Over the centuries, fashions have changed and interior design along with it. One of the biggest features in a room, prior to minimalism, is the choice of textile – more precisely, the upholstery of central pieces of furniture. Therefore many chairs, settees and cabinets have been altered to fit with fashion over time, whether this is the swirling baroque silks of the 18th century or the minimalist tones of modern day. In some cases, upholstery has been replaced simply due to wear and tear, or has been left in a deteriorating state in storage. The most sought after and valuable pieces will be those which retain their original fabric in good condition, making the care of historic or contemporary upholstery extremely important for both their cultural and monetary significance.
Above: a selection of upholstered chairs including a womb chair with ottoman from the 1940s, a William and Mary era armchair, and a late 18th century side chair with embroidered silk satin
The key points to remember when caring for antique or high value upholstery include knowledge of the surrounding environment, such as the temperature and humidity levels. Depending on the historic importance of the piece, it may be a case of maintaining a museum level atmosphere for safe keeping. For everyday pieces of furniture which may be used by yourself, friends and family, simple but effective methods can be used in preventing any avoidable damages or decay. We hope that this article will enlighten you on the topic of caring for your upholstered furniture and similar items which may face the same challenges.
Above: a detail of contemporary upholstery fabric
Cleaning upholstery with sensitive methods
An everyday piece of furniture which is in need of sensitive care due to value or artistic significance can be treated at home or, if required, by our professional conservators. If upholstery appears to be damaged, stained, or in a state of deterioration, it is important to have this assessed and restored before attempting any cleaning methods at home.
Above: a contemporary sofa with an upholstered cushion seat
Upholstery requires the same routine of cleaning as any other surface, as a build up of dust and debris could begin to otherwise distress the fabric – this is especially the case in gaps between the arms or back of a chair or settee. A light amount of dusting, as well as a gentle level of vacuuming, can help to keep on top of dust build-up. If the fabric is historic, use a very low setting on the vacuum or stick to hand-dusting to avoid disruption to the surface. You can use a dry and soft brush to push dust out of the crevices and towards a vacuum.
For stable historic and modern upholstery, keep the vacuum a little back from the fabric itself to avoid suction marks. To prevent the hose of the vacuum bringing up the textile or swallowing details such as buttons, put a soft mesh over the nozzle, if possible. Dusting regularly will also help to prevent the attraction of insects – especially moths – which could go on to cause a vast amount of damage.
Above: a detail from a tapestry seat cover on an 18th century chair – this would be an extremely sensitive surface due to age and delicate details
If cushions or seat pads are taken out to be dusted or cleaned, take care in their replacement back into the frame of the seat or item, as too much force might damage the interior of the upholstery or put pressure on the beginnings of historic deterioration. For an added level of care, you may want to cover the original upholstery with a clean throw or seat cover. As long as this is loose and stable fabric which does not put pressure on any elements, this may be a helpful way to avoid the build up of dust. However, the original fabric and crevices should still be checked regularly for any issues or cleaning requirements.
Above: an 18th century chair and settee being used by their original owners in a domestic family portrait
Wet cleaning methods should be completely avoided unless performed in a professional environment with specialist skills and equipment. The build up of moisture within a cushion or the upholstery itself, could lead to decay and rot which develops over time. If historic or highly valuable upholstery encounters a spillage or stain, this should be treated by a trained textile or furniture conservator.
Safe environments for upholstery
Textiles are sensitive to light, humidity and heat. Therefore, the correct environment will have these measured and even with little to no fluctuation. A good atmosphere will avoid the occurrence of mould, shrinkage, discoloration, decay and fading.
Above: a modern sofa fully covered in upholstery fabric
Firstly, the ideal humidity should be around 50%, which often means placing important pieces away from environments such as bathrooms and kitchens. A stable level of humidity will help to avoid the damage caused by mould spores and rot, which could be attracted to the fibres or organic nature of dyes. Mould is encouraged by high humidity, whilst brittle deterioration can be caused by a dry atmosphere, which is why an even level is important.
The temperature in a room should avoid too much fluctuation, as this causes certain materials – such as textiles and wood – to expand and contract as they experience different levels of heat and moisture in the air. High heat can actually exacerbate any natural decay which occurs due to age, or even in modern fabrics with synthetic fibres. The ideal stable temperature for a room is around 20 degrees celsius. To keep this even, it is recommended that fine furniture is kept away from radiators or heating elements in a home.
Above: a neoclassical settee which could be vulnerable to any discolouration or staining becoming an eyesore to the smooth red design
Finally, the lighting of a room is important when avoiding damage from UV rays and indoor lighting. Sunlight and artificial light can fade many types of dye over time, both organic and synthetic colours can perish under strong light conditions. Some colours fade faster than others, leaving an uneven pattern, or upholstery with one side more exposed than the other may face discolouration on just half of the design. Lights may also encourage bright white cottons and linens to turn brown and become brittle. In many cases, fading is not easily restored and can be difficult to reverse – this is why it is vital to keep control of light levels. For very important pieces of furniture, light levels should not go beyond 50 LUX or they should be kept in the dark entirely. For high value or historic pieces which have everyday use, ensure that sunlight is not falling directly upon their surface and look into light protection in the form of UV proofing window seals or light bulbs with a low output.
Above: a peacock tapestry before and after restoration by our team
How can we help?
If you have a piece of furniture which has faced damage or appears to be in stages of deterioration, please contact our helpful team. Our conservators work with both furniture and textiles, so the piece can be assessed as a whole for conservation treatment.
To make contact please email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576