Written by Bethany Wheaton
Before air conditioning became prevalent in many homes, it was common to cover furniture with slipcovers during the summer. Sofas and chairs upholstered with velvet and heavy tapestry fabric were hot and uncomfortable to sit on, so ‘summer covers’ were made of cotton to protect the furniture. Today, slipcovers are a hot commodity, perhaps fueled by the ‘shabby chic’ design trend of the 1990’s. Designers and homeowners request slipcovers that are family and pet friendly, and easy to clean. With the increase in available slipcover training, fabricators are meeting this demand by producing tailored, snug fitting covers, not just made of cotton, but performance fabrics and upholstery weight fabric as well. If you are looking for another revenue stream for your upholstery business, offering slipcovers will attract more customers and increase profits.
Slipcovers v. Upholstery
Most chairs and sofas are able to be reupholstered, but the same may not be true for slipcovers. Wing back chairs, club chairs, Parsons chairs, and loose back cushion sofas are all good candidates for a slipcover. Pieces with a lot of decorative wood, or oversized rolled arms may be better suited for reupholstery. There is no tear down on a slipcover project, a huge time savings. It is possible to do the bulk of the work, pin fitting the fabric, in the customers home, then sew it in your shop and return to install it. Most chairs and sofas, depending on the number of cushions, can be completed in 1 to 2 days. Very little supplies are needed when fabricating a slipcover. Pins, welt cord, sometimes a zipper, and thread are really the only supplies you’ll use, contributing to the profitability. Slipcovers typically cost less than re upholstery. So offering them at your shop will expand your customer base.
Selling a slipcover
Some customers know they want a slipcover and will ask you to quote a price on one. Or they may have purchased furniture upholstered in muslin and the original slipcover is trashed and they need a new one. Present the fabric options and price. Easy sale. Other times, a customer may have sticker shock over the price of reupholstering a chair or sofa. If the original upholstery is in good shape, I tell them their piece is a good candidate for a slipcover, which can be less expensive than reupholstery. Many times they will opt for a slipcover to save a few hundred dollars. I explain the difference between upholstery fabric and cotton, present the benefits of performance fabrics like Crypton and Revolution and show them samples. Ninety-five percent of my slipcover business is upholstery weight fabric, averaging $60 per yard. I have an English rolled arm sofa with a white Revolution fabric slipcover, and a Parsons chair slip-covered in an inexpensive cotton/rayon blend from Big Duck Canvas in my showroom so customers can see how tailored and attractive a well made slipcover will look in their home. Presenting the reupholstery price first, then sensing objections over the cost, is a very effective way to sell a slipcover job. Another selling point is that a slipcover can be pin fitted in the home so they don’t have to be without their furniture for a couple of weeks.
Materials and Methods
Traditionally, slipcovers were made of cotton so the customer could take it off and wash it when needed. Many fabricators prefer cotton for this reason. After laundering, the slipcover is partially dried and put back on the furniture when it is still damp. This normally eliminates the need for ironing it. Getting it put back on correctly, and struggling with stuffing the cushions can be a challenge which is why I recommend upholstery fabric to my customers. If you’re making a cotton slipcover, the fabric should be cut into 5 yard pieces, washed and dried on the hottest cycle to pre-shrink it. It is reasonable to charge for this service.
Upholstery fabric makes beautiful slipcovers. I’ve made them with chenilles, textured wovens and velvet. As long as the fabric is not too thick, drapes well and does not have a coating on the back, it should be a suitable fabric for a slipcover. Your customer will get all the benefits of upholstery fabric like durability, and a wide range of style, color and pattern. I recommend professional cleaning, just like they would do for their upholstered furniture. Some of my favorite fabric choices are Fabricuts Emere, a thin, grasscloth like Crypton at $84 per yard, and Ghent, a poly/cotton/linen with a slubby linen look that comes in 35 colors at $60 per yard. I also like Polenta by Stout, a Crypton poly/linen chenille with 2 colors at $47 per yard.
Slipcovers can be made by pin fitting the pieces together to create stitch lines, making a pattern of the chairs components or copying an old slipcover. Pin fitting is pretty straightforward, doesn’t take a lot of time and results in a tight, tailored cover. The fabric is anchored to the chair wrong side out and welt cord is pinned between two pieces to create a seam. Measuring the chair for fabric is similar to measuring for upholstery. I add two inches to each side of the cut for pinning and seam allowance. After making a pattern for the arm panels, I’ll sew those first. Decks can be pinned for mitering or square seams, then sewn to decking fabric.
Some fabricators use the face fabric for the entire deck. The lower edge can be pinned with welt cord and attached to the frame with velcro once the cover is sewn. It’s easy to mark for skirt placement as well, if the piece gets a skirt. Some pieces like barrel chairs that are smaller around the bottom than the top, or chairs with large rolled arms may need a zipper. The zipper location is marked at the end of the pinning process and is sewn in before attaching the lower edge cording or skirt pieces. If you can’t get the cover off, you’ll need to add a zipper in one of the OB/OA seams. After pinning I remove the cover and take it to the machine.
Sewing the slipcover
A walking foot sewing machine is a necessity to sew through the multiple layers of a slipcover. At the intersections of seams, it’s not unusual to have 8 layers of fabric. All seams are serged before sewing the next seam for a neat appearance and to prevent fraying. Slipcover seams are sewn in a particular order to get the best result. The many training options available will guide you on sewing order.
Fortunately there are many options available to upholsterers wanting to learn how to create beautiful slipcovers. Jeanelle Dech’s Fit-Like-A-Glove Slipcover DVD is a top notch instructional tool available from the Workroom Channel for $95. Jeanelle slipcovers a wingback settee with a floral Sunbrella jacquard and presents the order of pinning and order of sewing in a simple and easy to follow manner. You can easily create your first slipcover with this tool in your workroom.
Kim Chagnon of Kim's Upholstery has three comprehensive slipcover videos available on her membership site. The blue club chair video teaches you expert pattern matching as well as pin fitting and sewing methods. Kim also offers a community forum and weekly live Q & A for members to post pictures and get detailed answers to specific questions.
Workroom Tech in Tryon, NC offers a 2 day slipcover workshop a few times a year, taught by Emily Pettit. The workshop focuses on a Parsons chair but presents essential techniques you’ll be able to use on many different styles of furniture.
Many slipcover fabricators are very generous with their time and are willing to teach new skills to those who want to learn. Reach out to someone whose work you admire and ask if they offer one on one training. You’ll learn a new skill and make a friend! Whichever training resource you choose will be a good investment. Beautiful slipcovers are a result of many factors including the order of pinning and sewing, and making cuts at obstacles or areas that don't have tuck in spaces. Good training will shorten the learning curve so you can be selling jobs after a couple of practice slipcovers.
Slipcovers are a great revenue source for any upholstery shop. It’s a faster process than upholstery and easier on the body. From measuring, cutting, making welt, sewing the cushion, pin fitting, sewing the cover and adding velcro, a single cushion club chair can be completed in one day. The learning curve is relatively short as well. But the best part is putting the finished slipcover on the chair, tugging and pulling, certain it’s going to tear, and then it snaps into place! Tuck in the seams, stand back and marvel at your beautiful creation!
Bethany Wheaton is the owner of Plymouth Upholstery & Decor in Plymouth Massachusetts.