There's a lot more to getting furniture reupholstered than selecting a pretty fabric.
Most important is to be sure the upholsterer you choose will do the job correctly. That can mean anything from repairing the wobbles in a chair frame to retying the springs in a sofa.
When you do choose your fabric, keep the entire room in mind. That means choosing sturdy fabrics in a family room that gets a lot of action from children and pets. Also, if you can't afford to reupholster all the furniture in a room, choose the new fabric carefully to make sure it blends in.
Reupholstering is a big investment, says Susan Davis, who runs Susan Davis Upholstery in Bel Air out of the Benson Furniture Co.
Still, properly done reupholstering can extend the life of a piece of furniture by another seven or eight years, Ms. Davis says.
The labor for a high-backed sofa with three loose cushions, for example, would cost about $500, Ms. Davis estimates. A love seat with two loose cushions would cost about $200 in labor. Fabric can run anywhere from $10 a yard at a discount house to $100 a yard for top-of-the-line.
Expect to pay extra for decorative details, such as button tufting, and repairs, such as new springs, she says.
In some cases, it might cost less to replace an average-quality piece than to have it reupholstered or repaired, Ms. Davis says.
"Anything can be fixed -- whether it's worth it or not is another story," she says.
On the other hand, a sturdy sofa or chair with hand-carved wooden frame is irreplaceable. Other signs of quality: black horsehair filling, muslin covering under the decorative fabric, coil springs and quality webbing. The heavier the frame, the better. The best frames are kiln-dried or warp hardwoods.
Reupholstery carries two prices: one for labor, the other for fabric.
You can't afford to skimp on either, but there are ways to save money. Shop around. Ask friends and co-workers for recommendations, and ask the reupholsterer for references. Get two or three estimates on the labor. Make a trip to the upholster's studio and take a look at work in progress.
"Cheapest is not always best," said Ms. Davis, who teaches upholstering classes at Harford Community College.
"Make sure the upholsterer is going to do just as good a job on the inside as the outside," says Andrea Loran, president of Design Projects Limited, an interior design firm in Baltimore.
Before beginning work, Ms. Davis itemizes the work to be done on each piece of furniture. This includes prices and specifications on everything from the price per button to the thickness of foam rubber used to pad out a seat. This is a good way to compare prices, and it helps guarantee you are getting the new springs or webbing you paid for.
Next, ask for yardage requirements. Scout out discount fabric stores such as the Fabric Warehouse in Baltimore, (410) 285-3229. Some mail-order companies, such as the Fabric Center in Massachusetts, (508) 343-4402, for $2, will mail you a catalog of nationally advertised textiles. Other mail order companies can also save you money, but you will need to supply them with the fabric's pattern number and manufacturer's name -- information a decorating shop might not want to share because it doesn't want to lose that business.
Ms. Davis cautions shoppers to buy carefully: "If you buy the fabric, it is your responsibility to buy the right amount. If you purchase a discontinued pattern, for example, you might not be able to get more."
Also, Ms. Davis suggests watching carefully as the fabric is cut to make sure there are no flaws or stains, an important consideration in buying seconds.
Reupholster for the room, advises Ms. Davis. Choose sturdy fabrics for a family room if children or pets are in the household. Save the fragile fabrics for the living room.
One of the longest lasting fabrics you can choose is 100 percent nylon. "You will hate it before it wears out," Ms. Davis says.
Polyester blends are another long-lasting option. Cotton wears wonderfully but can get dirty, she said.
Ms. Davis firmly believes in stain-proofing finishes, saying it's worth the extra fee to have the manufacturer apply it.
In a family room, choose prints over solids and tweedy over smooth. These will last longer and hide dirt, suggests Ms. Loran.
Make sure all the fabrics in the room have the same visual "weight." A delicate silk does not look right next to a nubby wool.
Ms. Loran said heavy, tapestry-type fabrics, including velvets, are making a comeback. These are beautiful, sturdy fabrics -- but would probably look out of place next to a lightweight chintz.
There are inexpensive ways to pull your old and new decorating schemes together.
Paint the walls, picking up one color from the new fabric, says Ms. Loran. A wallpaper border is one of the least expensive ways to update a room, she says.
Judy Abbott, Simplicity Pattern Co. spokeswoman, said incorporating the new with the old can be as simple as repeating the fabric in two or three different places.
For example, buy extra fabric to make pillows or tablecloths. Add the new fabric to existing window treatments by using it to make curtain tiebacks or make a swag to drape across the top of the window. The new fabric could be used to update a lampshade or make a bell pull.
Ms. Loran recalls that in one recent project she had custom stencils made of the fabric's design and stenciled it on pillows and on the four ceiling corners. Most stores that sell stenciling supplies can recommend people who do custom stencils.