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How to Reupholster a Chair and Give Your Piece New Life

Living room with leather chair and ottoman.

Arbor & Co.

Everyone has a favorite chair, but over time, all that love you give it will wear it down. Cushions will flatten, seats will sag, the fabric will dull, and stains will happen. But fear not: your favorite chair can be saved.

Reupholstering an armchair isn’t the easiest of DIY projects, but if you love a chair enough, that love is worth fighting for. 

Things You'll Need:

To give your chair a brand-new lease on life, you’ll need:

  • Fabric
  • Foam
  • Batting
  • Fabric marker or chalk
  • Straight pins
  • Utility knife
  • Staple gun
  • Tack strips
  • Brad nails
  • Regular scissors
  • Fabric scissors
  • Flathead screwdriver or butter knife
  • Needlenose pliers
  • Upholstery glue
  • Spray-on fabric protector

Step One: Choose Your Fabric

If the chair you’re reupholstering will see heavy wear and tear from daily use, it’s important to choose a fabric that’s not only aesthetically pleasing but also durable. Search for fabric that’s advertised specifically for upholstery, which will have undergone a “double-rub test” by the manufacturer that measures how well the fabric will stand up to repeated friction. Fabrics like chenille, canvas, and velvet are all excellent choices.

Another important thing to consider is the sort of wear and tear your chair will be exposed to. If you’ve got pets, children, or consider yourself accident-prone (wine spills happen), look for fabrics that have been specially treated for enhanced durability. For chairs in living and family rooms, look for fabric that’s advertised as water and stain-repellent—if the chair will be sitting near a window, you’ll want a fabric that’s UV resistant as well, which will prevent it from fading in the sunlight. 

Faux leather, faux suede, ultra suede, and microsuede are easy to clean and maintain, and patterned basketweave and twill fabrics hide stains well. If you’re a cat owner, microfiber and ultra suede are your best bets, as they’re resistant to scratching. 

Gray armchair in living room.

Blue Copper Design

Step 2: Remove the Existing Upholstery

Unlike most other home DIY projects, when it comes to reupholstering furniture, it’s best to remove the existing fabric before you purchase supplies, especially if this is your first time doing it. By carefully disassembling your chair, you’ll learn how it was assembled in the first place, which will inform your decision as to what tools and materials you’ll need for your project, and also inform you whether or not your design ideas are actually possible.

Additionally, the chair’s original fabric will act as a pattern to cut out your new fabric, which will help you determine how much to buy, and ensure it’s the correct size—an especially important detail if you’re using patterned fabric. 

Before you begin disassembly, take multiple photos of your chair from every angle to use as a reference later on. Take additional photos and/or during the upholstery-removal process to keep track of what you’ve done and how you did it, which will be invaluable later on as you reassemble your chair. 

  1. First, remove all the cushions from the chair. If they have slipcovers, slip them off, and if not, use a seam ripper to remove the stitching. Use a heavy-duty marker to label each piece of fabric so you can remember which part of the chair they belong to. 
  2. Next, flip the chair upside down to remove the fabric from the underside. This fabric is usually stapled to the chair frame, a thin flat-head screwdriver or a butter knife can be used to pry them up, and a set of needlenose pliers can help pull them out. Put the used staples and any other hardware you remove into a small container or plastic baggie so you can purchase the same size/gauge for reassembly.
  3. Once the underside has been removed and you can see into the bottom of the chair, examine the chair’s seams and for potential clues on how the chair was initially upholstered, then follow those same steps in reverse.
  4. Use the seam ripper, screwdriver/butter knife, and pliers to remove any visible staples and gently pull back the fabric, remembering to try to keep the fabric intact to use as a pattern, and continue incrementally until each piece has been removed, photographed, and labeled. 

If you’re purchasing your fabric in-person, bring your old upholstery with you. Store staff have the right tools for the job, and may be able to cut your new slipcover fabric for you. They’ll also be able to make recommendations for what thread, tools, trim, and accessories will work best for your project. 

As you disassemble the chair, pay attention to the hardware that was used to attach the original fabric. Most likely, either staples, brad nails, or upholstery tack strips will have been used. If you can manage it, try not to remove the tack strips if they’re in good shape, as they can be reused. Though you can use whatever hardware you feel most comfortable with to secure the new upholstery, depending on the size and shape of the chair, following the manufacturer’s blueprint may yield the best results.

Most armchairs have cording or welting protecting their seams, and it may not be easy to remove them all in one piece. If you need to cut it during the removal process that’s totally fine, but make sure you keep it all so you can determine how much replacement cording you’ll need to purchase. When buying new cording, buy a few feet more than you think you’ll need to give yourself some extra room to work with. 

Armchair in reading area with task lamp.

Blue Copper Design

Step 3: Examine the Base

Was your chair sagging before you decided to reupholster it? The problem might not be in the cushion as much as it is in the base.

  1. Press down on the area under where the seat cushion goes and see how far it depresses.
  2. If it’s a significant amount, use a utility knife to make two cuts through the fabric next to the armrests, then make one perpendicular across the center.
  3. Open the fabric and add a layer of additional support to the frame, like extra-thick upholstery foam, or a custom cut piece of plywood or fiberboard.
  4. Use an upholstery needle and thick-gauge thread to stitch the lining fabric back together.  

Step 4: Examine the Batting

Batting is the plush inner lining of the chair that gives it its shape—and what makes it comfortable to sit on. If your batting is in good shape, there’s no need to remove it. If the batting has lost a significant amount of volume, is heavily stained, is heavily torn, or has absorbed odor from sweat or the atmosphere, it will need replacing.

You don’t need to remove all the batting if some of it is still in good shape. Batting on the sides and back of chairs hold up much better to wear and tear than the parts than cushions are armrests.

Remove the old batting the same way you did the upholstery, but batting is much more likely to tear during the removal process, so while you should do your best to remove it in one piece, don’t freak out if it tears or if you need to employ the assistance of a utility knife or box cutter to help with the removal.

  1. Put the batting on a large sheet of poster board or paper (rolls of floor protection paper are excellent for this, and you can find them in the paint section of the hardware store), trace it with a dark marker, and add an extra one inch of extra room on each side. 
  2. If possible, bring a piece of it with you to a fabric/upholstery store so you can compare it to other batting, especially if you’re looking to change materials to make your chair more durable. If you are purchasing new batting online, make sure you purchase one that’s the same thickness as the old one so the chair will retain its shape. 
  3. Use your patterns to cut out new batting, then attach it to the chair frame using heavy-duty staples, or whatever hardware was used to secure the original batting.
  4. If you’d like extra protection against spills or pet stains, apply a coat of fabric protector to the batting, following the manufacturer's directions. 
White modern armchair next to plant.

Brexton Cole Interiors

Step 5: Examine the Cushions

Even the best chair cushions will eventually start to lose their volume. If your cushions are flat and seem beyond repair, bring them to a store that specializes in foam cushioning to have them replaced. These stores have special tools to cleanly cut upholstery foam, and though it is possible to cut your own using a sharp utility knife and a steady hand, a professional will do a better job and will create a lot less waste.

For a plush feel, use upholstery glue to wrap the foam in a thin layer of batting, and lightly spray with a fabric protector.

Step 6: Cut the New Fabric

If you don’t have a pair of heavy-duty or fabric scissors, buy them. Even if your existing scissors are extra-sharp, they’ll be quickly dulled by cutting through heavy fabric, and won’t give you the straight, even cuts you need. 

  1. Working on a hard surface like a table or non-carpeted floor, layout the new fabric face-down, then lay the original pieces face-down on top. If the fabric you’re using has a grain-like chenille or tweed—make sure you place your pattern in the direction you’d like the grain to run. 
  2. Use straight pins to fasten the two pieces together, then trace the pattern using a special fabric marker that won’t bleed through the fabric. If you’re using dark fabric, use light-colored fabric chalk that will make the lines easier to see.
  3. Outline the pattern again, this time giving it a three-to-four-inch border of extra fabric, which will make it easier for you to work with.
  4. Cut out the fabric, leaving the original fabric pinned on to keep the pieces labeled. 

Step 7: Sew Your New Cushions Together

  1. Unpin the original fabric patterns from your new upholstery.
  2. Use a sewing machine to stitch the new slipcover together using the marker/chalk lines as a guide, attaching a heavy-duty zipper on the back, and trimming off excess fabric as you go.
  3. Insert the cushion, zip up, and check that the new cover fits smoothly before you put your sewing machine away. 
Velvet teal armchair in living room.

Brexton Cole Interiors

Step 8: Attach Fabric and Cording to the Frame

  1. Review your cache of photos to remember how the back, sides, and armrest upholstery was originally attached to the chair.
  2. Attach the new fabric using the same tools and hardware that were used for the original upholstery, working the reverse order of how you removed them.
  3. Make sure the fabric is pulled tautly before you attach it to the frame, trimming off the excess fabric as you go.
  4. After each piece has been reattached, use upholstery glue or a needle and thread to attach cording around the edges to protect the seams, moving onto the next piece once the glue has dried. 

Step 9: Attach a New Bottom

  1. Give you new upholstery a good once-over to make sure it’s snug and secure, making tweaks and repairs as necessary.
  2. Flip the chair over, and staple a thick, heavy piece of fabric to the bottom of the chair, tucking the edges under to prevent fraying. 
  3. Finally, flip the chair right-side-up, replace the newly-reupholstered cushion, and take a seat.

Enjoy the fruits of your labor! Reupholstering a chair is no easy task, and you should be proud of your work.