Choosing Upholstery

Okay, I admit it, I love choosing custom upholstery. Facing that long wall of beautiful swatches as they neatly hang by tiny hangers and subtly whisper their cleanability and price codes, I get a little rush of excitement.  Imagining the chair below in a gorgeous damask or a clean, simple stripe makes me happy.


If you’ve ever experienced the process, adding custom upholstery to your order can lead to serious sticker shock. Finding just the right fabric and pattern without completely breaking the bank is an art that requires discipline and usually some self-compromise.

These days, I am finding that clients are growing attached to upholstery found in showcase homes on Houzz and Pinterest. Heck, I grow attached to what I find online on Houzz and Pinterest. But danger lurks in them thar hills. All too often, the question “Where did you get that chair?” is answered with “We had it cu$tom made.”

When you choose custom upholstery, arm yourself with the general rule that you’ll spend more than you would for the stocked version.  So if you’ve already determined that the stocked version of a particular piece of furniture isn’t your cup of tea, here are a few tips to guide you on your custom upholstery journey:

  1. In general, patterns cost more than solids. Why? Mostly because patterns are more difficult to line up and place correctly on the furniture.
  2. Be prepared to wait. Most custom upholstery takes 6-8 weeks. And if the product is made overseas, you might have to wait three months.
  3. Those letters on the label provide important information: price and cleanability. The price grade simply indicates how much it cost the manufacturer to make the fabric, which translates to a higher price when it’s put on your chair. The swatch below has an O fabric grade, which, in this case, adds about $400 to the base price of a chair.IMG_0757
  4. Unless you’re made of money, don’t fall in love with double letters.  At the very top of the price scale, ZZ will slap you wide awake with its bottom line.  To be on the safe side, stick with letters A through F. Be careful, though, because H is sometimes the highest grade. Ask to see the price difference between each grade so you can do the math while looking through swatches.
  5. Definitely let go of the image of that perfectly patterned mod chair you saw on Houzz… you know the one with celadon circles and little rust rectangles on a khaki background…  Yeah, that one. Let it go.  Think of what you love most about it – the color combo, the pattern, the shape of the chair – and let it inspire you to find your upholstery. It’s do-able, it’s out there.
  6. A good way to begin is to have your general color scheme in mind. Most fabrics are organized by color (don’t you wish they were organized by price?). Once you determine your palette, then move on to the fabric style. Pull off the rack everything you think you might like, then put back anything not in your price range. Some furniture stores have more than one upholstery rack, so make sure you’re looking at the right upholstery for the furniture you’re buying!
  7. Don’t confuse the cleanability code (usually a W, S, WS or X) with the fabric grade. “W” means the fabric can be cleaned with water-based shampoo or foam upholstery cleaner; “S” means it requires a dry cleaning solvent. “SW” or “WS” means it can be spot cleaned with either a mild detergent, upholstery shampoo or mild dry cleaning solvent. If you have pets or children, steer clear of “X,” which can stand only a dusting or vacuuming.
  8. Trust your eyes when it comes to quality. If you see that the swatch is pilling, fraying or separating, don’t have it put on your furniture.  Play with the fabric. Touch it, drape it, sit on it. How does it feel against your skin?
  9. Ask the salesperson if the upholstery you like is displayed on a piece of furniture in the store. Seeing it on a larger scale will help you picture it on the furniture you have in mind. Also try to see the swatch in the light of your own home. Ask if you can check out the swatches (usually for a refundable deposit).
  10. Take pictures and take your time. It’s a big purchase, so don’t feel rushed. If it’s on sale now, it’ll probably be on sale again. Assure the salesperson that you’ll ask to work with him or her when you return to buy.

Hopefully, these tips will help keep you from feeling overwhelmed at the racks. Happy hunting!

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