Sometimes when I’m out shopping at flea markets, I can’t help but feel my “motherly nurturing” side kick in. You know, you see an item that could be really cute, but it needs a little (or a lot) of TLC to get it back to a positive state, and you just think, “Ohh, don’t worry little guy, Mamma’s here to help.” Do you ever think that? No? Oh. Me neither. But if I ever did think that, it would be about this chair makeover. I saw this replica of a Robin Day 1970s chair at a flea market earlier this year and thought it would be just the right project to encourage me to learn some upholstery skills. I’ve since been able to make several other cushion covers (like these and these) all based on what I learned from this project. So, if you haven’t gotten into the world of upholstery yet (but would like to), recovering a vintage chair with simple cushions is a great place to start your journey.
This is the chair before. Wowza. I wish this post was one of those “Pat the Bunny” books where you could feel how this fabric felt. It. Felt. OLD. And crusty. OK, on second thought, maybe it’s a good thing you can’t feel it. Just trust me…every time I had to touch the fabric to move the cushions, I got a solid wave of the textile heebie-jeebies and did one of those body shudders usually reserved for much more scary situations.
-upholstery fabric (I’m obsessed with this fabric I used. It’s called Black Kilim black fabric from Home Fabric and Trims. Contact them and ask specifically for it if you’re interested. It’s not for sale on their website)
-fabric scissors and pins
-standard sewing machine with a zipper foot
Unfortunately for me (considering the above information about the fabric), the first step in making a new cushion cover is to use the existing cover as a template. That means you need to take apart all the pieces of your cover so you can use them as a pattern for your new fabric. The covers were made up of three pieces each: the top panel, the matching bottom panel, and the long side panel that went around the side of the cover connecting the top and bottom panel. That long side panel is made up of two pieces of fabric. One section has a zipper installed so you can add or remove the insert from the cover as needed.
Even if the cover you have is laid out a little differently than the above arrangement, you should still be able to make your new cover using a layout like mine if you can measure your needed dimensions for each panel width and height (don’t forget to add your seam allowance for the hem).
You can also use scrap fabric to make a practice cover first (which is what I did) to make sure the dimensions are right and to get a little practice before moving on to the real fabric.
Lay out your original fabric pattern pieces onto your new fabric and pin in place. If using a print, you’ll want to carefully consider where you want the pattern placed so it’s showing the best portion of the print and is lining up in a flattering way with the side panel fabric as well. Pin the fabrics together with a few pins and cut out your panels.
At this point, you should have your front and back pieces, your side panel that will include a zipper, and your longer side panel. The photo above shows the side zipper panel with the zipper already installed, but have no fear! I’ll show you how to do that step first, and then you can attach all the rest of the panels from there. Here we go!
Take your panel that will include the zipper and use fabric scissors to cut down the middle of the panel (lengthwise) cutting it into two pieces. You want this side zipper panel to end up the same width as the rest of your longer side panel, so make sure when you cut this piece you are adding the extra 1″ you’ll need for the zipper seam allowance in the middle as well as the regular seam allowance on the sides.
If it helps to visualize it, you are basically making a really short (and kind of square) drum shape, so you need to make the sides of that drum with one section that has a zipper down the middle.
Make sure your fabric is right side up. Take your zipper and turn it face down. Lay the left edge of the zipper even with the left edge of the right piece of fabric (see photo above). Pin zipper in place.
Center the middle of the long side panel with the middle front of the bottom panel. With the right sides of the fabric facing together, pin the two edges together working your way towards the end of the side panel that has the zipper panel attached. Once you get to the end of that side, pick back up where you started in the middle and pin the other way until the two ends meet.
You could attach both ends of the long panel to the zipper panel instead of just one side like we did a few steps back, but I find that no matter how well I measure, I always end up a little off and have to rip out the seam when I discover my circle of side seam fabric is either too long or too short to go around the bottom panel edge. Once I have my sides pinned snugly in place all around the bottom panel, I mark where the open end of the long side panel should meet up with the zipper panel, remove a few pins on either side, and sew those two ends together the same way I did it with the first end. Then I can trim any seam allowance (if needed) and pin it back in place.
So, it should look like a shallow pan of fabric at this point. Use your sewing machine to sew all around the edges with a 1/2″ seam allowance (or whatever seam allowance the original cover used so the dimensions still work).
Repeat the process of matching up the middle of the front sides of the fabric with the middle front of the top panel and pin that panel in place as well. Before you sew this side, remember to open the zipper a bit so you can get back in when you’re done sewing.
You can press the seams flat with a hot iron if you wish before turning the cover right side out. Add your cushion back into the cover. Thankfully, even though the fabric on the foam cushions was in terrible shape, the actual cushions themselves were in good condition and totally usable. If yours aren’t, visit your local fabric stores and see what foam cushion options are available, and you can cut one to size. If you happen to have any areas that don’t look as stuffed as they should, you can add small amounts of pillow stuffing or batting into the area before zipping it closed. Just make sure to evenly disperse it in a way that won’t look lumpy when you’re done.
You can see that in addition to the new cushions, I also gave the shell of the chair a fresh coat of white paint (I used a spray paint specifically for plastic) and cleaned the chrome legs as well. The new bright white body instantly freshened up the chair as the previous off-white had significantly yellowed over time. Since I couldn’t decide which part of the print I wanted to run down the center of my cushions, I cut out the top and bottom panel of each cover with different areas of the print. That way if I get tired of that particular design, I can flip the cushion over and see a different pattern. Nice! I love the little “You’re My Fave” pillow that I made to go with the chair. It looks like Mac the Cat thinks it’s referring to him…
Hopefully next time you see a cool chair that just needs some fresh cushions and a little love, you’ll feel confident that you are just the person for the job. You can do it! xo. Laura