Reupholstery as History and… Archaeology

An upholstery shop is not the Valley of the Kings, but I still feel like Indiana Jones when I uncover the history of a chair.

Stripping a chair before reupholstering it is like excavating a site: removing layers of fabric, padding, staples, decomposing burlap, and sagging webbing.   As the stripping process is carried out, I assess the damage.  Does this project require new webbing or new springs?  Is the frame damaged?  Are the joints loose and in need of glue and clamps?

The frame shows telltale signs of vintage.  I once stripped two chairs owned by a famous Canadian designer. After removing the upholstery, I noticed the chairs were stamped “France“ on the woodwork in a place only an upholsterer would be able to see.  Soon, they would be covered with fabric and the stamp obscured again.

Two authentic antique French chairs ready for reupholstery.

French stamp on antique chair

On another occasion, I found two mid-century modern dining chairs curbside.  I took them home and found they were, indeed, Danish:made_in_denmark_stamp

Most thorough modern day upholsterers remove earlier layers of fabric before adding new padding and new top fabric. From what I’ve seen to date, upholsterers of yesteryear frequently left old top fabrics intact and simply covered over them.  Recently, I was stripping a wing chair that was picked up at Queen West Antiques by a friend.  I was quite surprised to unearth the original layer of top fabric fully intact and sporting a label from a local upholstery shop on the seat deck:

cooper brothers tag on old wing chair

I was even more astounded when I Googled “Cooper Brothers Upholstery” and found that they are still in business here in Toronto.  Since 1939 no less!  I’ve emailed the brothers to see if they can tell us how old the chair is based on the tag.  (Judging from its appearance, I believe the tag is from the 70’s or earlier – at a minimum over 30 years old.)  The good news is,  this old wing chair has at least another lifetime in it!  You could never say this about today’s new furniture (assembled with fibre board and destined for land fill after a few years).

Here’s another picture of a tag I found from a custom upholstery shop that no longer exists:


While working at another upholstery shop, a customer came in with two matching cocktail chairs.  The customer explained they were from a relative, quite wobbly, and needed restablization as well as reupholstery.  He then turned them over so that we could look at them better.  Canadian ingenuity at its best!

hockey stick chair

While working at various upholstery shops, I often encountered vintage fabric in excellent shape.  These are the rejected fabrics of yesteryear, stripped off chairs and sofas to be replaced by solid chenilles and wovens in taupe and beige.  How styles have changed.


Note: the yellow fabric piece on the top left is a “pull” – a cheaper piece of fabric is sewn onto the expensive show fabric to make the show fabric go further.
??????????????????????????????? vintage_chintz_fabric vintage_ridpath_fabric

The last fabric piece is marked Ridpaths.  Ridpaths Furnishings was founded in 1907 in Toronto and was located on Yonge Street (across from the original Canadian Tire store).  It finally closed its doors in 2011. From an article in the Globe and Mail:

“Throughout its history, Ridpath’s dealt in furniture produced within North America, England and Italy, placing its price point significantly higher than that of retailers who brought in pieces from Asia or dealt in flimsier goods.

“It’s definitely a thinner market because the younger generation just wants quick build-it-yourself disposable things. So that mentality has changed,” said Mr. Lochhead, the store’s manager. “But there’s still a good portion of clients out there who understand high end.””

How right you are, Mr. Lochhead.


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