Eastlake Sofa-Bed Upholstery Conservation #1: Excavation

by DKP


We had the opportunity to conserve a wonderful Eastlake style sofa-bed by A. Hansen Co., Chicago, Ill.  Our clients have restored a wonderful Victorian in NE Portland, and this sofa-bed will grace her office.  It was thought the piece lived near San Francisco for much of its life and sediment found in its interior collaborates this information.

We are going to document this piece informally, as it is an unusual piece that students of furniture, design, and conservation will want to see.  Not only is it interesting from the standpoint of conserving both sofa and mattress, but it also is an excellent example of American manufacturing from that period.

This piece will be utilized again, and so it is both a conservation / restoration project.  There are things we would not do if this were a museum piece which would never be sat upon, but the structural stability of the piece must be considered when repairing for use.  Therefore in the overall course of the restoration, Mitchell will occasionally create a fix to a problem inherent in the original design of the piece.

We photograph our pieces before and after, and when the project is completed you will find detailed images posted on our website.

We began with Excavation.  The sofa-bed had to be opened and closed as the excavation was performed, which is why you will see it shown that way from one image to the next.

We began by removing the front tassel fringe, exposing the carved front rail; we will not be replacing the fringe, which was not original.

Opening the piece to remove what we now know is the second show cover, Mitchell pulled the second show cover back to reveal a damaged frame.  The second upholsterer tacked beyond the upholstery margins in an effort to save time, damaging the frame.


The second show cover was loosened for removal.


Closing the bed, the second show cover was removed from the seat and arms.


In order to circumvent traditional upholstery procedures the upholsterer applying the second generation show cover blanket stitched the fabric to the original seat foundation beneath the inside arm.


To excavate the inside back, we started with the outside back.


The outside back was never intended for show, which was typical of parlor pieces manufactured for the new middle class market during the last half of the late 19th century.  The frame was unfinished and the outside back show cover was crudely tacked into place.  Once the show cover was removed, below, the frame construction and the under-structure was visible.



Tipping the sofa-bed on its back to allow the inside back excavation to begin, we saw the underside for the first time exposed, above.

The piece is cumbersome.  Due to its many flexible joint tipping was avoided until absolutely necessary.


Second show cover was lifted as the gimp is exposed, and we see that the inside back panels are the only segments where the last upholsterer removed the first show cover.  Mitchell surmised this is because it simply was too hard to tack into the tack-strip with the original show cover in place.

The size of the tacks used in this piece were over-scaled throughout, even for muslins and scrims.  Both generations of upholsterers used #10-12, and occasionally #16, when typically tacks used would have been #2-6.  This caused extreme wear on the frame.  Below, the detail of the tack-strip tells a story to a seasoned and well trained upholsterer.  Indiscriminate tacking, along with soft wood species and seasonal moisture exposure, contributed to the destruction of tacking strips and seat base joinery, necessitating the replacement and refitting of the front seat upholstery frame and back tack strips (which will be seen in blog post #3, Repair.)   This will be the first of the restoration changes we are making for structural integrity.


Despite what I know about good and bad upholsterers, I am sorry that they removed the first upholstery on the inside back, as we might have seen the entire original show cover.  However, below is a glimpse of how the piece originally appeared.  You can also see the inside back pods.  We found stamped writing on the ticking which later we will reveal.

Mitchell carefully removed the outside back, cutting twines and lifting burlap, webbing and stuffing.  All reusable internals will be cleaned and carded for reuse.


Mitchell deployed the bed in order to excavate the mattress.  The mattress will be cleaned, restored, and replaced with a new ticking.  Above, a glimpse into the internals, and below, the ticking removed, exposing the Spanish moss.

Tacking margins (wooden tacking strips) were virtually nonexistent on this piece causing the upholsterer to “toe-nail” tacks to hold the show cover and foundational materials into the frames side vertical walls.  This caused degradation to the side aprons as well as failure to the mattress show cover.  We decided to properly engineer the interior of the mattress in order to resolve these issues and preserve the frame walls from improper tackings.  This change is not something we would do on a piece that would not be used.


Mitchell lifted a corner for a peek at the layers of the mattress pad, which he will gently lift and roll, below.

During the excavation of the mattress, Mitchell wore a mask because of the amount of dust, sediment, and debris.  We were glad he was wearing one because of more serious concerns, which will be evident soon.


The mattress pad was rolled, to be conserved later, and we the burlap deck, springs and webbing, for both the mattress, the seat, and the inside back, was exposed, below.

Side view.  The bed elevation pitches slightly tilts because long ago someone removed the rear wheels.


The deck pad was removed, and we found mold under the main frame or central section of the sofa-bed!  Oddly, it had no moldy smell, and we originally thought it to be dust, as often you smell mold before you see it.  This was thick and damp.  The mold had to be thoroughly removed before proceeding.  We vacuumed the mold, then used a 10% solution of bleach to kill spores.  The vacuum also has to be thoroughly bleached after we were finished.

The piece was again closed and placed on its back.  The inside back pods were removed.  The tack strips were so undermined they need to be replaced.


Pods lifted.

How did Mitchell know the show covers are the first and second ever placed on the frame?  By counting holes in just one area.  Below, Mitchell mapped the secondary show cover holes on the front apron frame in chalk, and then mapped the holes from the red velvet tacks with the holes on the frame, matching each to the tack pattern and accounting for each in that one area.  .  There are no additional holes to be found, therefore it is safe to say the red linen velvet is the original show cover,  and the blue mohair frieze velvet is the second generation show cover.


The front apron band was removed as well as the hair beneath.

We began to notice problems in the frame itself, shown by the warping and lifting of parts of the frame which would not have done so under normal circumstances.

The arms and seat were excavated, beginning with the show cover loosened, and then again the piece was set upside down and the outside arms were excavated.


We found a 1941 penny embedded.  Finding things is sometimes extremely rewarding, however, no California gold found YET.

Inside arms were excavated next, with the seat deck.

Lifting the scrim, we expose the layers of the deck below.


Twine was cut, and the hair pod was removed.  All these materials will be cleaned and reused; this is both a green practice and saves historical  information.

The deck pad was so dirty Mitchell vacuumed it before removing it.

All ties were easily snipped, and arm pods and deck pod were lifted.

Springs were exposed.  This was a four-way spring tie, below, and the original springs can be reused.

As Mitchell works, he makes notes, and sometimes makes notes on the frame using artists tape, which does not leave behind glues.

Arriving at the final stages of excavation: springs and webbing were removed.

The webbing and burlaps were too old to be viable again, however, in a museum piece which is not sat on, these items are reused if they are not detrimental to the life of the sofa-bed.  Occasionally reinforcements are installed over original items if necessary in a museum piece.  But this sofa-bed will be used; we will take samples of the original items along with the report to be set aside for historic purposes, and a time capsule will be placed within the sofa-bed.


The frame was fully excavated and ready for repair.

Go to the next posting in the series on reparation of the sofa bed in two parts: East Lake Sofa-Bed Upholstery #2A: Repair.

©MPF Conservation.  May be printed for your own use ONLY, not for use on blogs without permission.

About MPFConservation

We are a conservation and restoration firm located in the Pacific Northwest, specializing in objects: furniture, but also other objects; wood, stone or metal furniture or objects; lacquered and painted furniture or objects; traditional finishes on furniture or objects; quilts, beaded objects, and some textile reparation and interior architectural elements, such as leather or upholstered walls. When you think about conservation, equate it to restoring the furniture or object the best way possible for the history, life and value of the object. We are fully qualified to perform museum-tectbook treatments, but also flexible enough to work with private clients to allow for daily use of objects. We work West of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico, and once in a while venture beyond the West for specific treatments. Kate and Mitchell Powell are partners in work and in life; we each have our specialties in work and in our marriage. Mitchell is the cat charmer in both! To see our work visit our official website: http://www.mpfconservation.com
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4 Responses to Eastlake Sofa-Bed Upholstery Conservation #1: Excavation

  1. This is fascinating — I have a question — I have a Chippendale “style” chair that had Spanish Moss in the original seat cushion that was covered in muslin.Can this date the chair? Or is it still being used?

    • zenkatwrites says:

      Hi Jill,

      Spanish moss, as an upholstery stuffing, disappeared from the market about a decade ago. It is no longer used in the new furniture industry probably since the end of WWII. However, there remained a few upholstery restorers who continued to obtain new Spanish moss, or scavenge old which had been cleaned and re carded; these people then used it on vintage restoration projects.

      I am not certain why this is so, perhaps it was the dwindling market, perhaps there were environmental concerns associated with its processing (Spanish moss, in its raw state, is grey, while upholstery moss is black. I had heard round-about’s some years back, I do not know if this is true, that the black color was from distillates being run through the moss in order to destroy pests).

      I have used a great deal of this vegetable material within vintage furnishings over the years and it makes for a nice substitute for horse hair in many situations. I am sorry for the loss of this product and am currently looking for ways that I may be able to process the raw material in a way which makes it usable for upholstery again.

      In reference to your primary question: The stuffing’s found within an upholstered piece can help to date a chair, but proper forensics must be performed in order to ascertain whether it is the original stuffing. Usually this is achieve by counting the tack holes and plotting their positions as the various covers are removed (examples of this are pointed out in the excavation article about halfway down.) That said, this method does not always a guarantee that the stuffing found within is original. It may be that the piece has been upholstered numerous times and therefor counting tack hole becomes irrelevant. Usually when one excavates a vintage piece one fines layers of stuffings added at different times. This renders good information as to where the piece lived and how old it might be.

      Since Spanish moss has been used in American upholstery since at least mid 1800’s it might be safe to say that the chair’s stuffing’s have been around for a bit of time, but more information is needed in order to make an assumption.

      You say that you have a Chippendale style chair with Spanish moss in the seat cushion, but this is not enough information in order for me to answer your question. I would have to first ask you some pertinent questions:
      – Is this an actual cushion with springs and moss and batting, or is fiber stuffing’s only?
      – Are there other stuffing’s inside the cushion besides the moss and if so what are they?

      What would help me to help you with your questions is to have detailed photos taken of the interior stuffing’s of the cushion. An overall shot of the chair, close-ups of any details on the chair, wooden legs and carvings, applied decorative motifs, etc. and the underside of the chair with close ups of the tacking margins.

      Best, Mitchell

  2. Ellie says:

    I am not a student of furniture but I very much enjoyed reading about this process of restoring. Thank you both for allowing us to come along for the ride. You do such a thorough job and your anecdotal comments are wonderful. Thank you.

    • zenkatwrites says:

      Thanks Ellie! I love the blog because we can be much more relaxed than a formal report, especially about the silly and fun things we find. There will be 4-5 more installments on this piece — they will be: Repair, Finish, Buildup, and Show Cover — though I may have to break up the buildup into two parts because of the mattress then the seat and inside back. I enjoy your posts on the farm! Best, Kate

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