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The Beginnings of Upholstery: A Brief History

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Upholstery has been used for comfort and for decoration by humans since ancient times. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs sat on cushions filled with horse hair and had fine fabrics as draperies for their thrones and beds.


The first upholstery was in fact just different textiles. Upholstery though has been around even longer than furniture has historically. It was in the 1500s when upholstery making became an actual industry when skilled upholstery makers from Genoa, Italy began producing it and the Italian town became the upholstery center of Europe and the world. The upholstery was made of the highest quality velvet and silk, and it was unsurpassed for years.

Gradually the upholstery making skills began spreading to Britain, but historical evidence shows that upholstered furniture before the 17th century was very rare in Britain, and it was actually reserved only for royalty and for the wealthy. In medieval times, Flemish weavers became the most famous tapestry weavers.

In Elizabethan Britain, the living and sleeping conditions in the palaces as well as in the homes of the common people finally started to improve. It was then when the big bedsteads with tall poles and heavy curtains were first introduced. This development had a purpose of keeping the person sleeping in the bed away from the draft. This, of course, was a luxury for the royalty and the upper class.

Draped chests also became popular during that time. They had a purpose of keeping the feet safe from the drafts as well as a purely decorative one as well. At that time, the first upholstered chairs in Britain were made, and upholstered furniture making became an actual official and very expensive industry. The back stool was first introduced then. It had no arms so that the ladies wearing the huge Elizabethan skirts could sit, but the base of these chairs was upholstered with leather. This was the first permanent upholstery, which is why this type of chair is better known as an “upholsterer’s chair”.

Other upholstery which was introduced at that time included: silk embroidered cloth, leather, brocade and trimmed velvet. Also in the 17th century, when Britain and the rest of Europe began to import huge quantities of Turkish carpets, upholstery makers in Britain often used them to make upholstery and seat cushions. It became popular to make imitations of the patterns of these Turkish carpets by actually drawing wool strands through linen, better known as “turkey work” to create the so-called baroque style, colourful and bright upholstery and draperies.

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