Furniture // Upholstery + Refinishing

Today we have interior designer, Kyle of Knight Moves, giving us the DL on upholstery and refinishing. I finally got to meet Kyle in person this summer after years of blog-stalking, so now I can call her a FIRL (friend in real life — don’t worry, I just learned that too), not just a digital friend. — Meg

Living Room // Kyle Knight

Sooner or later, you will probably have some furniture reupholstered or refinished. Breathing new life into existing furniture, wether it is a hand-me-down or a vintage find, is typically quick, cost effective, and environmentally conscious. Plus, many old frames are superior in quality compared to what you can buy new. Despite all of the positives, furniture facelifts can be intimidating. I’ve found that many people get stuck when it comes to deciding on a makeover plan because of the flood of decisions that must be made (this is where a designer comes in handy, if I do say so myself). But if hiring a designer isn’t in your budget, don’t fret!

The world of upholstery and refinishing is an amazing part of interior design because it offers so much room for creativity. There is a seemingly limitless buffet of fabrics, trimmings, fillings, finishes, legs, and other accents that can determine the style and function of a piece. It is worth spending the time to navigate the options because you can create a really special piece of furniture that will be enjoyed for years. Trust me, the devil really is in the details so it’s important to know what your options are and get your ducks in a row before enlisting the help of an upholsterer. Here are a few main elements to consider:

  • Fabric
  • Fill
  • Finish
  • Trim
  • Fabrication Accents


Most people zero in on color and cost, which are undoubtedly important. To figure out cost, you’ll need the fabric yardage requirement from the upholsterer (in the recon phase get a ballpark estimate from a yardage chart). Besides those factors, these are equally as pivotal when selecting fabric:

  • Durability: Keep function top of mind and make sure you pick a tough textile if the upholstered piece is going to see lots of wear and tear. Indoor/outdoor fabrics are king in terms of durability and cleanability! Outside of those, look for substantial, upholstery-weight options. Lightweight fabrics will require backing which adds to the fabrication cost.
  • Pattern: Simple solids are usually the cheapest option because they require the least amount of yardage, however, they don’t offer any stain/wear camouflage like prints do. If you do want to use a patterned fabric, just be sure to pick one with a suitable scale for the piece. For example, textiles with large repeats are generally best on large upholstered pieces. And if there is tufting, a small-scale print probably works best.

I used Schumacher’s Nanjing — which has a large 27″ x 25″ repeat on the king headboard.


When an old piece is reupholstered, the innards and cushions often need to be replaced. The key here is to balance how you want the piece to look (i.e. tailored or relaxed) and how soft and cushy you want it to feel. Find a happy medium where loft, support, and shape are all at ideal levels, so the piece is comfortable yet still looks polished and the shape will hold up over time.

Smaller seats and cushions can take a higher percentage of F&D (feather and down) since there is less room for the fill to shift around, but large cushions will fare better with more high density foam or polyfill (unless they are tufted). As an example, if you pick a 100% F&D for a long cushion, you could end up with something like this that constantly looks misshapen and sloppy. To avoid that effect — however comfy it may be — I chose a cushion that has a high density reinforced urethane core topped with down for my house because I wanted it to look neat and tailored. (See top photo in post).


If there is exposed wood, it can be stained, bleached, painted, lacquered, ebonized, polished, cerused, or leafed (with gold or silver). Metal can be painted, powder-coated, or plated. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to showcase quality woods with a stain or polish and hide cheaper or damaged woods with paint. And whenever possible, try to get a finish sample from your refinisher/upholsterer prior to production to ensure that both of you are on the same page!

Before & After Chairloom upholstery

Before & After — upholstery and refinishing by Chairloom
Here the fabulous Chairloom changed the finish on the frame of this bergere chair (and I LOVE the charcoal fabric panel they used to make a bold stripe).

Red Lacquered Regency Style Chairs

Red lacquered regency style chairs by Dorothy Draper on 1stDibs


Effectively using trim is a key way to get distinctive, custom-looking upholstery. At your disposal are: tape, cording, fringe, gimp, buttons, and/or decorative nails. For any one element, determine precisely the specifications on how and where it should go on the piece. For example, if you want nailhead trim, you’ll need to specify the color, shape, size, spacing between each head, and areas where it should be applied.

A few pics of trim in action:

greek key chairs

Here are some chairs I did for a client that have Greek key tape on the bolster and on the skirt.

I love when tape trim is applied to cushions to create an inset border like on this Leigh sofa designed by Suzanne Kasler for Hickory Chair.

Here classic nickel nails are used to accentuate the lines of the chair and striped tape (or maybe fabric) adds a whimsical border around the back. Photo via Paris Apartment

A close-up of contrast cording.


To further develop the style and function of a piece, you might want your upholsterer to change modify things about the construction. You could change the legs, add casters, alter the dimensions, add tufting to an area, or remove a dated skirt. Talk to your upholsterer about what options are feasible in this area.

chairs // again & again

Again & Again, one of my favorite vintage shops in Dallas, also rehabs furniture. They modernized these chairs by taking the skirt off. Image via Again & Again

Hopefully this framework of upholstery and finishing options is helpful and will get your creative wheels turning! Although it might seem overwhelming, I strongly urge you to take advantage of the more thoughtful and interesting possibilities rather than defaulting to a safe/plain upholstery plan. If you’re going to go safe/plain, the piece could very well end up looking like it came from one of the banal catalog retailers and that would be a shame. Great rooms are created with special furniture so when it’s time to refinish and reupholster a piece, take advantage of the opportunity to create something fabulous!