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A New England easy chair with its upholstery sectioned

Upholstery is the work of providing furniture, especially seats, with padding, springs, webbing, and fabric or leather covers. The word also refers to the materials used to upholster something.

Upholstery comes from the Middle English word upholder,[1] which referred to an artisan who makes fabric furnishings.[2] The term is equally applicable to domestic, automobile, airplane and boat furniture, and can be applied to mattresses, particularly the upper layers, though these often differ significantly in design. 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 and cow), coir, straw and hay, hessians, linen scrims, wadding, etc., and is done by hand, building each layer up. In contrast, today's upholsterers employ synthetic materials like dacron and vinyl, serpentine springs, and so on.


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Armchair, designed in 1869 by George Jacob Hunzinger and patented on March 30, 1869. Wood, original upholstery. Brooklyn Museum

Upholder is an archaic term used for "upholsterer", but it appears to have a connotation of repairing furniture rather than creating new upholstered pieces from scratch (cobbler v. cordwainer).[3]

In 18th-century London, upholders frequently served as interior decorators responsible for all aspects of a room's decor.[4] These individuals were members of the Worshipful Company of Upholders, whose traditional role, before 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.

In the US, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Hickory, North Carolina, are centers for furniture manufacture along with Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire (England), and many of the best upholsterers can still be found there. Nottinghamshire is also home to Webs Training Ltd, a furniture training company specializing in training apprentices in the furniture manufacturing industry. These artisans continue to create or recreate many antique and modern pieces of furniture.[citation needed]

Furniture reupholstery continues to thrive in the UK, with several small and large businesses providing these services.



Traditional upholstery traces its roots back to ancient civilizations, where the need for comfort and functionality led to the creation of padded seating surfaces. From ancient Egypt to ancient Rome, early upholstery was primarily concerned with cushioning and supporting chairs, seats, and sofas. However, it was during the Renaissance period in Europe that upholstery flourished as an art form in its own right. Skilled artisans painstakingly handcrafted upholstery using techniques passed down through generations. One of the defining characteristics of traditional upholstery is its reliance on manual craftsmanship. Upholsterers, or "upholsterists", as they are sometimes called, possess unique skills that enable them to transform raw materials into exquisite furniture pieces.[5]

Traditional upholstery is a craft that evolved over centuries for padding and covering chairs, seats, and sofas before the development of sewing machines, synthetic fabrics, and plastic foam. Using a solid wood or webbed platform, it can involve the use of springs, lashings, stuffings of animal hair, grasses, coir, wools, hessians, scrims, bridle ties, stuffing ties, blind stitching, top stitching, flocks and wadding all built up by hand.[6]

An upholstered chair ready to be covered with the decorative outer textile.

In the Middle Ages, domestic interiors were becoming more comfortable, and upholstery was essential in interior decoration. The decorations consisted mainly of what we would now consider as "soft furnishings". However, there were simple platforms of webbing, canvas, or leather for stools, chairs, and elaborately decorated coverings that already demonstrated the rudimentary beginnings of upholstered furniture. By the start of the 17th century, chair seats were being padded, but this upholstery was still fairly basic. All sorts of stuffings from sawdust, grass, and feathers to deer, goat, or horsehair were used, although, in England, the Livery Company forbade goat and deer hair and imposed fines for misdemeanors. The stuffing was heaped on a wooden platform and held in place with a decorative top fabric and nails. This produced a simple dome shape sloping towards the seat. Only towards the end of the 17th century did upholsterers start developing techniques to distribute and shape the stuffing into more controlled shapes. Curled horsehair was used more consistently for stuffing, making it easier to hold in place with twine stitches developed from saddlery techniques. Thus, layers of stuffing could be distributed evenly and secured to stay in place. On a basic level, squab cushions were made more stable using tufting ties. Stuffed edge rolls appeared on seat fronts, providing support for cushions to be retained and later for deeper stuffing to be held in place under a fixed top cover.[7]: p12 

What we now consider "classic" upholstery shapes and techniques flourished in the 18th century. Frames of elegant line and proportion were sympathetically matched by expertly executed upholstery. By now, the upholsterers' technical knowledge meant that stuffing could be controlled along upright and sloping lines, giving new comfort levels and a stated elegance. Later in the century, the border was replaced by a single piece of linen or scrim, which took over the stuffed seat and tacked to the frame. At the same time, the locked blind stitch and top-stitching combination (pulling the side and top surfaces together and bringing the stuffing up to make a firm top edge) evolved.[7]: p15 

In the Victorian era, fashions of luxury and comfort gave rise to excesses of stuffing and padding. Mass production techniques made upholstered furniture available in large quantities to all sections of society. The availability of better-quality steel springs and the development of lashing techniques enabled upholstery to be built up on seats, backs, and arms independently of the frame shape. Stuffings became even more complex, edges became elaborately shaped into rolls and scrolls, and fabrics were folded into soft padded shapes using buttoning.[7]: p12 


Modern furniture is more likely to be partly or wholly made with cellular Polyurethane foam. This foam provides structure, resilience (recovery from loading), and, most importantly, lightweight. It is then covered with an outer decorative textile. The synthetic polymer will age and lose performance within a "reasonable" time and be significantly lighter than the traditional fillings.[citation needed] (In this context, foam is graded by its weight per cubic metre. 50 kg per cubic metre or 5% mass is typical). It is also relevant to include a reference to the way furniture has evolved with regard to recreational use, e.g., television watching. Lower cost allows more regular change to take account of such issues as design, moving accommodation, and deterioration due to the way it is used. Bed Mattresses may be considered the same way, with appropriate allowance for different usage, although the amount of time in use is probably higher. This has significant implications for the end of life of the materials used in manufacture and the end value of the materials. It is also worth noting that the above includes a high availability of air within the article, leading to ignition risk concerns and the introduction of the UK Furniture Fire Regulations (FFR).

While modern advancements have introduced new materials and techniques to the world of upholstery, the artistry and attention to detail that define traditional upholstery remain unparalleled. Although sewing machines and synthetic foams have expedited the manufacturing process, they have not replaced the skill and expertise of the upholsterer. Traditional upholstery continues to thrive as a niche craft, appreciated by discerning individuals who seek timeless beauty and unparalleled comfort in their furniture.[8]


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Leather-upholstered car seats

An automotive upholsterer, also known as a trimmer, coach trimmer, or motor trimmer, shares many of the skills required in upholstery and can work with carpets.

The term coach trimmer derives from the days when car frames were produced by manufacturers and delivered to coach builders 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 frequently 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 in automotive design or with aftermarket trim shops carrying out repairs, restorations, or customer conversions directly. A few high-quality motor car manufacturers still employ trimmers, for example, Aston Martin.


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.


This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (January 2007)
A motorboat cockpit.

Upholsterers may be called upon to repair or replace seating, cushions, cabin furnishings, headliners, and boat carpeting.

Marine upholstery differs in that one has to consider dampness, sunlight, and hard usage. Many sources now offer marine-grade vinyl, such as Spradling and Morbern, in hundreds of colors and styles.

Each style of marine-grade vinyl is rated according to cold crack, rub counts, and mold resistance. Stainless steel hardware, such as staples and screws, must be used to prevent rust and early breakdown of hardware and fasteners. The newest products for fastening vinyl in marine applications are Tenara thread and Monel staples. Any wood used must be of marine quality.

Usually, a high-resiliency, high-density plastic foam with a thin plastic film is used to keep out water that might get by the seams. Closed-cell foam is used on smaller cushions, which can sometimes double as flotation devices.

The evolution of boat seating reflects a journey of creative adaptation and technological advancement. Initially, boaters made do with simple wooden benches or flat surfaces. The advent of more resilient materials like plastic and vinyl in the 20th century revolutionized seat design, offering greater durability and water resistance. This change enabled more diverse and ergonomic designs. In the 21st century, technological progress has ushered in high-end features such as padded cushions, UV-resistant fabrics, and adjustable settings, enhancing comfort. Some contemporary seats even boast luxury features like in-built heating or massaging systems, signifying the transformation of boat seating from a fundamental element to a sophisticated, comfortable experience.

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  1. ^ Partridge, Eric (1977). Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Routledtge. p. 3633. ISBN 978-0-415-05077-7. New edition of 4th Revised edition (5 Sep 1977)
  2. ^ "upholder and upholdere - Middle English Compendium". Retrieved 2021-01-05.
  3. ^ OED
  4. ^ James, Upholstery, p.13
  5. ^ "News Entry - The Chaise Longue Co". Retrieved 2023-06-09.
  6. ^ "Traditional Upholstery Techniques". Plumbs. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  7. ^ a b c Gates, Dorothy, Essential Guide to Upholstery, Merehurst Press, 2000
  8. ^ "News Entry - The Chaise Longue Co". Retrieved 2023-06-09.