Iron Back Chair Challenge!

Commission, Construction, Homeware, Textile work

Sometime last year I left my card at a few fabric shops around my area and promptly forgot about them but I received a call from a lovely lady called Gillian asking about upholstery services!

I know, my sewing of seeds worked! Of course I said yes and she dropped her lovely chair over a few weeks later – a beautiful bedroom chair, low and elegant, in a green velvet which had lived in her mother’s sitting room for as long as she can remember. Now it has come to her and she wants to put her own stamp on it and make it fit with her interior.

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I couldn’t wait to strip it and see what I was working with!

I’m not going to lie, there were lots and lots of layers and lots and lots of stitching – it took ages but I eventually got there and look what I revealed…

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Now, I had never heard of an iron back chair before but apparently they were very popular in the Victorian period as they could create elegant shapes with a lighted material – makes sense…

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I found this illustration in my upholstery book and quizzed Lisa Johns which helped a lot but I couldn’t visualise how it was all going to work in my head. So I started with what I did know, the seat…

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Hessian and webbing straps – it felt weird stitching the hessian rather than tacking it…this feeling would not go away further down the line!

Springs sewn into place and covered with hessian – hello lovely tacks!

Hairy monster chair and Christmas cake chair stages done but the seat needed more padding as the firm springs could still be felt through the horsehair…

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I cut up some left over upholstery foam sheet into sections and lay them on top of each other, small to big and the topped that off with a piece of wadding recovered from the original upholstery to smooth it all out. Stretch over another piece of calico and Bob’s your Uncle, seat finished and super comfy!

Now time to tackle the back. This had been keeping me up at nights because I still could not get the idea straight in my head of how to achieve this elegant, curvy chair with such a narrow rigid base. I’d done my research and ordered what I thought would do the job but, due to the unforeseen circumstances of COVID-19, it did not arrive so I made it myself. Basically a draft excluder – calico stuffed with wadding, I mean really stuffed, and then stitched to the edge…

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It was good but not perfect – the delivery came in the end but was completely not what I had expected – sort of like newspaper wrapped really tightly and tied. But I thought it might help stop my wadding snake from peeling around to the back of the chair so I stitched it around the back edge of the chair…

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And covered the whole thing in horsehair and calico – this was tricky and time consuming but I think it really helped to create the silhouette I needed…

Now, I could start filling the centre back with horsehair. The original upholstery had been done in sections, presumably to make it easier to stretch and tension the filling as it is an odd shape to fill…

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So I started with the bottom and worked my way up and around with horsehair and calico, trying to pin and stretch and then sew the sections up…

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It may not be traditionally 100% accurate but I am learning as I go so I hope it will all come out ok…at least the horsehair is sturdy and held in place, and I still have a lot more layers to add!

First, the horsehair around the edges of the back and filling the gap in the middle…

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I just had enough horsehair to finish the chair!! Super lucky!

Next the lint and wadding layers…

This all then needed to be covered and stretched by calico – I tried just putting a rectangle of fabric over the top and cutting and folding it flat but in the end I decided to take it off and follow the pattern pieces from the original upholstery. This took a bit longer but hopefully this will give a smoother finish.

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This was so much easier to stretch around the rolled edge, pin and allow the calico to stretch, but I needed to add a few sections of calico where the seams join as there wasn’t quite enough to reach around the rolled edge…

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This really helped getting a smooth finish – a few more stretches and pins and the chair will be all ready for the top fabric!

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I can’t believe how similar it looks to the original, once i’d tidied up the edges and stitched the top calico to the base.

Now came the fun bit – Gillian had found her chosen fabric in the John Lewis sale and had it delivered to me, easy peasy! It’s a gorgeous linen and polyester blend of painted flowers, very sturdy and durable. She wanted me to pick out as much for the pink as possible but left much of the design to me.

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I started with the seat and got used to the smoothing and pleating technique which I would have to use for the rest of the chair due to the thickness of the fabric.

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I then moved on to the centre back panel and spent a lot of time making sure it was central and figuring out where the seams needed to be and pleating the excess at the back – which looks fab!

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I’m now thinking it would be pretty to have these pleats on show, so not having the backing fabric coming up over the sides, as it did in the original upholstery, but being flush with the base of the chair. We shall see!

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Next, came the arms – tricky due to the curve of the frame and also the seam which I needed to hand sew…

Fiddly but worth it not to have to take the whole thing off and machine the seams – I couldn’t quite stitch all the way down to the seat of the chair but since I could tension the fabric I didn’t think it would matter too much!

I tried to pattern match the fabric in terms of the colours that sat next to each other on the seams, nothing too precise as the fabric is so random it would not be noticeable, but I wanted the colours to flow as smoothly as possible.

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Once the seams were stitched I could gently pull the fabric tight to remove the slight creases in the centre front of the chair. Pleating the arms was also time consuming but oh so satisfying when finished…

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I needed to cut a lot of the excess away and work slowly to make sure that all the pleats were secured before moving onto the next one.

I then pinned the cut offs to the back of the chair and worked out where I wanted the seams to go, taking time to cut into the excess to get a smooth turn over. I love the finished effect and showing off the pleats turns this Victorian piece of furniture into a piece of modern art!

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All that was left to do was curl the back fabric under and cover the base with some black fabric and…tada!

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Gillian loves her revamped chair, and is even thinking about upgrading it from a bedroom chair to a living room chair! This is what I love most about commission work, it is so rewarding to feel like you have created a beautiful piece, be it furniture or fashion, that takes a place in someone’s life and turn something old and preloved into a cherished item.

 

 

 

 

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