There comes a time in every sofa's life when it has to shape up or ship out - and here in Madison that often means shipped out to the curb for rebirth on a student porch. But there is another option: upholstery.
Upholstery can take something old, tired, even broken, and make it new, beautiful and perfect for you. Outward appearances mean little when it comes to upholstered pieces. Reupholstered furniture hides its sordid past(s) inside. Something that doesn't seem so wonderful upon first glance can become so in a fantastic new outfit. Yes, your circa 1970 harvest gold and avocado floral-patterned swiveling chair can find new life in modern, more neutral natural fibers.
Reupholstering isn't necessarily a cheaper option to buying new, though. Done right, reupholstering a chair, couch or ottoman can cost as much as buying new. But if you truly love a piece of furniture, and it fits you and your space just right, then it can be worth every dime.
Although a number of upholsterers call Madison home, they can be hard to find. Not every upholsterer has a storefront, and many rely on word-of-mouth and referrals from interior designers. But once found, upholstery shops are wonderlands of fabric swatches, cotton batting, decorative nails and hand-tied springs. Furniture ranging from five-year-old La-Z-Boys to 105-year-old Eastlake-style chairs sit in various states of transformation on work tables. Many upholsterers also build custom furniture. Almost anything is possible in the upholstery world.
Kelvin Schroeder is one of those upholsterers without a storefront. In his workshop just south of the Beltline, he reupholsters mostly furniture, but he also does automotive and marine upholstery. Much of his work comes from happy past clients and through interior designers. He finds that many of his customers come to him looking to extend the life of a beloved piece with new fabric.
"Retail furniture only comes in so many colors and styles, while reupholstered fabrics are limitless," he says. "The quality of most older furniture is so good that it's well worth getting the work done, and making an older piece work with a new style."
Other shops, like McGilligan's, do operate storefronts, albeit tucked away behind Star Cinema in Fitchburg. McGilligan's is the Madison area's oldest upholstery shop, founded in 1917, though its owners (which include the founder's grandsons) are focused squarely on the future. Eco-friendly fabrics, foams and local Wisconsin hardwoods are central to co-owner Bill Weber's business.
"It's very exciting to see the number of excellent-quality sustainable and recycled fabrics available now," Weber says. "Even our polyurethane foam contains a percentage of material from plant-derived sources now."
Weber likes to encourage clients to make sustainable choices. Like many other upholstery shops, they also design and build custom furniture. McGilligan's uses hardwoods from Wisconsin forests for both quality and sustainability, and works closely with clients to get everything from the seat-to-armrest ratio, padding firmness, and seat depth tailored to you.
Eco-friendly upholstery is also important to Matthew Nafranowicz of The Straight Thread on Atwood, though his true love is the traditional upholstery techniques he learned as an apprentice in France.
"Traditional upholstery is my favorite because it's like a puzzle to figure out how it was done. It's so challenging but so rewarding," Nafranowicz says. "Traditional work keeps its shape better, has a firmer seat and lasts a lot longer."
American upholstery, in contrast, is softer and more pillow-like. A whole sofa, for example, will be composed of a series of squishy cushions instead of the decorative pillow on a firm couch more common in France, Nafranowicz says.
Nafranowicz fell into upholstery as a temp job between seasons in the field working as an ornithologist. After deciding an academic life in birds wasn't for him, he found an upholstery job in New York City, upholstering the homes of the rich and famous, including Elle McPherson's home in the Bahamas. It was during a one-year apprenticeship in the shop of a third-generation family of upholsterers in Paris, though, that Nafranowicz discovered the magic of hand-stitched burlap and horsehair stuffing.
"Some of the work I saw in Paris just couldn't be replicated now, it is so amazingly difficult to create," he says. "I loved learning how to create decorative edging with only a needle and some padding."
Not many people in Madison own furniture well suited to traditional methods, however, so Nafranowicz takes in a mix of traditional and modern upholstery jobs. He, too, encourages the use of sustainable alternatives, including organic cotton and wool batting. He also builds custom furniture, on display in the front windows of his shop.
Greg Papendieck, owner of Papendieck's Upholstery in Middleton, is also fond of older furniture, though his upholstering tastes run a bit more modern, to Victorian-era pieces rather than Napoleonic and before.
"We specialize in antiques and collectibles, but we'll do modern furniture too," says Papendieck. "Newer furniture is often not of the same quality, though, so getting a high-quality upholstery job on a poor-quality piece isn't always worth the money."
Another option to consider, especially if you want to save money, is to do it yourself. No way, right? You haven't apprenticed in France! According to upholstery instructor Alaine Barr at Madison Area Technical College, anyone can upholster.
"Anyone, anyone can do it," says Barr. "If you can swing a hammer, we'll show you the rest."
Barr is one of several upholstery instructors at MATC, which offers a 14-week course for everyone from beginners to returning advanced students. The courses are very popular and always have a waiting list. There's even one taught in Spanish.
Students can bring any piece they want to class, and projects range from simple footstools for beginners to an astonishingly beautiful antique bench found on the curb by a current student. The class is run as an open lab, with instructors and lab assistants providing one-on-one instruction. Classes cost about $100 and students receive deep discounts on all their supplies. One woman has been taking the class on and off since the 1950s, reupholstering all of her own furniture and that of her friends.
Barr began as a student in the class in 1993, and became an instructor in 2003. She learned to upholster out of necessity, unable to afford furniture for her new house. So she made her own and has been doing it and teaching others every since.
"It's a challenge to teach people who've never sewn before," says Barr, "but my greatest joy is seeing the satisfaction and excitement in my students when they take something old and create a new and beautiful piece of furniture."
So how do you know if reupholstering is right for you and your furniture? Some factors to consider:
- Older furniture, at least 20-25 years old, is usually of a better quality than newer furniture.
- Weight is an important indicator of quality - a heavy piece often has a sturdier frame. A poor-quality frame can be rebuilt, however.
- Does it fit your space? Many older homes have small rooms while new furniture is often oversized, so it can make more sense to re-cover your old piece.
- Style - new fabric can make something old feel new and modern, and new padding can make that pesky spring digging into your back disappear.
The most important question to ask yourself, though, is: Do you love it? Does it fit you? Then it's worth it, whether you hire someone or do it yourself.
Make it new again
MATC Upholstery Classes
Custom Upholstery By Kelvin
608-271-4070, 2825 Perry St, #4, Madison
608-274-8200, 2906 Commerce Park Drive, Fitchburg
The Straight Thread
608-250-5135, 2033 Atwood Ave., Madison
608-827-0950, 6621 Century Ave., Middleton