How to Estimate Upholstery Material

accent chair image by James Phelps from

Many people have a piece of much-loved and well-worn old furniture. Maybe the lines are good, or the wood is finely turned or the piece is an heirloom. Or maybe you have a good eye and can spot fine furniture, tattered though it may look, at flea markets and yard sales.

If so, you already know that just because their fabric covers are worn or stained, otherwise good pieces don't need to be relegated to the attic or sent to Goodwill. You can recover them.

Make a list of each separate piece of fabric that you will need, suggests Scott Forester in his book "Upholstery Basics." For example, inside back, outside back, outside arm, inside arm and so forth. Leave white space between each item so that you can note all measurements on the list as you work. Also, though the final pieces of cut fabric may each have an odd shape, you will measure in rectangles, which must be large enough to accommodate the widest and tallest lengths of each piece.

Measure the inside back's width and height. Pull the measuring tape across the longest part of the height and widest part of the width. Furniture with curved frames will be taller or wider at certain points.

Measure the outside back using the same technique as in step 1.

Take the dimensions of the front and the back (they should match) of each loose cushion if the piece has loose-cushion pillows that lean against the interior back or that sit on the bench. Then measure the cushions' gussets (the gusset is the fabric panel between the top and the bottom that forms the side of the cushion). Measure its width, and wrap the measuring tape around the entire cushion to take the length of the gusset.

Measure the outside arms, again using the widest and tallest points.

Measure the inside arms. Pull the tape up from the bottom of the inside arm, which will be next to the bench on a fully upholstered chair, and roll it over the scroll (the arm's rolled top) around to the bottom of the scroll where it meets the piece of outside arm fabric. Use the outer end of the scroll at the front of the chair, rather than the inner end near the back. The outer end is usually larger then the inner end, according to Denver Fabrics, an upholstery fabric supply store.

Measure the front of the arms using the widest and tallest lengths.

Measure the width and length of the seat cushion, or measure for the muslin-covered bench if the piece has loose-pillow cushions. However, keep the muslin measurement separate from the upholstery fabric measurements. You will need to buy new muslin to replace the old muslin once you remove the old fabric.

Measure the front gusset, which is the panel below the seat cushion that shows from the front of the chair or couch.

Add 2 inches to each side of every measurement. This is your seam allowance.

Lay out scaled-down versions of the rectangles on a long piece of paper (tape two sheets of paper together if necessary). You might use 1 inch per foot. Upholstery fabric is usually sold in 54- or 60-inch widths, so cut the paper to accurately reflect the width of the fabric (4.5 or 5 feet). Fit the rectangles end to end on the paper. If small, narrow pieces fit one on top of the other (as if they are one larger rectangle), you may do so to prevent waste.

Add up the inches, convert to feet and round up to the next half-yard, according to Denver Fabrics. For example, if all the rectangles, placed end-to-end, add up to a length of 9 inches, and 1-inch equals 1-foot, then you know you need to buy 9 feet, or 3 yards. If it turns out that you need 3 yards and 10 inches, round up to 3 1/2 yards.

Add 1 yard per seating space to your total yardage to match a pattern if you are using large-patterned fabric. For example, if you are recovering a chair in large-patterned fabric, add 1 yard to the total you arrived at after placing the scale pieces on paper. According to Denver Fabric, if you are recovering a couch, add 3 yards.

Add 1 yard for piping a chair cushion with an additional 1/2 yard per extra seat if you are piping couch cushions.