HIGH POINT, N.C.—The buttoned-down look popular with bankers is a welcome detail when it comes to upholstery. Ottomans, sofas, chairs and beds all got an extra dose of tuft love at both the High Point and Las Vegas furniture markets. While consumers may take tufting for granted, craftsmen know it is one of the most labor-intensive upholstery treatments.
“Hand tufting is a craft that takes even a skilled upholsterer months to master. It’s the longest hands-on process in upholstery,” said Bondi Coley, marketing director of Lee Industries.
Lee is strictly an upholstered goods company. It takes Lee upholsterers 2 1/2 hours to tuft a chair and four hours to do a sofa. According to Coley, less than 10 percent of master upholsterers will do tufting.
“There is not a machine anywhere that can replicate this art, and few upholsterers have the patience and the skill to become tufters,” agreed Comer Wear, marketing director of Century Furniture.
Buttons must be attached one at a time and tied with a one-way slip knot to prevent them from coming loose or pulling out. Once the tuft is folded into place by hand, the buttons are tightened, creating depth. Manufacturers have recently begun using contrasting buttons and thread to add a colorful dimension to the centuries-old practice.
Buttons are actually a fairly recent addition to the technique. Tufting began in the 18th century, using small wads of wool or silk to anchor the folds, according to the book “Upholstery in America and Europe from the Seventeenth Century to World War I” by Edward S. Cook Jr.
“It really is an amazing art that is underappreciated by customers,” said Wear. “It requires a master upholsterer to pull and work each fold so that they appear uniform.”
When you realize that it takes a human touch and careful measuring to create that symmetry, a Chesterfield sofa or tufted headboard suddenly take on new grandeur. Even the most common diamond pattern requires skillful artistry.
“Hand tufting is not limited to any period of furniture. With different frame styling, you can create vintage, mid-century and even modern pieces that can live in whatever style setting you are creating,” Coley said.
“There is no more truly handcrafted detail in upholstering than the art of tufting,” agreed Wear.