Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace

Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Brief History Of Upholstery
Tools And Workshop Requirements
Types And Styles Of Frames
Springs And Spring Units
Stuffing Materials
Cover Materials
Measuring, Cutting, And Preparing Covers
Basic Principles Of
Types Of Stitched Edges And Fronts
Making An Easy Chair With Cushion Seat
The Arm
The Back
The Seat
Second Stuffing-Calico Covers
Pin-Cushion Seat-Stools
Dining-Chairs-Loose Seats
Cable Springing And Latex Cushions
Occasional Chair-Cable Sprung
A Bedroom Chair
Modern Tensile-Sprung Easy-Chair
Adaptable Settee Unit
Upholstery Repairs
Upholstery Terminology

A Brief History Of Upholstery

( Originally Published 1961 )

It is widely thought that the craft of upholstery evolved from that of the tent-maker. And it does seem a likely development. Although tent-making is now quite a separate and a very prosperous trade, it is not so many years ago that many branches of that trade were carried out by the upholsterer.

The Upholsterers' Company was granted a charter in the year A.D. 1626 and is one of the oldest of the City of London Guilds and Liveries Companies. Its coat of arms being a shield with three tents. It was first emblazoned in A.D.1465.

One of the first developments from tent-making was `wall hangings' and draperies at windows and around beds. This is a branch of the trade that has almost died out. At least the wall hangings and bed draperies. The window drapery has since grown enormously, incorporating jobs like blind fixing, loose-cover making and bedcover making.

The first signs of comfort for chairs came with the making of cushions, but it was not until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that the stuffing of furniture began to evolve. From then on the craft of upholstery increased and was in great demand, reaching its zenith probably in the late Victorian era and early Edwardian days.

By this time the standard of workmanship and versatility in England was really magnificent. It may well have surpassed the art of the French and Italian craftsmen who were considered supreme.

At this point it may be as well to point out and consider the numerous jobs that came under the proud title of `journeyman upholsterer'.

Basically of course he was a `stuffer', which really means an upholsterer as the layman knows it. In other words, he built up from a frame a piece of furniture padded with stuffing. He also undertook to measure, cut and fix curtains, blinds, draperies, loose covers and pelmets and swags. This included things like mantelpiece drapes and bed draperies which were very popular in those days. Indeed all types of draperies for furniture became most elaborate, as did the window dressings. Deep swags and tails for the window headings suited the tall windows of the wealthy client's house. These were usually heavily trimmed and sometimes surmounted by elaborate wooden cornices.

Floor coverings came under the upholsterer's jurisdiction. These included carpets, linoleum and art felts. And on a more macabre note, he lined coffins. Until the turn of the century hanging wallpapers was yet one more task in the furnishing trade that was carried out by this craftsman.

This may sound a pretty comprehensive list in these days of mass production and prefabrication and probably strikes one as being in the dim past. But I can still recall doing all these jobs, with the exception of wallpaper hanging, during my years of apprenticeship. My grandmother used to tell me that her father, who was an upholsterer, went to work in his top hat and spats which was a symbol of the prestige in which this craftsman was held.

The all-round upholsterer still exists today I'm glad to say, and is found usually in the good-class furniture retail stores of the provincial towns. The trade in London and the very big cities is split up into three sections, because of the volume of work carried out. The sections consist of Upholstery, Soft Furnishings and Carpet Planning. The first deals with furniture of the stuff -over type; the softfurnishing fitter deals with loose-cover and curtain making, and the carpet planner measures and plans all types of floor coverings.

The amount of work in all these branches is so great that craftsmen in these jobs are very hard to get. The allround man has to choose which branch to work at if he decides to make his living in one of the big cities. Conditions of working have improved tremendously, as they have for most trades. During the nineteen-thirties the `stuffer', or `ragtacker' as he is called, probably experienced the worst conditions. These were prevalent wherever there was great unemployment. `Sweat shops' sprang up all over the country to keep pace with the `Installment Plan Era' which had just started. A lot of furniture made in these workshops and factories was of the cheapest and poorest quality and the craftsman had to prostitute his skill in order to keep a job. Some idea of payment may be got if I tell you that $4'to $4.50 was an average rate for a small three-piece suite in leathercloth. This was for the finished job from frame to cover.

A lot of tedious jobs have been eliminated by the manufacture of spring units, ready shaped padding and rubberized hair that can be cut off a roll to a required length. There are also machines used in the trade, but for a first-class job it still remains a craft, where patience and skill of hand and eye play the most important part. Pride of craftsmanship is a great incentive to a beginner and the would-be apprentice should not think there aren't work shops that still carry on the traditions and skills. There certainly are! These skills are also taught in nearly every town or city that boasts a technical college, and apprentices can usually attend under the day-release schemes and also in the evenings.

In the following chapters we shall be dealing only with upholstery-the basic fundamental methods of turning out the quality piece of upholstered furniture. There is perhaps a sense of creation in upholstery that is quite different from woodwork or metalwork and as one reaches the final stages there is a great satisfaction. Particularly if the foundation is sound. The instructions in this book will, I hope, encourage the reader to achieve making that favourite piece of furniture.

Bookmark and Share