Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Furniture is Stuffed with WHAT?

This post will serve as a bit of a quick upholstery lesson for those who may be interested. It happens quite often that some of our clients are shocked by the fact that a chair or sofa could be stuffed with straw. Most people know about horse hair, but there is a wide range of materials used to stuff upholstered pieces, and the point of this post is to just quickly explain a few of the most common ones. The stuffing materials discussed here mainly pertain to antique pieces older than 1950.

Bottom layers of stuffing:

STRAW:
By far one of the most popular stuffing materials (which has been used for centuries) is straw. When I first started working for Pierre at Lefebvre's Upholstery, I wasn't really aware of just how common it is to find straw in upholstered furniture. I had assumed that straw was mainly only used in cheaper pieces, but that isn't the case. While better pieces will have more hair or moss than straw, straw is still often used as a base layer, and can sometimes be the only stuffing material used along with some cotton.

Here is an early 1900s chair with a straw and cotton stuffed seat (the webbing and springs have been removed, and the seat pad is flipped upside down):



The advantage of straw is that it's very durable, cheap, and it was readily available. If the chair or sofa is properly maintained, it can last well over 100 years. It doesn't last forever, though, and on heavy wearing pieces, it will eventually wear itself into dust.

Disadvantages: It's messy, and a good bottom fabric must be used to prevent dust and fibres from billowing out of the chair or sofa bottom. It can also cause allergic reactions to some people from the fine dust.

Some clients prefer to have the straw replaced with foam, but in most cases, the straw is reused.

The last bit of info I want to pass along is that there IS a difference between straw and hay. They are not the same thing, and you can't use hay in upholstery.



COCONUT FIBRE:
Coconut fibre is much less common on antique pieces. Over the past year, I have seen it only once or twice, and in both cases, it was added by a later upholsterer to "fill-in" bare spots, or to add a bit of additional padding. The fibres are somewhat "crunchy" feeling, and offer a decent amount of resilience. Coconut fibre is often used in place of horsehair.

EXCELSIOR:
Excelsior is also known as "wood wool" and it was originally invented as an alternative stuffing for mattresses. It dates back to the 1840s, and it's basically thin wood shavings produced by machine. It often resembles straw, and it is found occasionally in chairs (particularly Victorian ones) in place of straw.

If you're curious, you can read about the entire history of wood wool here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_wool

MOSS:
Second to straw, the second most popular stuffing material found in antique pieces is moss. This is not the kind of moss you would find on the forest floor. The moss is actually Spanish Moss that has been treated to produce a dark curly stuffing material similar in appearance to horse hair. It is usually called "black fibre". I have seen sofas almost entirely stuffed with this material. From what I've seen, this material is very long lasting, and other than leaving a small bit of black dusty residue, I haven't really noticed any excessive wear to it, even on pieces over 100 years old.



CURLED HAIR:

Horse Hair: Horse hair is by far the best material to be found in antique upholstery, and it is usually a sign of a quality piece. The hair is a rich black, and has a very springy "plastic-y" feel. Because it was expensive, it will often be found only as a thin top layer over a cheaper stuffing (such as straw and moss), or mixed together with cheaper curled hair.

Horsehair and moss stuffing on the back of a settee:



Light Curled Hair (usually hog hair): Several other types of curled hair are also used in upholstery, and are nearly as good as horse hair. They range from nearly white, to light yellow, or brown, and are always worth reusing.

Here is a small wing chair primarily stuffed with mixed hair:



Rubberized Horse Hair: Rubberized horse hair is usually found in the form of a mat of hair cut to suitable shapes. It is simply curled hair that has been coated with a rubber material (as the name suggests). You can see an example of this hair in the 1962 Wing Chair that we worked on last year. In the photo you can see rubberized horse hair on the wings and deck.





Outer layers of stuffing:

Lastly, we have the outer-most stuffing materials, which usually consist of a layer or two of cotton or felt, or sometimes Kapok on smaller chairs. The outer layer of cotton is often covered with a thin cotton fabric (a rough cover).

COTTON:
Cotton used in upholstery is supplied in large rolls, and it is about 1" thick when not compressed. The cotton is soft and fluffy, but it contains lots of little flakes and imperfections. Older cotton tends to be more dense (from compression), and with fewer imperfections. The cotton is used over top of all previously discussed stuffing materials, and it helps to even-out any small bumps and imperfections from the layers beneath it. It is absolutely essential over curled hair, since it will prevent the hair from poking through the finish fabric. Cotton that is still in good shape is reused, but if it has become too lumpy, torn, or soiled, it is replaced.

Here you can see cotton batting being applied to the arms of a wing chair:



KAPOK: Kapok is rarely seen, but makes an appearance here and there. It is a silk-like fibre obtained from the large seed pods of the Kapok tree native to Mexico, and areas near South America. The fibers are similar to those that you would find in milkweed pods. They are used in pillows as an alternative to down, or they are compressed into a felt-like padding used on chair seats, usually Victorian occasional chairs, or dining room chairs.


EDIT: I keep receiving a lot of questions and comments from people asking for information about some of their antique pieces. It's impossible for us to help you without seeing photos. There were millions of chairs, sofas, and other various upholstered pieces made over the past few centuries, and there are too many variables to base anything on just a description. Even when we do have photos, it can still sometimes be difficult to estimate a date on a piece, especially if it doesn't follow a specific furniture style or period (Renaissance Revival, Gothic, Art Deco, etc). If you would like to make an inquiry about a piece, we'd be happy to take a look, but please realize that we will not provide any kind of appraisals or valuations, and that our information is simply our best estimate based on the style, materials used, etc. I can be contacted by following the "JC" link at the end of the post, or Pierre can be contacted here: http://lefebvresupholstery.com/site/en/contact-us/

28 comments:

  1. Is it possible to determine the age of a chair by it's seat filling? I bought a chair that is filled with a combination of cotton batting and horse or hog hair. I assumed it wasn't an old chair because it is covered in vinyl - not real leather. It's quality vinyl - but vinyl all the same. It needs re-stuffing and I would prefer a fabric seat but I don't want to ruin a quality piece of furniture with my DIY upholstering!

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    1. Hello Jill, It's difficult to date a chair simply by its stuffing, because very old chairs can have new stuffing (if the old was replaced), and likewise, newer chairs could be re-stuffed with new traditional stuffing (this is far less common). From your description, it sounds like you have a fairly old chair (a photo would help). The chair can be reupholstered in fabric without changing the original stuffing, just be sure to discuss this with your upholsterer (I'm not sure where you're located, but if you're nearby we'd be happy to help you with this project). Visit http://lefebvresupholstery.com/site/ for more details.

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  2. I am trying to determine the age of a chair that I believe has moss and straw under cotton. It had claw feet but a low back. I thought it was a Bishop Chair but because of the low back I am not sure. I don't think it is horse hair because it has like a plant feel to the hairs. Help??

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    1. Hello, moss and straw under cotton is very common on older pieces, and it was used for a long period of time. It's very difficult to date a piece just by the stuffing materials. It's usually easier to estimate a date when looking at the entire piece. What kinds of springs were used, the type of wood and joinery in the frame, the overall shape of the piece, etc.

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  3. I purchased an old chair at a thrift store recently for $7! I am trying my hand at reupholstering. During my research I found the EXACT chair on a blog that stated it was from the 19th century. I have removed the fabric. It looks like the original fabric was covered up when it was last reupholstered. The stuffing material looks like cotton batting and curly horse hair. The seat/back are actually stuffed channels and then stapled on to frame. I was planning on making it one solid piece with out channels (not using any of the current stuffing materials of fabric). Any suggestions or comments would be greatly appreciated!

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  4. wondering how to post a pic here.....

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  5. I have a child's platform rocker with padded seats, arms and back. I believe the stuffing is cotton and straw. Can I send a pic? I would love to know it's age and anything else you can tell me. What would it sell for (in case I go that route).

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  6. Hi I'm doing some research for a project, was wondering if you could tell me what stuffing was most common in upscale 19th century furniture please? In particular in chairs, any help would be greatly appreciated.

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    1. Hello Bethan, It depends on the company, and on the quality of the piece. If you're talking about only high-end pieces, the larger upholstered items tend to have mainly moss (as the base), black horse hair (middle layer), and cotton over the top (top layer). For an example of this, you can take a quick look at "Wonderful Antique Sofa - Bold Orange & Dark Navy Print" (March 2 2014), however, the padding wasn't really shown in the photos. On even higher quality pieces, the stuffing can be entirely horse hair, with cotton over the top.

      When you mention "chairs" it's harder to give you an answer without knowing exactly what type of chair you mean. A high quality Victorian arm chair with a tufted back would have the same kind of treatment (moss or straw, hair, & cotton), with mostly hair used on the back. For an example check out the seat on "Antique Arm Chair - Light Blue (Project of the Month July 2014) " (Jan 3 2015).

      If you mean something like a plain dining room chair with a flat seat, then it may just be a thin layer of straw, with a good amount of cotton over it, and nothing else.

      On something like a Chippendale upholstered dining room chair (with a square seat), it would have a double stuffed seat: webbing, a base of either straw or curled hair, hand stitching (to form an edge roll), a second stuffing layer (more hair or straw), followed by cotton, a rough cover, and the finish fabric. The treatment would be nearly identical to the chair in the link above. Hope this helps.

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  7. Thanks so much, your knowledge is impressive! Sorry, I should have been more specific about the chair, but never the less, your answer has really helped.

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  8. Any possibility of dating a chair if I email or send you a picture?

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  9. Hi JC,

    I have an old divan with horsehair on it I would like to reupholster it with the same material, how much in kilograms I will need for the following measurements: base w140cm by h65cm and the back support w50cm by h65cm?

    Segards

    Sara

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    1. Hi Sara, I'm not exactly sure how to help you with your sofa. If it already has horsehair on it, then you should definitely keep it and reuse it. We never replace horsehair unless our client specifically wants it removed. We also don't carry horsehair, so I've never had to estimate how much to use for a particular piece. Horsehair is very expensive (about 30-40$ per pound), and for a whole new piece, it could easily cost about 1000$ in new hair. This all depends on the style of the piece, and how much hair is used in the stuffing and foundation. Even if I had a photo of your sofa, I'd only be guessing.

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  10. A church in Toronto I attended years ago had pews with horsehair stuffed cushions. The cushions were made in 1939 but only because a year before there was a fire that destroyed most of the building. All the pews were replaced (the original were solid Walnut) and in a cost saving measure the horse hair was removed from the old cushions, cleaned and re-inserted into the (then) new cushions. ($1000, 1939 dollars were saved doing this) The original horse hair stuffed cushions were made in 1875 and after 141 years use and a devastating fire the horse hair is acknowledged to be good as new and not one hair has been known to ever penetrate the 1939 cushion top. I have no reason to doubt they'll be much worse for wear when they're 200 years old. A quality purchase made in 1875 is still paying dividends for this church to this day

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  11. I purchased a small bench from Habitat Restore that has a seat with burlap straps holding in horsehair filling. The cotton on top had disintegrated. I am wondering about simply replacing the horsehair and cotton, but would I devalue the piece? The bench is wonderfully crafted and obliviously a quality piece. Thank you for your expertise!
    Colleen

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  12. I have a sofa , purchased at a used store, for $100. It has horse hair cushions, but the fabric is parcially redone. I wondered when it was first made. It has beautiful cut out walnut wood as a frame. If I sold it, & it is in good condition,how much can I charge for it?

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  13. Hi JC, great blog. I have an arm chair more than seventy years old. Beautiful but cushion in severely sunk on one side and the stuffing is shedding from the underside. No experience, but I want recover it myself, but the stuffing is making me itch. I live in an apartment so i can only work on it in the corner of my bedroom where its been sitting for a few years now. Any suggestions. It has a great frame. Would like to save it if possible. Cant afford to send it out. Thank in advance for your respone! :-)

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    1. There's a fairly steep learning curve when working on antique pieces. Learning to tie springs, applying burlap, and hand-stitching can all be challenging. It can definitely be done, but I would suggest watching several online video tutorials. The stuffing may itch simply because it's releasing a lot of fine dust. Try to have ventilation, or if possible, wait until the spring/summer and work on it outdoors (in the parking lot or on the balcony) at least for just the base stuffing and rough covers. Sorry for the late response.

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  14. Hi JC- Very informative blog so I hope you can help me. I tried re-cover an antique pianola stool but there were so many tacks and nails in it that there was no room for any more. So I took the previous cover off and found 3 more covers underneath and also the original stuffing. I am not sure what it is made of. It is brown and quite hard but very dusty and crumbly and I don't think I can re-use it. Is it ok to replace it with HD foam before putting on the new cover?
    Thanks

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    1. It's very common to find stools and small chairs where the upholstery has been layered on like an onion, instead of having it removed and upholstered correctly. All the old tacks and staples, and all the previous covers need to be removed. From your description I am not too sure what the stuffing material was. It sounds like it could be a type of felt/cotton blend. We sometimes keep this if it's still in decent shape, and we'll add fresh cotton to it, OR we replace it with a foam.

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  15. Hello,
    I live in Germany and recently had a neighbor set an old chair out by his garbage. I quickly ran over and grabbed it with the hopes of reupholstering it. The neighbor stopped by and said the chair had been sitting in his shed for ages and he had gotten it from an old man, so it could potentially be very old. Today I started to take the fabric off, and found it was filled with straw or hay or something. It also has metal springs inside the back and a metal type of wiring underneath. Is there any way I can send you pictures of the chair to get a little more information? This chair is very unique looking and my mom and I have never seen anything like it!
    Thank you, Megan

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    1. You can try sending photos to myself or Pierre. I've added a note at the bottom of the original post.

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  16. My daughter recently purchased a french provincial three piece sofa. The tag says Body rubberized hair pad. Horse Hair 15 percent; Hogs hair 85 percent; shredded latex foam rubber 20 percent, blended cotton felt 50 percent. We are just trying to figure out when this piece may have been made. The tag says New York in several places, but with the exception of where it states the furniture is in compliance with certain acts dated 1923, 1926 and 1929, there is no other identifying names or years. Any ideas?

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    1. Normally when there are tags with several dates, you can somewhat safely assume that the piece was made within a few years after the most recent date. If the last date on your sofa is 1929, I'd say that it was likely made in the early 1930s. There are of course exceptions, and without a photo, this is the best info I can provide. The fact that is says rubberized hair makes me think it could be slightly later.

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  17. I just purchase a loveseat that appears to be very old. It very dark wood and the cloth is somewhat a large paisley print. It is padded with what appears to be coconut fiber and it has springs that are connected to a metal bar underneath. I was wondering if you could tell approximately the age of it.

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    1. It's impossible to estimate any kind of date without a photo.

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  18. Hi there. I've just posted elsewhere for information on dating an oak dining set from the Victoriaville Furniture Co. Here's the link: http://ths.gardenweb.com/discussions/4740802/m=23/help-in-dating-an-oak-dining-set-with-grass-in-seat-padding

    Curious to hear your thoughts!

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    1. Hi Mz. Whitney, it looks as though you already have a pretty good idea of the date from your research (1903-1920). A date of around 1910-1920 seems perfectly within range based on the wood used, and the style. The leather seats with thin padding (probably excelsior) over a feathered-edge plywood (or solid board) is typical of the early 1900s. These sometimes have just a thin layer of felt or cotton instead. The padding can be added-to (with something like cotton) or a newer foam can be used. The set looks quite nice, but it isn't a valuable antique, so stripping and refinishing it shouldn't be a problem. I'd suggest sticking with leather or black vinyl to match the period style, but any decent fabric would also look nice.

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