping. In the past, I've lost some customer work orders, which created a lot of stress; I never want that to happen again. Therefore, I promptly enter the information from the work orders into Quickbooks, our accounting software. With that completed, it's not a catastrophe if I loose the original. However, I do file it away in our filing cabinet, which gives us a double protection. Next, I make out a new Purchase Order in Quickbooks for the fabric. Since I usually do most of my estimates in the evenings, I can't order the fabric at the same time. In view of that, I add a note to the appointment calendar to order the materials on the next business day. Ordering the supplies is a different matter; since we won't immediately need them, or the foam, we order these things about once a month. They are added to a standing add-to-as-sales-are-made purchase order for each vendor. When we have enough to make a minimum size order, we have the items shipped to us. While I'm still at the computer, I also add the job to our work-scheduling calendar. This concludes the paperwork until the material gets here.

Within a week the roll of fabric, packaged in a long, gray, plastic bag, arrives by UPS. It's time to fill out more paperwork, and enter more data into the computer. First, we compare and verify all the written records. After retrieving the vendor invoice from the outside of package, we compare the listed pattern, color, and yardage with those written on the fabric ID tag, the sample book, and the customer's work order. Second, we do a visual inspection and verification. We take the roll of fabric out of the package and compare the color and pattern with the customer-approved sample. Then, as we roll the fabric onto a cardboard tube to measure it, we carefully scan the full width of the fabric to watch for flaws or color inconsistencies. With the verification process completed, we attach the customer's name to the fabric and put the material on the appropriate shelf, where it stays until the furniture is brought into the shop. Depending upon how busy we are, this may take anywhere from a week to several months.

When we are ready for the customers' furniture, we notify them. Sometimes the clients will bring their items into our shop. When they can't do that, we make an appointment to pick up the furniture. If it is a sofa that needs to be picked up, we also call one of our friends to go along to help carry the other end.

Once it's in our shop I make a sofa cover parts list by measuring and writing the size of every part of the old cover, seam to seam. I may add a few inches here and there to make some parts extra big, as needed, to be able to trim them to size. Dozens of pieces need to be cut, such as: the cushions, tops, boxings, cording, and zippers; the inside back, faces, boxing, and cording; the arms, inside, outside, and facings; the decking, front deck and decking fabric; the outside back; and the skirt, long face, cording, and underflaps. The measurements are taken front to back, side to side, and top to bottom, as I write them on my notepad. Lastly, I measure and record the width and length of the roll of fabric.

My paper is full of carefully written measurements and notes, ready for the layout. The computer drawing software that I use for my layouts allows me to generate and overlay many slides to make a multiple layered drawing. Many different components of the drawing can be created or modified on any slide, without disturbing the other parts of the illustration. I primarily use two slides, a background and a foreground. In order to make the layout of each job simpler, I've previously created a number of starter files, ready to use for jobs of different yardages. For example, when I'm doing a layout for a sofa that takes 14 yards of fabric, I open the file marked "14 yards." The window comes up with the ready-to-use background and foreground slides. The background has a rectangle scaled to simulate 14 yards of fabric, which measure 54" by 504." The foreground slide also has several small rectangular boxes, with the name and dimension labels already attached, scaled to approximate the size of the furniture cover parts.

As I start my layout, for each pattern piece needed, I simply copy and paste a box, resize it according to the measurements on the sofa cover parts list. Then I re-label it with the new name, such as, "Outside Arm" or "Front Back." When separate boxes have been created for all the pieces on my sofa cover parts list, I start arranging the bigger boxes on the foreground slide to fit inside the large fabric rectangle, which shows through from the background slide. After this, the smaller pieces are put in around the larger boxes. This works in much the same way that a seamstress uses a pattern to make a dress. She rolls out the fabric and places the various parts of a dress pattern on top of the fabric, moving them around to where they fit best. This is what I do, except I do it on the computer screen. When I am finished, I print send it to the printer.

Using this layout, I mark fabric pieces in the same way it is laid out on the paper. Since I have a plan to follow, the cutting of the fabric becomes a simple matter, although it takes a lot of time. As the pieces are marked, they are cut, labeled, and placed in grouped piles, such as: arm pieces in one pile, decking pieces in another file, and cushion pieces in third pile. Before the pieces are sewn together, the larger primary pieces, such as the face of the inside back, are laid on the sofa and trimmed to the correct size. Then all of the corresponding pieces, that need sewing, except for the seat cushions, are sewn in place.

At this point, it's time to work on the sofa frame. After taking the old cover off, I remove the many staples that are protruding. I check for any loose joints, inspect the springs, and replace any old or damaged burlap or support linings. After the frame has been properly inspected and put in order, its ready for the new fabric.

The first part of the new cover to be attached is the decking, which consists of two pieces of different kinds of fabric. The front deck, made from the covering fabric of the sofa, extends across the length of the sofa from about 6 inches under the front of the seat cushions forward and down toward the base of the sofa. The neutral colored, muslin type decking fabric is sewn to the front deck. These cover the cotton and the burlap that go over the seat springs. The cotton is split, to expose the burlap, across the length of the sofa about six inches back from the front edge. Two layers of cotton give additional padding to the front spring edge. In beginning to attach the fabric decking, I place the two sewn corner darts over the padded front corners of the spring edge. During the sewing process, the attached decking fabric is temporarily folded back to hang over the front of the sofa, exposing the back side of the half-inch seam allowance. Using a five inch circle needle, threaded with a heavy sewing twine, the seam allowance is stretched tight side to side and fastened at the outer edges to the heavy edge wire. Following this, the rest of the seam allowance of front deck is sewn to the burlap. The muslin decking fabric is then lifted up, laid over the padded springs, and tucked through the horizontal openings at the back and sides of the deck. It will be stapled later from the outside of the sofa. The front deck is now measured as it is pulled and stapled at the bottom. Finally, the decking fabric is pulled tight and stapled around the back and sides.

Subsequently, the arms are padded with another layer of cotton. The inside arm fabric pieces are placed over the padding, with about 3 inches extending over the front and top edges. The remainder is folded back where it meets the inside back. Several staples are used to attach the top of the fabric in place. Slits are made in the material at the lower front and the back, and then the fabric is tucked through the long narrow openings. After securely tacking the rest of the top, the bottom is pulled snugly and stapled in place. The front of the fabric is now fastened as it is folded around the corners and curves at the top. Lastly the fabric at the back of the arm is pulled and stapled in place.

Now we are ready for the inside back, sometimes called the front back, to be installed. The pre-sewn cover, which is still folded inside out, is aligned around the arms, and at the top corners. Slits are made at the sides to go around the frame structures. Other cuts are made to form tails at the bottom corners. The two top corners are padded and then measured as they are fastened. After this, to lower the curved shapes down tightly onto the arms, the two tails are pulled down through the slots at the bottom. Then, the top of the back is measured and stapled across the sofa. Lastly, the bottom of the inside back is pulled and stapled, as it is measured from the front.

With the inside of the sofa fastened, the cushions can be fitted. First, the center of the deck is marked, front and back. Then two of the new cushion tops are placed face down on the deck to evenly overlap at the center and the front. They are marked to fit around the arms and the inside back. Next, those two cushion tops are placed face to face, with marks aligned and adjusted as necessary, and are both cut to the same size. Each of these is placed face to face on the two remaining cushion tops, which are also cut to the same size. While they are together, alignment short-marks are spaced around each matching cushion face, top and bottom.

At the sewing machine, the cording is sewn around each the cushion faces. Then the boxings are sewn to each cushion face as the short-marks are aligned. After the zipper is attached, the cushion is double sewn to tighten all the cording and to strengthen the seams. When cushions are turned right side out, they are filled with new polyester wrapped poly foam. They are zipped up, placed on the sofa to verify a good fit, and then, set aside.

As the sofa is finished up, the outside arms are attached at the top with a cardboard strip. After the frame is padded, the outside arms are pulled and tacked at the bottom and the back. A metal tack strip is used to blind tack the front edge. The outside back is finished in the same manner, with the cardboard strips at the top and the tack strips at the sides. The sofa is then turned on its back. A black dust cloth is stapled to the bottom, and then the legs are attached. The sofa is turned back upright, and the lint is blown off with an air blower. After putting the cushions back on, the last task is to take a picture of the finished furniture.

It's finally time to deliver the sofa. Emmy calls the customers to arrange for delivery. If needed, she also calls a friend to help. She prints out two copies of the work order, as I take the seats out of the van. I load the sofa into the van and deliver it. Once its been carried into the customers' house, I talk to the clients to see if they like it. I never get tired of hearing, "That's beautiful! I'm so pleased with it!" Upon receiving the check, I mark their copy paid, have them sign my copy, and leave.

When I arrive back at the shop, I make a copy of the check and enter the record of payment into Quickbooks. Emmy makes out a deposit slip and takes the check to the bank. And the job is done.

There are a lot of details to successfully operating an upholstery business. Careful planning and meticulous attention to details are key to doing high quality work and developing long term customer approval. The high level of client appreciation and satisfaction makes all the hard work worth the effort.

Copyright 2004 by Stephen Winters