Although commonplace today, upholstered furniture was once rare and highly prized, and these older pieces can be very collectable.
Before about 1600, loose cushions were the only thing to come between a sitter and the unforgiving wooden forms and stools then used for seating. In the 17th century, carpenters created the back stool, which was basically a stool with an added back support and padded seat, but this was very much rich men's furniture.
Upholstered seats became widely available only in the 18th century. There were two kinds. The first type to be developed had drop-in seats, which were slotted into the chair frame. Later in the 18th century, stuff-over seats, where the fabric was tacked over the frame itself, were introduced.
Although all kinds of materials - grass, rushes, wool and feathers among them - were used for stuffing, the standard material was horsehair, held in place by woven
saddle maker's webbing and hessian. This was covered with linen and the main upholstery fabric was then tacked over the top.
The grandest chairs were covered in silk and velvet and sometimes brocaded with gold and silver
thread. The most typical early finish, though was turkey work, where wool was knotted on a canvas to give a pile like that on
imported Turkish carpets.
Needlework, often done by the lady of the house was
also used in the 18th century, as was damask, while leather was first employed in about 1800. In the 18th century, it was common for the upholstery to cost several times more than the frame. As a result, it was usually protected with a loose case cover. This practice continued well into Victorian times.
In the 19th century, the trend was for padding and stuffing in upholstered chairs to be more and more opulent, as upholstered chairs came to be seen increasingly as a sign of prestige. Various trimmings, such as fringes,
gathered borders and tassels, were added to increase the sense of wealth.
The use of coiled springs in seats, patented in
1828, altered the outline of chairs, giving them much deeper seats and backs. The
springs were held in place by deep-set buttons. These created an attractive pattern of pleats in the covering material, which in turn became a decorative feature in its own right.
Victorian chairs were typically covered with patterned velvets and damasks, with leather or with plush, which was a long-piled velvet much in favour at the period. Cotton chintzes were also used, for a lighter, feminine look.
Padded seats and backs made chairs more comfortable, while the use of rich fabrics to cover them created exciting new decorative opportunities.
Drawing-room chairs in the 18th and early 19th centuries were generally made of mahogany and were sold in matching sets or in suites. These suites could be quite grand,
especially early on, when they would include a sofa or chaise
longue, two easy chairs - a large 'grandfather' chair with arms and a smaller 'grandmother' chair without - and six or more side chairs, usually with the balloon backs that were popular at the end of the 18th century and often revived after that.
Such suites are rarely found complete today, and will be two or three times the total price of their component parts, but single chairs can still be had at reasonable prices. Antique dealers tend to specialize in Georgian or Regency examples; Victorian ones are best bought at auction or from a more general furniture dealer. Country house sales are a good source.
The price of a single chair depends largely on its condition and age. Recently re-upholstered chairs tend to be devalued, though not as much as those that retain original upholstery which is in good condition. Ripped and badly worn fabric, sagging webbing or bursting springs are best avoided. Generally 18th-century chairs will cost more than later ones, but remember that Georgian styles were widely reproduced in the 19th century. Copies often have skimpier legs than the originals.