I’ve just finished an exhausting and utterly dissatisfying search for new couches. I’d call it a big waste of time except that I learned one important thing — it’s the perfect time to reupholster furniture instead of buying new.
I needed new couches for my upstairs den, in the room where we stream shows and movies. It’s our less formal living room and one where I lounge when watching tube. At the end of a day my tired bones, worn out from former years as a modern dancer, go full horizontal, craving comfort, relaxation, and length for my tall frame.
The couch that I have was a second-hand purchase a few years ago. I got it mainly for how long it was. I also liked the upholstery, which is akin to 18th century handwoven overshot geometric coverlets. This brought a simpler, rustic look to the 18th century decor upstairs. In fact the couch may have come from 1960s furnishings in Colonial Williamsburg hotel properties.
Problem is that within a few years its age and inferior foam made for a soft and squishy lie-down, and my bad back hated that!
The other couch in that room is an 18th-century style camelback with silk damask upholstery and a single down cushion. It didn’t really need recovering as immediately, though it would be ready soon since it has a few stains.
So after months of my moaning, groaning, and nightly complaints of pain, my husband Erik wanted to get me a new couch to shut me up. I mean to help me feel better! 😉
So off we went to search.
Problems With New Furniture Shopping Today
If you think supply chain problems are bad, just try shopping at furniture stores right now.
We spent many nights and weekends scouring local and regional places, along with the Internet, in search of a couch. Furniture shops were nearly bare as retailers sold directly off the floor, often having very little showroom inventory from which to order a custom couch.
But if we did want to order? Six months wait seemed to be the minimum, with up to 18-months wait a distinct possibility.
My back wasn’t having that.
Prices also skewed upward for any orders, reflective of inflation, limited fabric and foam stock, shipping, and added fees.
As it is, buying a serious couch that you expect to last is no small purchase. $1200 seems to be a very low bottom price for acceptable quality bought right off the showroom floor as is.
Depending on size, fabric, firmness, other materials, trim, and any customizations, couches land around $2,000 to start and upwards to $5,000 on average, and much more depending on other factors.
But right now, there’s still that colossal wait and a whole lot of unpredictability.
Slow Furniture the Right Way
Then it dawned on me that in 2019 I had my treasured 19th century Duncan Phyfe gooseneck couch both rebuilt and reupholstered.
The salmon-colored velvet gooseneck had been damaged by some burly high school football players who flopped on it without considering that their girth and its delicacy were incompatible.
But it was a very sentimental couch to me as it was among the first antiques I ever bought when I was a single mom years ago. Every year for a few years back then, I had the couch hauled out of my living room and outside, around to different photo-worthy places — a kudzu field, a garden at the University of Virginia — and had my daughters’ photo portraits done on it. Clearly this couch had to be saved!
So I had the whole thing stripped to the bones, with the body shored up and the legs reinforced, and the undercarriage springs re-tied. At the same time I went from the three horsehair cushions that had likely been redone in the 1920s, to one down cushion, and two end bolsters, all in a simple teal linen.
The price tag back then was $1600 — a tad bit cheaper than most new couches. The rebuilding and reupholstery process only took a few weeks. I was excited to preserve a historic piece of furniture and a sentimental family heirloom. And not everyone will be motivated by this last thing, but to me it was also environmentally conscious to fix and re-use rather than buy new.
So why hadn’t I thought of this for my Williamsburg couch?
Actually I had thrown the idea out there to Erik. But since that couch wasn’t sentimental, nor did it seem very valuable on its own, we figured why bother? And of course we assumed buying new would be a breeze.
The other problem we faced is that we have an older home — 1910 — with doorways that are narrower than many of the Supersize Me couch styles available today. The only ones that we saw that would fit into our old house’s doorways were all Mid-Century Modern.
Now, I love Mid-Century Modern. I’d have a ball doing that style in every room of a dream vacation home. But our interior is essentially 18th-Century Southern traditional style. The Mid-Century style couches I saw were neither particularly worthy of flopping comfortably at night nor the look I wanted.
So after more disappointments while shopping than I care to admit, including at antique stores, most of which had very few if any couches, reupholstery started looking better and better.
I called in some of my regular guys for estimates, including some alterations I wanted. For my Williamsburg hotel I decided to go to one cushion for the seat (I simply don’t like triple cushion couches), and to not do back cushions. Instead I wanted to build out the back a bit and raise it a tad, and do buttons on the one cushion. I also removed the skirt to instead show the Mid-Century style legs — just a hint of modern mixed with traditional.
To my delight the estimate was well under what we were looking at in new couches. And the time frame was awesome — a few weeks!
In fact the cost was so amenable that I suggested to Erik that we just up and do the camel back at the same time and really freshen up our nighttime den.
This led me to comb through my own fabric collection to find fabrics I’d like. I settled on a blue and off white version of “Treille,” an out-of-print upholstery linen by Clarence House’s somewhat new Hill Brown Division. I carry a lovely and mellow seedless watermelon colorway of the same fabric in my shop.
For the camelback I decided on Hill Brown’s “Nan King” chinoiserie. I have 15 yards of that currently available on Etsy.
So here’s the pics. I’m thrilled that we were well under our expected budget for this project, and with a new super-firm cushion for my poor aching back! I will also blog about the re-do of my chairs in a stunning 1950s Brunschwig & Fils handprinted fabric called “French Gladiola.” And I sent my other camelback couch in, too…so come back to see that.
One thing that can shock people is that re-upholstery can add up. Between fabric, any changes, new filler, trim, and labor, the bottom line is that it is still a big project if you don’t already have the DIY skills (which are much more complicated for a couch than a dining room chair or simple stool).
But in a time of COVID, and in a time of both environmental and economic strain, there are notable advantages to fixing up your old couches, chairs, and settees:
- Preserve furniture with lines and shapes you already like and that you know fit your room.
- Preserve sentimental furniture.
- Customize to your heart’s content and follow along as the project unfolds.
- Create a piece that tells your own story.
- Get it for a reasonable price that’s often less than new.
- Get it done faster.
- Go local — support tradesmen in your community instead of sending your cash to big corporations.
- Re-use instead of buying new to be kind to Mother Earth.
If you’re ready to refresh your furniture and yet want to preserve what you’ve got, there’s no better time than now to shift your thinking from “it must be new” to “I’m giving my furniture a whole new look!”
Your pocketbook, timeline, and personal creativity will thank you!
— Lady Virginia