While the summer temperatures heat up, I am doing the opposite of what one might think: I’m turning inward with my decorating and choosing this time to make our family room warmer and cozier.
Our family room, as in most homes, is where my husband, children and I spend much of our time. The sofa and chairs are our most comfortable, and it is the location of our only television. The room is where we congregate to read, work, watch movies and listen to music. Yet even though we gravitate to the room, I have always been dissatisfied with its decor. In an effort to make the room more inviting, I have tried painting the walls a darker color, swapping out the rug for one with a plusher pile, reupholstering the sofa from a cotton to a velvet, and replacing the overhead light with dimmable ambient fixtures — all without fully achieving the cozy effect I desired. Finally, this summer, I have decided to do what I wanted to do all along: I am having the walls upholstered.
Kings and queens of Europe dating to the 14th century hung fabric — tapestries to be exact — not only for decorative display, but also to insulate their drafty castle rooms during the cold months and absorb sound, much needed in echoey stone spaces. The tapestries were portable, so they could be rolled up and moved from one castle to the next. While I am not about to hang replicas of “The Lady and the Unicorn” in my family room, and I don’t need to move readily from one domicile to the next, I do want to achieve the same warming effect.
My reason for not previously upholstering the walls is simple: It is an expensive endeavor, and last I checked my husband and I are not of royal birth. Even without the installation labor expense, the cost of fabric alone can be substantial; most average-size rooms (say, 12 by 15 feet) require approximately 30 to 35 yards of fabric, and that’s assuming the fabric is a standard 54 inches wide. Clearly the price can mount even if your chosen fabric is $25 a yard.
I figured I could try to save money by doing the labor myself, but a quick Google search unveiled several DIY fabric wall upholstery tutorials that prove it is not a simple task. The Design Sponge blog, which has seemingly the most accurate and detailed of all posts, goes as far as to separate the process into two parts. The first part includes an extensive material list and then outlines 32 steps followed by five tips. Part 2 is equally daunting with a total of 33 steps. Full disclosure: Steps 1 through 5 tell you how to thread a needle, but even I know better than to tackle this one myself.
I called my upholsterer, who is quite experienced in upholstering walls and, after hiring him for the job, asked him what might make the job difficult for a novice. He explained that every fabric behaves differently, so every job requires subtle adjustments. (He suggests choosing a fabric with the slightest amount of give so it can be stretched tightly on the wall.) He also cautioned against choosing a fabric with both horizontal and vertical lines, such as a tartan, because it is very difficult to match all of the lines and have them appear perfectly straight. He suggests making sure that your walls are in decent shape — the last thing you want is to have your fabric walls covered in mold because they were exposed to moisture — and to avoid areas with a lot of traffic unless you are planning on using a durable outdoor-grade fabric.
For our family room, I chose a chocolate brown and cream printed linen stripe that my upholsterer will seam together and then stretch over a thin layer of quarter-inch-thick Dacron, to give the walls just a bit of padding. The project should be complete in time for fall (I am still waiting for the fabric to arrive!), at which point I will happily ensconce myself in the room much in the way a caterpillar enters its cocoon. Come spring I might emerge as a changed being, or I might just be so content that I remain inside.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”