Conservation and restoration of upholstery

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

Elizabeth Lahikainen and Associates specializes in the conservation and restoration of the upholstery of objects in museums and private collections, and since 1990 has been affiliated with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Her firm concentrates on interpreting the historical evidence presented by a piece of upholstered furniture and then selecting accurate fabrics for its restoration. In some cases most of the original materials survive on the frame, as was the case with the settees in the east parlor of the Museum’s Peirce-Nichols House. Very often there is but scant information. For example, only fragments of the original fabric remained on the sofa shown in the detail at the right, but Lahikainen was able to determine that it was a wool moreen that had been installed in a sideways fashion called railroaded.

Sometimes there are no original materials or evidence on the frame, making it important to select fabrics and trims stylistically appropriate to the piece and period. Elizabeth Lahikainen and Associates has experience with a wide variety of fabrics that are suitable for antiques as demonstrated by the following examples. The scroll-arm neoclassical sofa illustrated above, is upholstered in a luxurious damask made of cotton and rayon in a satin weave. Its colors combined with the scale of the medallions make it an exceptional fabric choice for this sofa. In the eighteenth century, moiré, which refers to the “watered” look of a fabric’s surface, was achieved with heat and pressure applied to the weave structure. The side chair pictured at the right is covered in a plain weave wool and silk that was moiréd to increase its sophisticated appearance. Haircloth, a durable fabric made from horses’ tails and manes, was one of the most widely used upholstery textiles in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Black was the principal color choice, but other colors were available. Plain and printed cottons and linens were used for slipcovers to protect the more expensive textiles underneath or just to provide a removable cover that could be easily cleaned. Dimities or figured white cottons were popular for slipcovers, and by the nineteenth century were used for upholstery covers, as may be seen on the settees and window benches in the Peirce-Nichols House.

Attaching these new materials with traditional upholstery methods can create many holes in the frame of a piece of furniture, but fortunately alternative conservation techniques have been developed that are less intrusive. For museum pieces, for example, it is possible to use a carved plastic (Ethafoam) to re-create the upholstery profile, as on the fauteuil à la reine, now covered with silk damask, pictured at left.

Elizabeth Lahikainen’s knowledge of historical furnishings and experience identifying the appropriate fabric make it possible for her to find just the right replacement. Elizabeth Lahikainen and Associates can be contacted by mail (Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, Mas­sachusetts 01970), telephone (978-741-7560), or e-mail (

Images from above: Detail of a camel-back sofa, Philadel­phia, 1784. Mahogany, oak, yellow pine with replacement wool moreen upholstery. National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, Dumbarton House, Washington, D.C. Sofa made by Jonathan Peele Saunders (1785-1844) with carving by Samuel/Fields McIntire (1780-1819), Salem, c. 1815. Ma­­hogany with replacement cotton and rayon damask. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. Side chair, Salem, 1798. Painted wood with replacement plain weave wool and silk moiré upholstery. Peabody Essex Museum. Fauteuil à la reine, made by Jean Baptiste Tilliard I (1685-1766), Paris, 1750. Beech with replacement silk damask upholstery. Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford II.

This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue.