One of my favorite things about teaching upholstery is de-mystifying some aspect of the craft for an eager student. A process that continually stumps new students is how a piece of fabric is attached to the back of a chair or sofa without a single unfinished edge of fabric showing; all four sides of the back panel folded neatly under and mysteriously attached on the inside.
Back in the dark ages of upholstery, hand stitching would have been the only way to bring two fabric pieces together in a neat, folded, finished edge. Hand stitching is still used today for silks and delicate fabrics, as well as on unusually shaped furniture. But for durable upholstery fabrics, there’s a handy material that makes attaching fabric panels much easier. It’s called ply-grip and it’s used to grab, clamp down and hold fabric in place where the fabric edges need to be neatly folded under and attached.
Ply-grip is a cleated, bendable metal strip that’s attached with staples along curved or straight edges. After it’s stapled in place, fabric is carefully measured and cut that just enough will roll over the top and fit right into the bent strip, get ‘caught’ on the cleats and then pounded closed using a rubber mallet. This holds the fabric tight while enclosing the cut edges of the fabric.
Let’s finish this chair right now.
Here’s what you need:
- staple gun and staples
- cardboard tack strip
- seam guage or ruler
- long needle or flat head screwdriver
- rubber mallet (with sock to cover it)
One thing that needs to be said before continuing is that every upholsterer does things differently. The way I finish the outside edges of the back of a chair could very well be different than the shop down the street. The only thing that really matters is that the finished piece is well done and looks impeccable. In between those two points are many different methods of upholstery.
1. A piece of fabric needs to be cut approximately 3-4 inches larger all around than the back of the chair.
2. Make sure the top of the fabric will be at the top of the chair after the fabric is flipped over and attached to the back of the chair. (All fabric has a top and bottom to it. The fabric will look lighter or have more shine when looking at it from top to bottom. From bottom to top, it will appear darker.)
3. Flip the the fabric over the inside back of the chair so that the cut edge of the wrong side comes down beyond the cord at least 1/2″.
4. Use cardboard tack strip to push the fabric up against the cording. Secure the outside back fabric with staples at a diagonal all the way across to within an inch of each top corner.
*Note: You may have to adjust the fabric under the cardboard tack strip so that when flipped over, the back piece is attached, aligned and smooths down over the back of the chair.
Cut and attach a piece of muslin and dacron batting to cover and ‘close in’ the inside back. Don’t attach the dacron on the sides until the ply-grip is attached.
5. Here comes the fun part. Ply-grip is a bendable piece of metal strip that is attached down the sides or around curves. It has sharp, little teeth that grab the fabric, but can also grab your skin, so be careful when using it.
It is cut to length with wire cutters or metal cutters, attached with staples through little holes in the metal tab. The open side of the strip should be attached facing outward with the stapled edge just barely inside the cord, or when you don’t have cord, just inside the corner edge of the frame. See the picture below.
6. After the ply-grip is attached, take the dull end of something and push the open tabs down so that the opening of the entire strip is bent to a 45 degree angle.
7. Flip the fabric down over the back of the chair. Attach a staple at the center bottom of the chair to hold the back fabric. Gently pull the sides of the back fabric over the ply-grip and use a piece of chalk to run down the fabric right where you feel the edge of the ply-grip underneath. Next, measure out 1/2″ from that chalked line and cut off the excess fabric from both sides of your back fabric.
This will give you enough fabric to roll around inside that open ply-grip and hook on those cleats.
8. Use a long needle or flat head screwdriver to fold both edges into the open ply-grip. You may want to help it onto the cleats every so many inches.
9. Use your hands to pinch the ply-grip down over the fabric before using the rubber mallet. Make any adjustments right here.
10. Once you get both edges tucked into the ply-grip, take a rubber mallet and gently, but firmly, pound the ply-grip closed so that it pinches and holds the fabric sides. I normally put a sock on top of that black mallet so it doesn’t mark the fabric. I took it off so you could see the mallet.
The best motion is to pound it from the inside out towards the cording.
11. When you’ve got the back secured at both sides, you need to remove the bottom anchor staple and firmly pull and secure the back piece to the under side of the bottom rail.
Now that the outside back is attached and looking fine, you need to add a long piece of welt cord all around the bottom edge of your chair. After that, cut a piece of remnant fabric or upholsterer’s cambric 1″ larger than the chair bottom, place it on the bottom of the chair, fold the edge under and staple it in place.
*I like to insert a little time capsule inside the chair somewhere for the brave soul who decides to reupholster this chair years from now.
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