The opera company I work for maintains a warehouse of props and furniture, and just like at home, the amount of incoming stuff exceeded the available space decades ago. So every few years there's a small purge of stuff that is damaged, over-stocked or unlikely to ever be used again.
This spring's discards included this Victorian "slipper" chair, which is a nice piece of 19th c. furniture, but in the 30 years I've been with the company has never once
made it onstage. (The problem is that it's about 4 inches shorter than normal - these chairs were meant for ladies in wide skirts to perch on while putting on their shoes and admiring their dainty feet - and is too awkward for performers to sit on onstage.) I've always liked this chair, in spite of the 1980s dusty rose velvet, but it isn't something I'd have in my own home even if I had room for it. But my friend Jaene has just moved into a new apartment and is setting up a second bedroom as her "bellydance cave". If anyone could sit on a chair like this gracefully, it would be a bellydancer, so I claimed it from the give-away pile and re-upholstered it as a house-warming gift.
I like the combination of antique furniture and very contemporary fabric, and when I found this psychedelic print I knew it would be perfect. It was only a cotton broadcloth, though, so not really sturdy enough for upholstery. I got around that problem by quilting it into a backing fabric, which also gave it a bit of added dimensionality.
Reupholstering a piece of antique furniture is a bit like renovating an old house - you never know what you're going to find when you start stripping it down. Sure enough, although the sprung seat had been replaced with the plywood and foam rubber I expected to see in a prop chair, the back still retained its original buttoned horsehair upholstery, buried under a layer of foam. The horsehair fabric was disintegrating, so it had to be removed, but beneath it the stuffing of horsehair and sisal, and even most of the of burlap covering it, was still perfectly sound. (Victorian furniture was often upholstered in woven horsehair fabric, which was extremely durable and easy to care for. But although the horsehair is usually still as glossy and strong as it was 150 years ago, the cotton warp thread it was woven with has a much shorter lifespan and is usually disintegrated to dust.)
I was afraid the frame might be in worse condition than it seemed (sometimes the upholstery is what's actually holding a chair together) but it only needed a bit of glue and clamping for some loose joints and it was good to go. I removed the back padding to tighten up the webbing, but there was no reason to replace either.
Ironically, my job usually involves removing spring from antique furniture and replacing them with foam and plywood (theatrical furniture may look luxuriously padded, but it usually has to be hard enough to stand on), but in this case I had to do the opposite. Only the original springs could give the necessary height to the seat and still make it be comfortable.
First, a layer of webbing has to be stretched across the underside of the seat.
Next, the individual springs are stitched onto the webbing and tied to each other and the frame in a way that locks them together and forms the shape of the seat.
When it's firm enough, a covering of burlap, a layer of firm foam rubber (this would originally have been more horsehair padding), some polyester batting and a final covering of unbleached cotton gives it a proper shape. The back is much easier, as it just needed to have the original button-pockets in the horsehair filled in and covered with a layer of polyester batting.
The last step - and often the easiest - is actually attaching the covering fabric. I like to pin the fabric in place with metal push-pins first (especially when it has a bold pattern like this) until everything is straight, tautly-stretched and even. Only then
do I staple it down and trim off the excess.
Finally, and I don't have photos of it - all the stapled edges were covered with double welting that I sewed from the black-and-white checked part of the fabric. The Tim Burton-ish look it added was my favourite part of the chair!
The entire process took about three days. Stripping the old upholstery took at least a day, the webbing and springs most of another, and the final upholstery the remaining day.