A New England easy chair at the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate in Delaware

Upholstery is the work of providing furniture, especially seats, with padding, springs, webbing, and fabric or leather covers. The word upholstery comes from the Middle English word upholder,[1] which referred to a tradesman who held up his goods. The term is equally applicable to domestic, [automobile]], airplane and boat furniture. A person who works with upholstery is called an upholsterer; an apprentice upholsterer is sometimes called an outsider or trimmer. Traditional upholstery uses materials like coil springs (post-1850), animal hair (horse, hog & cow), coir, straw and hay, hessians, linen scrims, wadding, etc., and is done by hand, building each layer up. In contrast, modern upholsterers employ synthetic materials like dacron and vinyl, serpentine springs, and so on.


Upholstery of domestic furniture

There are essentially four elements common to most upholstered items. These are 1) the frame; 2) the support system; 3) the cushioning; and 4) the covering, which are discussed in turn below.


A stripped chair ready to be upholstered.

Most upholstered furniture is constructed out of wood. The best furniture is constructed from hardwood like oak or alder. These woods are stronger than softwood in general, and allow for joints that are less likely to loosen over time. Nails, screws, tacks and staples, all of which may be a part of the upholstering process, hold better in hardwood than in softwood. Hardwood laminates or even plywood are used in bracing and blocking joints, since laminates are stronger than their solid-wood counterparts.

Though much of the frame is often hidden in the final product, some wood--called "show-wood" can remain visible on the end product.

Joints can be reinforced using any number of woodworking techniques. Aside from straightforward methods like screwing and/or gluing joints together, the common techniques for reinforcing joints include doweling (drilling matched holes in adjacent joining surfaces and inserting dowels into the holes to join them) or blocking (adding blocks of wood at the intersection to provide additional support). Poorly constructed joints will loosen, squeak, crack, or fail over time.

Modern upholstered furniture may include frame elements that are made of metal, plastic, or other similar materials.

Support Systems

There are three varieties of support systems that might be found in upholstered items: solid support systems, tension support systems, and springsupport systems.

A solid support system is typical in something like an upholstered dining room chair. The seating and back rest area solid wood, with cushioning and fabric over top.

A tension support system is lighter and has more give than a solid support system. The most common type of tension support is a system of webbing, interwoven to create a relatively solid surface, which is subsequently padded and covered. Though cheaper and lighter than a solid support system, a tension support system may be less rugged and more prone to deterioration or loosening over time.

A spring support system is most common on a couch, and easy chair, or similar comfortable furniture. Furniture manufacturers employ two main types of spring support systems: standard springs, zig zag Springs and eight-way hand tied springs, coil springs. When the spring system is finished with a top layer of padding, it is commonly called the "seat deck".

Standard springs provide good support at a lower price than the alternative. Most manufacturers offer either sinuous springs or drop-in-springs as their standard, depending on how they make their furniture. Both types affix to the frame to support the seat deck. Standard springs have a formal, very firm "sit" and only move in the up/down direction. In contrast, eight-way hand-tied springs can move in many more directions.

Sinuous springs are heavy-gauge steel springs that have been heat-formed into continuous "S" shapes. They are cut into lengths and affixed to the frame. Drop-in springs are mass-manufactured, welded units that are more cheaply manufactured and considered to be of lower quality than sinuous springs.

Eight-way hand-tied springs have a wide range of movement providing a very even and individual "sit", because they move up and down and from side to side. In the construction of these systems, the craftsman individually ties heavy-gauge coils from front to back, side to side and diagonally (eight ways) to provide the highest level of quality, comfort and durability. This process costs more because it is time consuming and can only be done by hand.

Cushions, pillows, padding and fills

Once a piece of upholstered furniture has its frame and springs, the next components to be added are the cushions and padding. Seat cushions sit on top of the spring system and seat deck. Back pillows, if present, rest against the back and arms of the piece.

Most cushions are made of a high-density foam core that is then wrapped with either soft polyester, feather and down, or a hypoallergenic down substitute. Dacron (a synthetic) adds resilience so that pillows and seats keep their shape, while the wraps form a soft envelope. Cushions and pillows are usually sewn into cotton cases to ensure smooth upholstering.

Feather and down offer the maximum comfort and softness in cushions and pillows that most people desire and designers prefer. Feather and down back pillows and wrapped seat cushions can always be "fluffed-up" to maintain an attractive look. Feather and down fills and wraps require a little more maintenance than polyester and high density-foam but they have greater comfort, durability and resilience.

Buckwheat hulls are also used as filling for a variety of upholstered goods, including pillows and zafu. The hulls are durable and do not conduct or reflect heat as much as synthetic fills. They are sometimes marketed as an alternative natural fill to feathers for those with allergies.

Horsehair and hay have also been used in upholstery as cushioning/padding, but today they are less commonly used than foam.

Fabrics and leathers

Textiles, a term used in the furniture industry, encompass both fabrics and leathers and the choice of textiles can account for up to 80% of furniture price.

Tightly woven fabrics and blends tend to wear longer than light or loose-weave natural fibers.

Leather is a durable and easy-care natural material that softens and improves with time. To create quality leather, top-grain hides are tanned, processed and dyed to give a certain color or look. Tanning refers to the process in which salts are used to cure the hide and to stabilize its shape. Dyeing refers to infusing the hide with different color dyes.

Aniline dyeing is a high quality process that imparts color but does not disguise the natural character of the hide. Some leathers are further treated with a pattern, texture, or polish.

Automobile upholstery

A typical leather-upholstered car seat.

An automotive upholsterer, also known as a trimmer, coachtrimmer or motor trimmer, shares many of the skills required in upholstery, in addition to being able to work with carpet.

The term coachtrimmer derives from the days when car bodies were produced by manufacturers and delivered to coachbuilders to add a car body and interior trimmings. Trimmers would produce soft furnishings, carpets, soft tops and roof linings often to order to customer specifications. Later, trim shops were often an in-house part of the production line as the production process was broken down into smaller parts manageable by semi-skilled labor.

Many automotive trimmers now work either in automotive design or with aftermarket trim shops carrying out repairs, restorations or conversions for customers directly. A few high-quality motor car manufacturers still employ trimmers, for example, Aston Martin.

Commercial upholstery

This is the type of upholstery work offered to businesses. Examples would be restaurant seating consisting of booth seats, dining room chairs, bar stools, etc. Also churches, including but not limited to pews and chairs for the congregation, hospitals and clinics consisting of medical tables, chiropractic tables, dental chairs, etc. Also common to this type of upholstery would be lobby and waiting-area seating. Upholstered walls are found in some retail premises.

Marine upholstery

Marine upholstery differs in that one has to consider dampness, sunlight and hard usage.

A vinyl or material that is UV and cold-cracking resistant is the choice.

Stainless-steel hardware such as staples, screws must be used for a quality job that will last. Any wood used must be of marine quality.

Usually a high-resiliency, high-density plastic foam with a thin film of plastic over it is used to keep out water that might get by the seams. Closed-cell foam is used on smaller cushions which can double as flotation devices. Dacron thread must be used in any sewing work. Zippers should be of nylon.


Upholder is an archaic term used for upholsterer in the past, although it appears to have a connotation of repairing furniture rather than creating new upholstered pieces from scratch (c.f. cobbler vs. cordwainer).[2]

In 18th-century London, upholders frequently served as interior decorators responsible for all aspects of a room's decor.[3] These individuals were members of the Worshipful Company of Upholders, whose traditional role, prior to the 18th century, was to provide upholstery and textiles and the fittings for funerals. In the great London furniture-making partnerships of the 18th century, a cabinet-maker usually paired with an upholder: Vile and Cobb, Ince and Mayhew, Chippendale and Rannie or Haig.[4]

In the U.S.A., Grand Rapids, Michigan is a centre for furniture manufacture, and many of the best upholsterers can still be found there. These craftsmen continue to create or recreate many antique and modern pieces of furniture.

See also

Upholstery-related tools

Upholstery materials

Upholstery skills

Other related articles



  • James, David (1990). Upholstery, A Complete Course. Guild of Master Craftsmen. ISBN 0-946-81919-X. 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Upholstery — Up*hol ster*y, n. The articles or goods supplied by upholsterers; the business or work of an upholsterer. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • upholstery — “upholsterer s work,” 1640s; see UPHOLSTER (Cf. upholster) + ERY (Cf. ery) …   Etymology dictionary

  • upholstery — ► NOUN 1) soft, padded textile covering used to upholster furniture. 2) the art or practice of upholstering …   English terms dictionary

  • upholstery — [up hōl′stər ē] n. pl. upholsteries [see UPHOLSTERER & ERY] 1. the fittings and material used in upholstering 2. the business or work of an upholsterer …   English World dictionary

  • upholstery — [[t]ʌpho͟ʊlstəri[/t]] N UNCOUNT Upholstery is the soft covering on chairs and seats that makes them more comfortable to sit on. ...white leather upholstery... Simon rested his head against the upholstery …   English dictionary

  • upholstery — n. leather; plastic; vinyl upholstery * * * [ʌp həʊlst(ə)rɪ] plastic vinyl upholstery leather …   Combinatory dictionary

  • upholstery — (Uph) The fabric used to cover the seats and other panels. See cloth upholstery full leather upholstery …   Dictionary of automotive terms

  • upholstery — /up hohl steuh ree, stree, euh pohl /, n., pl. upholsteries. 1. the materials used to cushion and cover furniture. 2. the business of an upholsterer. [1640 50; UPHOLSTER(ER) + Y3] * * *       materials used in the craft of covering, padding, and… …   Universalium

  • upholstery — noun Upholstery is used before these nouns: ↑fabric …   Collocations dictionary

  • upholstery — up|hol|ster|y [ ʌp houlst(ə)ri ] noun uncount cloth or leather used for covering chairs and SOFAS: leather upholstery a. the activity of covering chairs and SOFAS with cloth or leather to make them attractive and comfortable …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English