Whether you’re a novice or a pro, it can be tricky to tackle a DIY sewing or upholstery project on your own. So here, I’ve answered four of the most common questions I’m asked and will respond to a new one each month. Check back to see if I reply to yours!

I bought a set of gently used dining chairs, and I can’t wait to refurbish them. Where do I begin?
-Jane L., Brooklyn, NY

Benches, ottomans, and dining chairs are great confidence builders, since they have a removable cushion that makes it less complicated to reupholster than, say, the fixed cushions on an armchair. I especially love your piece, because a set of dining chairs can be expensive to buy new and typically, the seat is what needs the most work. Dining chairs are also really versatile—I love to see them flanking a side table in the hall, perched at a desk, or pulled up to a vanity.

There are two major steps to reupholstering a dining chair. First, assess the chair’s frame. Does it need repair? How would you like to treat the wood—as a natural wood or with a more antique-y painted finish? Second, consider the fabric. Do you like it, as is? Do you already have fabric to recover it, or is it time to hit the craft store?

Take this dining chair I found at a thrift shop near my house.

What drew me to it was the frame’s rounded back, the shape of the leg, and it wasn’t in terrible condition. I knew I’d use most of it as is. I didn’t, however, like its original honey stain or fabric, and it had wear and tear along the edges, so I wanted to revamp it entirely (Tip: If the fabric is stained, ripped, or in really bad shape, the damage has probably gone through to the cushion. In this case, you’ll need to remove and replace the layer of plywood topped in foam and wrapped in cotton or poly batting. You can buy foam cushion and batting at a craft store like Michael’s, or Google upholstery and foam suppliers to cut them for you).

Once I got my chair home, I decided to use it in my dressing room, AKA my “Fancy Me Room.” I pulled it up to a white desk that my dad built, noticed the perfect fit, and then chose a fabric that was unexpected for the chair’s traditional shape. I took off the cushion, reserved the screws, and because the existing fabric was falling off, I removed that too (if the fabric’s in good shape, just cover over it). Next, I stapled the new fabric around the seat and sanded down the frame to fresh wood, while protecting the old fabric that was on the back of the seat with a garbage bag. I painted the frame with three coats of high gloss red spray paint, and once it dried, I removed the trash bag, placed the back piece of fabric over the existing fabric, stapled around it, and trimmed the excess. To cover the staples, I glued on fringe. Finally, I reattached my seat cushion. Voila!

My windows desperately need drapes. How do I choose a nice fabric?
-Laura P., Austin, Texas

Your priorities should include pattern, color, and weight. If your room already has a lot of pattern on its pillows and upholstery, choose drapes with a more neutral pallet. However, if your main furnishings are solids or more neutral, you might appreciate a bolder pattern or stripe. Just don’t opt for a pattern that’s overly seasonal. Not everyone can afford to change their drapes every few months! Oh, and make sure the fabric is intended for drapery and not upholstery, which should be printed on the tag. Next, think about how you’d like the drapes to hang. If you’re after a breezy look, choose a lighter weight fabric like linen, silk, or faux silk—something that’s mobile and has a life of its own. If you’d prefer a stationary look that will hold its pleats and folds, choose a fabric with more weight like cotton chintz, velvet, or a fabric that can be lined and interlined to keep its shape. In either case, manipulate the material before you buy it. Pull a few yards off the bolt, move it, fold it. Form pleats with your hand and wave it around to see how it moves.

Don’t forget your trimmings! They can be a playful or sophisticated touch. Braids, tassels, and fringe can add interest, especially if you choose a simple fabric.

I’m using four-inch thick foam to create a window seat cushion, but every time I cut through it, I get a weird edge or can’t penetrate the foam at all.
-Sara T., San Diego, CA

Try an electric carving knife! I keep one from Sunbeam in my workbox that’s just the thing. Mark the line with a Sharpie on both sides, and zip straight down with no issue.

I’m a dunce when it comes to mixing and matching throw pillows. Can you help?
-Jemma K., Highland Park, IL

Don’t stress! Throw pillows should evoke a lively yet pulled-together look that’s easy to execute. To do this, mix three elements on different pillows—a bold pattern, a small print, and a neutral—all in the same color family. I like to go with pillow covers instead of permanent pillows, so you can change them every season. When you do, put the down inserts outside first, for 24 hours, to air out. The oxygen will give the feathers more loft.

Take my home, for instance. This past summer, I used a linen pillow with a powdery blue appliqué and floral pattern, mixed it with a smooth, cotton trellis fabric in similar blues (and metallic accents), and added a third, soft and nubby salmon pink and beige pillow for a pop of color that nodded to a tan in the linen pillow. See how they call back to each other? I also took the textural mix into consideration—linens and cottons, for instance, say “summer.” Come winter, I have a chocolate brown velvet back pillow, an embroidered Suzani medallion grid in beiges, grays, and taupes, another velvet pillow with a braided jute border, and a pillow with a silver batique print that looks like wood grain—it’s a super cozy combo that begs you to hibernate with a good book.

Now sometimes clients get so crazy about their pillows, they want to use them as the room’s focal point, but then feel confused about what color to paint the walls! Here, you simply look at the less dominant colors in the patterns you love, maybe an undertone or shading, and play with paint swatches that match. At your local paint center, you can get large swatches of color painted on poster board and tape them to your wall to narrow down your choices. I suggest living with them for a few day/night cycles, since certain shades take on different hues in different light. If you change your pillows at some point, keep two neutrals consistent that compliment the room’s design year-round and swap the rest out. This will ground more exciting choices that might play off the season or a trend.

Ask Leslie

What’s the best design advice you’ve ever received?

My dad was an architect who built interior retail spaces for most of his career. And when I first built scale models on sets for work, he gave me the most invaluable piece of advice. “Just get under the piece, see how it’s put together, and look at the layers,” he said. “Once you can do that, you can replicate or repair anything.” He was so right. Even when you make a mistake, you can always rip it apart and put it back together again!

Want me to answer your question? Send me a note!

Leslie Segrete Designs, LLC.

Designer for Travel Channel's Hotel Impossible

Designer and Carpenter for TLC's Trading Spaces and While You Were Out

Co-host of The Money Pit Radio Show

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A design isn't finished until somebody is using it.

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