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Traditional Upholstery Materials: Not Icky At All!

January 21, 2020 12:00 PM | Michelle Minner (Administrator)

Written by Leslie Howard

How often do you show a customer a traditionally upholstered antique chair as you tear it down and discover dried seaweed, moss, coir, or horsehair and get this reaction — “Eeeeeewwwww”? I get that from time to time because I specialize in antiques and vintage chairs. I don’t know exactly what they are expecting inside an heirloom antique chair, but not this!

However, there’s no real ick factor here. These are natural, durable materials that have stood the test of time for generations! They don’t decompose; they don’t crumble and harden like foam does. They can frequently be conserved and reused! 

These photos are from an old petite French chair; you can see that the stitched burlap, horsehair, and cotton fillings, which have been cut away from the coiled springs, have aged but are not even dirty! Someone took wonderful care of this chair while it was in use.

I like to explain to clients about these fillings, and that I’d even like to put coir and horsehair back into their pieces When they hear about the benefits, they tend to agree. Not all upholsterers are trained in traditional methods like I have been, and many customers are satisfied with substituting pre-fabricated edge roll and a slab of foam for their formerly coir-stuffed, linen twine-stitched burlap foundation topped with muslin and curled, sanitized horsehair. Foam is cheaper, quicker, and great for many pieces, particularly mid-century and contemporary furniture. For antiques, however, traditional upholstery methods tend to be more appropriate, both for looks and how they feel.

I find that clients are interested in these time-tested, museum approved, natural stuffings, and almost always opt for this more artisanal approach to building up their furniture, especially for a treasured family heirloom that they intend to keep and use for a long time. Even if they can’t see the result of artisanal methods underneath their fabrics, they know their piece has been lovingly restored on the inside to serve them for a few more generations!

Photo credit: Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard owns City Girl Arts Fine Upholstery & Vintage Furniture in
St. Petersburg, Florida. She is a boutique upholsterer who loves to marry vintage seating pieces and bold, modern fabrics. Check out her work at

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