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The Great Cover-Up : Using Slipcovers to Hide Old Furniture Flaws, Create New Look Has Permanent Appeal

June 12, 1993|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Slipping a new cover onto a piece of furniture, whether to change its look for the short term or the long haul, is an idea both current and as old as the hills.

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The idea of slipcovers dates back at least to the 18th Century. Today, soft-fitting versions are widely featured in advertisements and in design articles; old pieces wearing new slips and new furniture designed to look like it's wearing a cover-up.

All the attention has made professional slipcover makers--and there aren't many of them--very popular people.

Jack Jackson of Jackson's Slipcovers in Orange, for example. When he moved here from New Jersey in 1971, Jackson discovered that slipcovers were a nearly foreign concept on the West Coast, and customer development was slow going. In the 1 1/2 years, though, says Jackson, he's been swamped with orders.

"The demand is there, and there's not much supply," he says. "In fact, I may be it."

Not quite, but close. Most upholsterers don't make slipcovers, although they can re-cover a piece in slipcover style. Calico Corners, a chain of specialty fabric stores, makes custom slipcovers, but their service is the exception.

Otherwise, finding a source for stitching a slipcover for your couch or chair may be a case of knowing someone who's confident with needle and thread, or, if you're reasonably crafty, stitching it yourself.

A surprising number of people are tackling the task themselves, according to Pat Morrel, manger of Cloth World in Huntington Beach.

"There are people who have done very little sewing who are attempting this," she says.

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There are four basic steps involved in making a slipcover no matter what type of furniture it's meant to enwrap, says Morrel: cutting bolt fabric into individual sections roughly to size (called "blocking out"); pinning these sections directly onto the piece of furniture (called "pin-fitting"); trimming the sections close to the intended seams, and stitching the seams together.

The challenge, she says, comes from the first two steps. "The sewing itself is pretty simple--big pieces and mostly straight lines. Putting in zippers (so you can get the slipcover on and off) would probably be the hardest part for beginners."

There are many books on the market which outline the process in detail. Sunset Slipcovers & Bedspreads by Sunset Publishing and Singer Sewing Projects for the Home are among the best, according to several fabric stores.

Singer--as do most other books on the subject--recommends making a slipcover out of muslin first to serve as a pattern before cutting into your good fabric.

Jackson recommends that too, especially for first-timers.

"There will be a lot of surprises in the process," he says, "and you could save yourself a lot of grief and money."

Morrel at Cloth World made a muslin pattern when she slipcovered a chair and will again when she's ready to tackle her sofa. Despite the fact that she's been sewing since she was 9, Morrel was reluctant to cut into good fabric directly without a pattern. "I'm not brave enough for that," she says. "I'm more comfortable with a pattern. It's what I'm used to."

Another advantage of using a pattern, says Morrel, is that if you want to make another slipcover later, most of your work is already done.

Sunset's method, on the other hand, is to block and pin-fit the final fabric directly onto the sofa or chair instead of cutting it from a muslin pattern. The direct fitting method is the one used by professionals. It's also the technique demonstrated by Patty Liekhus of Placentia at her slipcovering classes at Woof & Warp in Long Beach.

"All fabric has a different amount of give," she says. "So if you want your cover nice and fitted--which is the way I like them--then I don't think a muslin pattern is particularly helpful. Besides, the direct method isn't that hard. Only the first cut is scary."

Lora Royster of Placentia, who attended one of Liekhus' classes in May, came to the same assessment.

"I've made dresses that look a lot harder than this," she says. "It's just draping and pinning. I'm not going to bother with a pattern. I'd rather just go for it."

Before attempting a slipcover project on your own, it will probably be worthwhile to educate yourself further on the subject.

Look at the books available, assess your own skill and temperament, and choose the method with which you'd be most comfortable. Look at some of the slipcovers by pattern makers like Simplicity, Butterick, and Vogue, too.

A few covers simply drape over furniture and are secured with cords, requiring minimal sewing. Though probably not good choices for long-term covering, suggests Morrel, they would be fine for a season.

If you're still not sure whether to proceed, consider a slipcover-making class like the one at Woof & Warp. Though most attendees leave reassured, says Liekhus, she's had others say, "I've just paid $25 to find out I'll gladly pay someone $400 to do this."

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