DIY Transformation - Upholstering a Chair

10 Materials
4 Days

Let me preface this post with some encouragement - I have a middle school level of sewing experience. That's right - I took Home Economics way back in the day, and that was pretty much my one and only lesson in sewing. With that tiny amount of experience, I was able to accomplish this beautiful chair makeover!

Don't be scared away from a chair with ugly or unsavory fabric - if you come across a solid chair that just needs a little face lift - you can do this! All it takes is a little bit of curiosity and some good note taking. I would classify this as a slightly harder than easy project - definitely doable but intimidating at first.

Tools Needed:

  • Needle Nose Pliers
  • Tiny Flat Head Screwdriver
  • Camera
  • Notepad/pencil
  • Fabric Scissors
  • Fabric marking pen
  • Staple Gun
  • Straight Pins
  • Sewing Machine

The Chair:

I found this baby for $30 on Facebook Marketplace. At first, I thought it would be perfect as is - I thought the colors were gold and cream and it looked like it just needed a cleaning.

How wrong I was!

It was GREEN. My bedroom transformation that I have been relentlessly working towards for the Better Homes and Gardens sponsored One Room Challenge was going to feature a sea of neutrals with a little bit of color, in the form of blue - not green!

Plus, when I actually pulled the chair off the street, it was gross. Stains all over it and rips in the fabric. So, a small project turned into a bigger one. But, I had inspiration:

See, my husband is not a fan of this "Country French" theme that I was going for - it has pretty feminine touches and lots of what he calls "old stuff" (vintage, distressed furniture, etc). So, I thought I would let him have a little influence on this chair project. He brought up leather and he loves hunting, so I figured an animal print would be a nice compromise. I came up with this idea - the animal print (antelope to be specific) would wrap around the back of this chair and I would feature leather (or similarly feeling material) on the front cushions.

Before I had finalized what I was going to do with it, however, I needed to start dismantling this jigsaw puzzle. If you approach it as a puzzle, it makes it a lot less frustrating!

The first step is to start getting rid of the old to make room for the new!

My first step was to remove the decorative fabric tacks all around the arms and back of the chair. There were probably 200-250 of them total.

I ended up saving them in some flameless candles I had hanging around in what is now known as my "project room" - aka a disaster.

From there, I started to remove the fabric, learning the order of how it was assembled as I went. I took COPIOUS pictures and wrote down my findings on the back of one of the old fabric panels. Definitely might be worth writing your notes down on an actual notepad, though. You risk accidentally throwing out your notes as you are reupholstering!

I used a combination of needle nose pliers and a tiny flat head screwdriver to take out the staples as I removed the fabric.

As you can tell, my notes were pretty technical... (joking).

I took notes about how things were fastened on each particular piece of fabric. I saved, and labeled with a permanent marker, each individual panel of fabric I removed.

There were:

  • Inside arm panels (left and right)
  • Outside arm panels (left and right)
  • Seat cushion
  • Front seat back cushion
  • Back of the chair
  • Front panel - the area where your legs would hang over

When all was said and done, I wrote down the order of how the fabric was to be put back on. In this particular case, it was:

  1. Seat cushion
  2. Inside arm panels
  3. Front seat back cushion
  4. Outside arm panels
  5. Back of the chair

I made sure to hang onto those labeled pieces, because they were to serve as my pattern when I purchased the new fabric.

I went with the far right faux leather to serve as the front portion of the chair. It was soft, stretchy and beautiful! While I was at Joann's Fabric, I got to chat with the nicest lady - she was so helpful with her advice and it made the experience really enjoyable.

Another helpful option they have at Joann's is the pattern section. It might be called something else (like I said - middle school experience), but it is an area where they have several books available to help you choose the right amount of fabric. I discovered that arm chairs like mine required about 3-4 yards of fabric total. So, I took that as 2 yards for the front and 2 for the back!

I also purchased one large roll of cotton upholstery batting, a large roll of memory foam, a fabric pen, tack strips (cardboard strips), black dust cover fabric for the underside of the chair, some fabric glue, a staple gun and some staples for the gun. I ordered my new decorative upholstery tacks from Amazon, because it was much cheaper.

I also had to order the antelope print fabric online because Joann's did not seem to have anything like it when I went. While that fabric was shipping, though, I went to work on the front of the chair.

Using the original pieces as my pattern, I would draw the shape on the underside of my new fabric. Make sure your original fabric is also upside down or else you will end up with a backwards panel - when you only have a limited amount of materials to work with, any mistake costs you!

I also only marked and cut one panel at a time so that I could make sure what I was doing was going to work.

I took the memory foam and held it in place for the chair arms, using a permanent marker to note where I would need to cut it (roughly). I cut the rough shape and began stapling it into place, pulling it to fit as I went. I trimmed the excess with my fabric scissors.

For the cushion, I used the old one as a template and drew the pattern onto the new cushion materials - the memory foam and a strip of the cotton batting. I layered them to make a super soft cushion! I made sure the new cushion actually worked before moving onto securing it in place.

Once I had the chair arms and cushion covered nicely with the memory foam, I moved onto securing the new fabric. I used the old template piece to figure out the orientation and started with the seat cushion, making sure to pull it tight while stapling it to the wooden frame. Next up were the chair arms - I followed the same steps, but worked from one side to the next after first stapling the new fabric on the undersides of the arm.

Once everything was nice and secure, I trimmed up the fabric around the exposed area - the arms. I could hide the staples with the tacks, but I needed to make sure the fabric wouldn't be poking out.

The next part was the trickiest, I would say - the seat back cushion! I cut the new fabric pieces from the old "pattern" pieces and laid them in the order they came off the chair so that I could work from one side to the next. This was, what I ended up discovering, a fluted chair. Puzzling how to reconstruct the back cushion was challenging.

What I ended up doing was lining up the new fabric pieces with the old and then pinning the new ones at approximately the same place the seam line should be. Noting where the fabric fell on the sewing machine, I was able to easily pin the seams together and work my way down the fabric.

Once the back was sewn together, I discovered that I needed it to be sewn to the muslin cloth that was hanging on the back of the chair! That was the purple cloth in the pictures above. To do this, I would pin down the seam line again, folding the entire back at each seam line in order to run it down the machine.

It ended up creating little tubes for the new stuffing to go into, creating the seat back cushion. I cut memory foam into the same shapes as the original batting and stuffed them down into the tunnels created by the muslin cloth. This was also a little bit tricky - there is probably a better way than what I ended up doing (using a mop handle to stuff it down), but it ended up working really well.

The back, stuffed and sewn up, was ready to be stretched and attached to the chair! The seat back cushion has extra fabric down at the bottom that pulls through behind the seat cushion and staples down onto the back of the chair frame. You then can staple the muslin cloth in place to pull the individual seams of the fluted chair back towards the frame. Finally, you stretch the fabric over the top of the chair frame and staple it into place.

For someone with terrible sewing skills, it was turning out pretty nicely!

Finally, I was able to move on to the outer wrap - the antelope fabric! I was so excited about this fabric coming in! First up were the outer arm panels - I used the same steps. I used the original fabric as a template to cut out the new fabric. Then, I held it up to the chair to determine orientation and examined my notes and pictures about how it was assembled.

Tack strips provided a nice clean fold at the top near the arms and by the back. Then, you pull tight and staple along the back of the chair.

For the final back panel, I used tack strips and sewed them in to each side to provide a clean fold. Then, I stapled it on the top and bottom, stretching it tight once again.

I used fabric glue and tacks to secure the sides of the back panel to the fabric from the outside arm panels that had stretched to the back of the chair - I think what I would have liked to do was to sew that onto the side panels before placing them so that it would be more secure. However, the fabric glue has held up so far!

The final steps were to staple on the dust cover along the underside of the chair and to hammer in the new upholstery tacks - which were actually kind of a pain. They were constantly going in crooked for me!

Despite me being a novice in the sewing department and having absolutely no upholstery experience, I am so proud of the end result! This chair is so comfortable and beautiful to see sitting by the window in our room!

I would absolutely welcome any tips on how to improve for next time - I can say this is a great start but far from perfect!

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Have a question about this project?

2 questions
  • Lisa Fauerbach
    Lisa Fauerbach
    on Aug 8, 2020

    This is awesome!!! My sewing skills are quite possibly even less than yours and I glue, tape and staple everything I make!!😂. I am completely inspired and in love with your project. Well done! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻❤️

  • Ron29526859
    on Aug 8, 2020

    You never wrote about painting the chair. Which step was that?

    • You are right - so sorry! I painted the legs before I put any fabric back on. It would be right between the deconstruction and reconstruction.

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