Tufting techniques

Learn tufting techniques with step-by-step instructions.

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Tufting is the practice of pulling, folding or sewing in a contoured pattern, in two basic geometric shapes—diamond and square (biscuit). Like the majority of upholstery work, you are taking a two-dimensional item, fabric, and putting it on a three-dimensional item, a piece of furniture. To achieve the desired end result, the fabric must be sewn, tucked, gathered, pleated or folded.

There are certain considerations that must be taken into account before you begin a tufting project. The primary one is fabric selection. When working with your customers, encourage them to use either a solid color or small print fabric. These will look the best on the completed piece. Fabrics with large patterns or repeats, obvious one-way designs, or plaids and stripes can have a strange optical-illusion effect because the pattern of the fabric is fighting with the pattern of the tufting, causing it to look off balance.

The aspect of the piece that works in conjunction with the pattern is the hand, or feel, of the fabric. Does it drape well? Is it stiff? Will it fold and tuck well? Be especially careful with vinyls and leather. Vinyl is thicker and heavier, and it has a short flex-fatigue life. Folds and creases in vinyl will result in cracking earlier than normally expected. Leather can look especially nice in a tufted application, but I recommend using smooth, supple hides that will drape well.

Lastly, consider how the fabric will look on the finished piece. Does it fit the period and style? Does it complement the piece of furniture?

There are two primary forms of filler materials. The most common for use in modern furniture is urethane foam. For most antique applications, loose fibers, like horse and pig hair, are used, as well as an assortment of plant fibers. For this article, I will be demonstrating on foam.

Figure 1aFigure 1b Fig. 1a & 1b: I selected a large barrel shaped chair. I reuse the existing foam, which has a diamond-tufted pattern. However, there may be instances where it will be necessary to use new foam, in which case you will need to create your own pattern.

I begin by making a quick sketch of the piece. I always find it helpful to jot down some key measurements to have a point of reference when I run into questions or problems further into the project. Things like the number of tufts, the width and height of each tuft, and distance of tuft from the decking, will all be useful along the way.

Figure 2 Fig. 2: Strip down the piece as you normally would, leaving the inside back intact.

Figure 3 Fig. 3: Complete the decking and nosing, and in this case, the front band, first. Treat your customer’s furniture with respect and cover any areas that you do not want to get damaged, such as show wood or finish fabric. In the accompanying photos, the decking and nosing of the chair is covered in white cloth.

Next, remove the inside back. Save the old fabric until you are completely finished with the piece. Again, having that point of reference can be a lifesaver.

Figure 4 Fig. 4: Because I am reusing the existing foam, I steam it to rehydrate it and add fullness. I recommend covering the foam with Dacron. Doing so not only adds life to the foam and fabric by reducing friction, but it adds a pleasing softness to the finished piece.

Figure 5 Fig. 5: Cut out circles in the Dacron that line up with the matching holes drilled in the foam.

Figure 6 Fig. 6: Make the appropriate slits in the Dacron that match up with the slots in your foam.

Figure 7 Fig. 7: Because of the barrel shape, I trim out the excess Dacron on the inner corners, following the zigzag pattern. If necessary, a light touch of adhesive can be used to hold the Dacron on the foam if it seems to be sliding out of place.

The previous fabric was railroaded, whereas the fabric I am using is up the roll. This means that I will have to seam the inside back somewhere along the 54-inch point. I need a total width of approximately 75 inches. Allow plenty of extra material. You can always trim off the excess; but I have yet to find a fabric stretcher that works when the fabric is too short.

Figure 8 Fig. 8: The seam needs to run vertically down the inside back, making a zigzag that follows the pattern of the tufts. This way the seam becomes hidden within the folds of the fabric. On this particular chair, the fabric had a gusset added to accommodate for the extreme curve on each side. This is a wonderful place to locate the seam for the inside back.

Using the old fabric as a pattern, mark out the zigzag, add for seam allowances, and sew up the inside back. Then mark the center. Generally, I do not recommend marking where the previous buttons were inserted. It can be a useful guideline, but with the variances in fabric and the distortion that has occurred over time, it can be deceiving. You are better off marking a horizontal and a vertical line to maintain reference points. I always test on a scrap piece of fabric to make sure the chalk does not leave a permanent mark. For this piece, I’ve also added a pleated stretcher on the bottom to accommodate the curve.

Now, construct the number of buttons that you will need to complete the piece. Allow a few extra—they’re always nice to attach underneath the furniture piece in case one should fall out during use.

For this chair I need 31 buttons. For a design change, the customer is omitting the original 10 buttons that were located along the top of the chair. Also, cut the same number of pieces of button tufting twine. I usually cut mine around 24 inches in length depending upon the application. If you are doing a large piece, or do a lot of tufting in general, having a form to wrap the twine around so you just need to make one cut saves time.

Figure 9 Fig. 9: Start in the center. Insert the needle through the center mark on the fabric and through the center hole in the foam.

Figure 10 Fig. 10: Pull all the way through and fasten the twine in the back with either an adjustable button knot and a wad of cotton, or by securing it to the frame with a series of staples. In some instances a double-pronged button will do. Again, it varies with the application.

Figure 11 Fig. 11: Keeping the fabric on the horizontal axis, smooth it over to the next hole, making sure it’s not too tight (which will show pull marks) or too loose (which will show puckers). Use your finger to leave an impression in the fabric to emulate where the button will go.

Figure 12 Fig. 12: Insert the next button. Install three or four buttons in the diamond pattern before any “folding” is done.

You can use your fingers or a regulator to create the folds. Be careful not to pick up or bunch any of the underlying padding in the process. All folds should face downward on backs so that they will not be dirt catchers. Continue this process working out from the center.

Figure 13 Fig. 13: Lift up the fabric occasionally to make sure the needle is being properly centered in each hole. Make sure that seams line up correctly in the appropriate folds.

Figure 14 Fig. 14: When you have completed the installation of all of the buttons, and all of the folds are aligned, you are ready to finish the outer edges. To complete the lower edge, find the center on the fabric of each “bun.” Pull just enough to make the face smooth and anchor all the centers.

Figure 15 Fig. 15: Work out to the middle of each pleat.

Figure 16 Fig. 16: Then staple flat. If necessary, fill in lower gaps with Dacron or hollofill to square off the “bun.”

Figure 17 Fig. 17: To finish the upper edge, begin by pulling the centerline of the pleat taut.

Figure 18 Fig. 18: Then anchor the center of the pleat first with a vertical staple.

Figure 19 Fig. 19: After that, return to the middle of the “bun.” As I did along the bottom, pull just enough to make the face smooth, then staple in place. Again, work your way out and make a pleat to line up with your original staple.

Figure 20 Fig. 20: This will form a “T” at the junction of each pleat.

Figure 21 Fig. 21: With the upper edge completed, proceed to finish the rest of the piece as you would normally; construct any cushions, apply arm panels, and finish off the outsides.

You now have a beautiful piece of furniture that will be admired for many years to come.

Remember, tufting requires considerable extra planning and work. For this reason, most upholsterers add a surcharge for each tuft.

Colette Mumm is a veteran upholsterer and owner of Upholstery Originals in Farmington, Minn., +1 651 442 2585, djcgmumm@frontiernet.net. She holds degrees in textiles and upholstery.


Comments are the opinion of individual posters and do not reflect the views of Upholstery Journal or Industrial Fabrics Association International.

  • doc love


    Anytime you need to make folds on a chair always fold the material downward. Never should these folds turn upright as shown in this. I'm a Master Upholster with 40 plus years of experience. I must too add that securing the twine downward onto the frame will distort the button pull to a degree. Other wise done better than I've seen on alot of YouTube videos. They are disgusting looking.

  • barb dick
    barb dick

    That looks great!!!!   

  • Anja



    how nice to see someone did exactly the same as I did a few months ago!

    Great the 'step by step' pictures, thanks!



  • steve thompson
    steve thompson

    I have to say what a crappy job this chair is. Reusing old foam, it's impossible to make old foam "good' again by steaming it. how old was the foam ? 20 years or more ? Think it will last another 20 ?

    The front pleats are all over the place, not even or matching.  I was taught that the front pleats on the inside of the arm should be "smooth down" so as not to be dirt catchers, same as the back pleats.      

    The method of just stapling the twine to the frame also makes the buttons pull up. down, sideways.

    The top of the back looks to be uneven, especially the center channel compared to the ones on either side of it.

    A decent job maybe, but not first quality. sorry.

                           steve T

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