How Much Fabric Do You Need?

Martha Stewart Living, September 2000

There's a little bit of treasure hunter in each of us. It's the part that can look at a tired old chair, rescued from a tag sale or dusty attic, and see its hidden potential. Though it may look faded, moldy, and out of style, sometimes all that's needed to revitalize a solid, good-quality piece of furniture is simple reupholstering.

For any reupholstering project, your most important task will be choosing fabric -- you must determine not only the style of the material, but also how much of it you'll need. Determining fabric amounts is tricky, so it's essential to consult a professional before you make a purchase. But it's nice to be able to make at least a rough estimate, and to understand the factors involved -- the shape of the piece, the pattern of the cloth, any extras such as a skirt or welting -- before diving into a project. Since upholstery fabrics cost from about $20 to $250 per yard or more, knowing approximately how much you'll need before you make a choice is helpful.

Even if you're comfortable with your own estimating ability, it's worth getting a professional opinion: Give your upholsterer a few snapshots of the piece, along with basic measurements. Easier than loading your armchair into the car and driving it to the shop, this will give you peace of mind before investing in fabric.

An average club chair, for example, requires about 6 1/2 yards of fabric. Keep in mind, however, that this is a guideline, not a rule. Many factors -- including the fabric's pattern, the upholsterer's work style, and variations in individual pieces of furniture -- can influence the yardage. "I did a club chair recently that took 11 yards, it was so big and bulky," says upholsterer Tony Totillo. Totillo provided the estimates here, based on 54-inch-wide fabric with a short repeat.

Totillo also provided estimates for sofas, based on 54-inch-wide fabric and assuming that the sofas are a standard 6-foot length. Many sofas, especially modern ones, are longer than this standard. Whatever the length, all sofas are some variation on these five classic styles. Specific design details unique to your sofa may influence yardage.

Choosing a Fabric
When shopping for fabric, you'll find a tremendous variety of sizes, patterns, and materials -- all factors that will affect how much you need.

Fabric Width
The most common width for upholstery fabric today in the United States is 54 inches; however, 48-inch-wide fabric is found both here and in Great Britain, and 40- and 42-inch widths are standard for many imported fabrics, like Indian silks. Other fabrics, such as garment textiles (less often used in upholstery), may be wider: Oxford cloth and gingham are frequently sold in 60- and 72-inch widths. If you can, choose 54-inch-wide fabric. It produces the least cutting waste, and upholsterers' yardage estimates assume this width.

Pattern Solid fabrics are the simplest to work with: Stripes, plaids, and other patterns must be matched at the seams to be consistent. Though this can be tricky for the upholsterer, a smaller stripe or plaid that is evenly spaced should not cause much cutting waste, so you shouldn't need to allow for extra fabric. If you want welting -- the cord that covers the seams -- from the same fabric, you'll need a lot more. "Welting on a chair with a striped or plaid fabric automatically adds an extra yard and a half," says upholsterer Carl Dellatore, owner of the D&F Workroom in New York City. "Welting is always cut on the bias -- a diagonal -- so it lies smoothly. Often, you can cheat a little and get welting from cutting excess, but a stripe or plaid won't look right unless it is cut on a complete bias." Some people choose a solid fabric for welting that complements their patterned piece. This makes the work simpler and usually saves money, since solids are generally less expensive than patterns.

Repeat Some patterns will require extra yardage. "If you have a bouquet pattern with an 18-inch repeat, that means it will be 18 inches before you hit the next, identical bouquet," says Dellatore. "To center the bouquet on the seat of a chair, on the back, and on the skirt, you'll need to cut away excess fabric and fit the pattern correctly." Some patterns have very small repeats, 3 inches or less; others are as large as 54 inches. "In general, an 18-inch repeat means you'll need about 20 percent more fabric; a 27-inch repeat, 40 percent more," says Dellatore.

If You Run Out of Fabric:
Never skimp on fabric and assume you will be able to go back to the store and buy more if necessary. This might seem like smart shopping, but it's not: Never expect to get an exact fabric match the second time around. "Dye lots change overnight," warns upholsterer Carl Dellatore. "You might buy an extra yard of fabric that looks the same, but if the dye is slightly different, it won't match the rest of the fabric."

If you end up just a bit short of fabric, your upholsterer might be able to make it work by "cheating" a little in hidden places. One method is to use a false platform -- the fabric that covers the seat of the chair beneath the cushion. Since it doesn't show, it can be made from a cheaper, solid fabric rather than from the same fabric as the rest of the chair. Another option is to use what are called pulling strips or stretchers: There are a few hidden inches of material where the pieces covering the arms and back are pulled taut and tacked onto the chair frame. Strips of less expensive but sturdy fabric can be used for the hidden portions. If all the options are exhausted, however, and there still isn't enough fabric, you'll have no choice but to scrap the original material and start over.

Slipcovers are even less forgiving, since they don't offer hidden places for the upholsterer to cheat. You have to account for tucking at the edges, as well, so it's wise to add an extra yard of fabric for a chair, and about two extra yards for a sofa. It's better to err on the side of excess; as Dellatore says, "You can always make a couple of throw pillows."

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