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Originally published Friday, March 22, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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How to give that tired couch an inexpensive face-lift

Do-it-yourself reupholstering isn’t too hard, as long as you follow a few basic tips and choose a good starter project to build some skills.

The New York Times News

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Growing up, I remember peeling myself off friends’ vinyl-covered couches and feeling lucky my house didn’t turn people into Colorforms characters. Now, with my furniture yielding to assaults from children, dogs and a cat, the big question is, where I can lay my hands on some vinyl?

I understand that upholstery isn’t meant to be permanent. I’m just not ready to drop $700 on a new slipcover to replace the one that was supposed to keep our sofa budget at zero. Nor, as we enter the countdown for a party, do we have much time to stitch together something brilliant of our own to cover the couch and a pair of equally moribund chairs.

So with little time, money or vinyl on hand, I sought counsel from three upholstery specialists: Jessica Smith, professor of fibers at the Savannah College of Art and Design; Dabney McAvoy, owner of Dabney McAvoy Home, a store and design service in Great Barrington, Mass.; and Brooke Ulrich, owner of All Things Thrifty, a home-decorating blog.

With a mix of temporary and more permanent fixes, they said, homeowners can make their upholstery passably attractive without wasting entire weekends and paychecks. As a bonus, I found that do-it-yourself reupholstering isn’t too hard, as long as you follow a few basic tips and choose a good starter project to build some skills. More on that later.

I started by approaching a chair that I bought nearly 20 years ago, and which now serves as a microfiber scratch-and-sniff catalog of all the things my children ate in the one place they weren’t allowed to. It’s unclear how many times they flipped the cushion to conceal their crimes, but I’ll set the over-under at 50.

We’ve tried scrubbing it with various detergents and spot cleaners, only to be left with soap film surrounding the stains like bull’s-eyes. For such jobs, Ulrich suggested steam cleaning, which sounded to me like overkill. But a Hoover Spot Scrubber, a mini steam cleaner that sells for $80, seemed worth a try.

Ulrich said to use it more than 24 hours before a gathering, to give fabrics time to dry, but mine needed more time because a faulty attachment spewed a cascade of cleaning solution onto the chair instead of steam.

It diminished most of the stains, at least, setting up Ulrich’s next strategy. “Put a cute little pillow on that chair, and people won’t notice anything else about it,” she said. “And put a throw blanket across the back, too.”

I picked up a $30 Ursula throw at Ikea and, to truly do this on the cheap, bought supplies to make my own pillow, including $8 worth of Benzy fabric, a $3 pillow stuffer and some iron-on fabric tape (Singer brand, $2). Ulrich suggested using Olfa 28-millimeter rotary cutters ($13) and an Olfa 12-by-18-inch cutting mat ($16), because, she said, precision cuts are crucial to making a good pillow.

The cutters sliced the fabric with astonishing ease and exactitude, but I was a little more astonished at how they sliced my finger, three times, without my noticing. Luckily, the steam cleaner was still nearby to lift the crimson stain.

When I was done, the pillow looked surprisingly good, and the chair was passable.

Next came a dining-room chair, which had a seat cushion that my wife had upholstered a few years ago and that was now badly stained. I eyed the leftover Ikea fabric, pulled out the staple gun (Arrow T50, $25) and, before I could do any real damage, reviewed Smith’s advice on reupholstering.

The best piece: “Take your time getting the old fabric off, because you’ll need that to create a pattern for the new one,” she said.

I pulled off about five staples and another 20 nails that my wife had evidently resorted to after running out of staples, and used the old seat cover as a template. I then used a diagram from Ulrich’s site to plan the stapling.

Unlike other upholstery jobs, this can be done solo, because you can pull the fabric tight with one hand and staple with the other. A tight fit is key to avoiding shoddy-looking ripples, my panelists said.

Then again, pulling too hard on the fabric can leave it in shreds. That’s less of a threat if the seat has rounded corners, like mine; for people with sharp-cornered seats, Ulrich suggested laying cotton batting over sharp edges first.

After setting the fabric in place, I blasted 50 staples into the chair because more seemed better to me. But when I turned the chair upright, I saw that I’d pulled the fabric so tight it compressed the cushion noticeably — to the point where Luca, my youngest son, deemed it “a little weird looking.”

But whatever. I had two upholstery-improvement jobs done in the span of a morning.

The biggest hurdle lay ahead: the slipcover couch. This one required at least a week’s worth of planning to tackle properly.

My first task was to visit the showroom of the manufacturer, Raymour and Flanigan, where a saleswoman whispered that I should check online before paying her “around $700” for a replacement slipcover. I did find one for a better price: $699.

Next, at McAvoy’s suggestion, I asked a saleswoman at a local fabric shop if she might know someone willing to stitch one for me. She said yes, but that it would probably cost around $500, not including roughly $200 for the fabric.

McAvoy said that if you live in a bigger city and have time to wait, you could most likely find someone willing to sew a slipcover for less.

“Or, if you want something last minute and you have some fabulous fabric, just throw it over and tuck here and there, and it’ll look great,” she said. “It has a casual look, but a little more modern and updated.”

Ulrich agreed, and said that you can slip PVC piping deep in the couch’s seams to keep the fabric in place.

I tried this with the biggest, least-expensive piece of fabric I could find: a $20 Ritva curtain set from Ikea with two panels measuring 57 by 98 inches. It wasn’t even close to big enough.

With three sets of curtains, sewing skills and some courage, I might have given it a shot. Lacking all three, I hustled for alternatives.

Two decent ones emerged. The first was SureFit, which sells elasticized fabric slipcovers for living-room furniture. I tried a pair of two-piece slipcovers for the sofa, a Stretch Suede and a Stretch Pique, each $130.

The covers conformed easily to my sofa’s dimensions, but with our fat, slightly lumpy pillow cushions, the snug fit looked bad. If I’d had more tightly stuffed cushions, or maybe if we didn’t have a sofa with a pillow back, it would have worked well. As it was, the sofa was a good fit for the playroom.

The last option was a heavy cotton slipcover from Contourelle.com. I ordered the Arizona model ($180), a semitailored single-piece slipcover big enough that I could tuck it in for a good fit. The heavy fabric concealed our couch’s lumps, and a couple of inexpensive pillows from Ikea nicely disguised the fact that this was an emergency fix costing roughly $200.

I had what looked like a new couch, a passable chair and an OK seat, all for around $250.

Sadly for my children, the Colorforms solution may now be permanently off the table. But weird upholstery? Definitely more of that coming down the pike.


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