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  • beth swade

WHEN DID UPHOLSTERY BECOME A THING?! The history of upholstered furniture PART 1...


I've recently finished the second year of my AMUSF course, part of that was writing a essay titled The History of Upholstered Furniture. Quite a heavy and a large subject but It was very interesting and I am going to break it down into a few blog post to show you what I found... I will be focusing on Britain from the 16th century onwards.


I will look at the different periods threw the ruling monarch at the time, how things happening socially and advancements in technology combined with fashions and trends helped to develop and change upholstered furniture into something we recognise today.


Drawing of an Elizabethan X frame chair and bullet points of key facts about furniture at this time

Queen Elizabeth's style shaped and developed the style of furniture during her long reign, it softened the more severe Tudor style that came before it. It became more elaborate throughout the period especially the woodwork and saw more scroll and flourishes creating impressive bold furniture.


Most chairs during this period were wooden with little upholstery as we would know it now. Often the head of the house would have a chair and the rest would sit on stools. We would start to see very early upholstery where cushions were placed on wooden chairs to add a little comfort. X frame chairs begin to emerge where fabric or leather is added to a carved wooden frame.


The Bed of Ware is a huge bed that's over 3 metres wide, constructed around 1590 it can now be found at the V&A in London. It’s thought to have been made as a tourist attraction for an inn on the way to Ware, it's also to be said to have been large enough to have 4 couples on it at once! The bed has wax marks and engraved initials that the guests marked their stay on it. It's a really good example of Elizabethan style of wood work, with the large chunky look and the elaborate carvings, which would have been painted at the time so have been even more impressive and bright than it looks now. The drapes and tassels are also a good example of the trims used at this time.


Drawing of the knole sofa and bullet points of key facts about furniture at this time

Much of Jacobean and Carolean style is very similar to Elizabethan and a continuation of the square heavy jointed furniture, and the upholstery remained simple and basic. There began to be some more details in the legs and more turned elements but still mainly mortise and tenon joints. A lot of the excitement of the pieces would come from the trims and tassels added.


The Knole Settee is a great example of one of the earliest sofas recorded, a seat for more than one person. It is covered in red velvet with a fringed trim and decorative studs which would have been a classic look of this era. It would have been stuffed with animal hair over a solid wood base, so not hugely comfortable to our standards but probably a lot more comfortable than many other things at this time!


The example of a Jacobean style chair above is an example of a chair that would have been found in a very wealthy house, despite the basic form this would have been a luxury during this period. There would have been a very light padding but covered in a luxurious fabric, probably turkey or krewl work that was highly elaborate and with a decorative stud finish around the edges.


Farthingdale chairs became popular in upper middle class homes, with a sturdy oak frame and lightly upholstered seat and back. The wooden frame of the seat would have had webbing going across the seat and then hair or fibre stuffed on top of it, this would have made a big difference to comfort, rather than sitting on the hair over a solid piece of wood. They were like a stool with a low padded back, the detailing would have come from the fabric rather than the frame. And they were designed to allow women with large hooped dresses and skirts to sit comfortably, the name Farthingdale comes from the large style of boned skirt.


Drawing of an Cromwellian style chair and bullet points of key facts about furniture at this time

Cromewell came to power after the civil war in Britain fighting for the parliamentary army that was opposed to the then King Charles I. Cromwell was a Puritan and his rule across Britain had a huge effect on the look and feel of furniture creating a stripped back utilitarian style. Any extra detailing was seen as lavish and unnecessary and many of the extra trims and details that we had seen developing would have been removed.


The shapes of chairs were similar to the Farthingdale as mentioned above, with heavy square joints, but executed with less decorative finishes. Leather was popular as a hard wearing plain material and trims were replaced with more sombre stud finish.

Drawing of an Restoration style chair and bullet points of key facts about furniture at this time

After a period of republican rule the monarchy regained the throne in 1660 an upholsterer was appointed as ‘Kings Upholsterer’ marks a change in styles and an end to the minimal puritan styles of Cromwell. This saw a rise in upholstery that was truly fixed to the frame as opposed to cushions or padding placed on seats for extra comfort. We see a rise in trims and tassels as a reaction against the Cromwellian period.


The plague in 1665 was probably not helped by germs being spread threw stuffings in chairs, up until then upholsterers would often reuse fillings from old chairs they were bought, even using stuffings from mattresses that had been in hospitals.The ‘Clean Fillings’ act that was introduced shortly after the plague to try and reduce the spread of disease, decreeing that fresh fillings must be used when reupholstering a chair. In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed huge parts of the city, chairs heavily stuffed with hay and hair would have burnt quickly and easily. After this alot more rattan seats with squab cushions were favoured for being less flammable and cleaner. Rattan was imported from Asia via the East India shipping company and these types of chairs would have been popular in both upper and middle class homes. These chairs would also have been exported around Europe.


More comfortable built up armchairs that begin to resemble wingback chairs that we would recognise in a living room today begin to appear, upholstery becomes more ‘all over’ on these higher end chairs and instead of just a seat cover, the wings and backs are padded and covered with luxurious fabrics to really add comfort and soften the wood. It's around this time that upholsterers started using a second stuffing, this would literally have added another layer of comfort. These wingbacks may have been used to sleep upright in and some say that it allowed those who were wearing very tall wigs to sleep without having to remove them!

Frames became lighter and more interesting shapes with the development of carving and woodwork. The dovetail joint began to become more popular, which meant that frames could move away from the very square boxy shapes we have seen before.




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