If slipcovers make you think of a very particular era—maybe when everyone’s couches were inexplicably covered in plastic, or maybe just the last few decades of your grandmother’s unchanged living room—we want to expand your horizons.
First, take a walk with us through the history of upholstery and the animal hides, hay stuffing, and horse hair of yesteryear, as well as the lavish parlors of British aristocracy. Did you know that Jane Austen mentioned needing to repair a “sofa-cover” in a letter in 1807?
Learn how slipovers evolved from purely protective cloths to flourishing expressions of home fashion—and how we’re now ushering in a new, glorious generation of slipcovers.
What Are Slipcovers? What Is Upholstery?
First, upholstery refers to the act of covering a furniture frame with cushioning and textiles. It sometimes also refers to the materials used. While the interior components of an upholstered couch, (such as the padding) dictate how comfortable the seating is, the exterior fabrics and materials determine the visual effect.
In a nutshell (or a couch shell), slipcovers are removable upholstery.
The History of Upholstery
Note: when we talk about upholstery, we’re usually talking about furniture that’s meant to be sat or reclined upon—the best kind of furniture, in our opinion!
From ancient Egyptian times to the beginning of the Renaissance, upholstery took the uber-simple form of nailing animal hides or leather to a rigid frame. Eventually, cushions and pillows were added, offering additional softness and comfort. This padding was stuffed with everything from hay to horse hair to feathers.
In the Middle Ages, a fixation with fabrics grew and reached its height in the 17th century, when beds were draped with all manner of lavish fabrics and trimmings. Chairs and sofas soon followed suit, adorned with smooth silks and plush velvets, sometimes further ornamented with intricate embroidery.
In the 18th century, the upholstered chair rose to immense popularity in Europe, due to a perfect storm of prosperity, consumer emphasis on comfort, and insufficient heating systems inside homes.
Nowadays, fabric choice is an essential part of the look of an upholstered piece. Beyond aesthetics, furniture makers also consider how easy a particular fabric is to upholster, whether it has fire retardancy, how deep or lush the fabric’s pile is, as well as the fabric’s durability (which in the upholstery world can be measured by the Martindale test). These considerations affect how the fabric will look and wear over time.
But somewhere along the way people wondered what could be done if they wanted to preserve and protect the upholstery or change its look? The answer is the removable slipcover, which has seen its own evolution over the centuries into a fun, versatile option that is full of potential.
The Earliest Slipcovers
In the 17th and 18th centuries, fine furnishings in the home were often considered to be display pieces rather than truly usable. To protect these expensive items from dust, wear, and sunlight, owners often used less costly materials to cover them up, even going so far as to live year-round with completely encased furnishings that were removed only on special occasions.
It’s a little hard for us to imagine covering up your most beloved possessions so that you can’t enjoy them, but such were the times.
Coverings were also used on wooden furniture—especially those with delicately gilded or inlaid surfaces—as well as beds and huge carpets. We love slipcovers as much as the next person (okay, probably more), but when you start slipcovering carpets, even we think things are going a bit overboard.
So, what did these first slipcovers look like? Well, it was clear that they were add-on coverings; they were quite loose at the outset.
Although slipcovers came into existence purely as a practical solution, they quickly became a focal point for interior décor. By the 18th century, the wealthy English were requesting custom-made sofa covers from their tailors, who rose to the challenge by adding piping, cording, bows, buttons, ruffles, and other flourishes. Well into the Victorian Era, slipcovers were an area of showmanship for tailors, and a chance for people to express the latest home fashions.
In terms of materials, at first wool was preferred, but by the mid-18th century, linens and cottons became more popular.
As far as patterns, it was a very matchy-matchy era. Checked and striped furnishings were often found in rooms like parlors and libraries, so slipcover fabrics followed suit. In bedrooms, cotton prints were in vogue. If you ever wanted your bed drapings to match your window drapings and your furniture, well, this was the era for you.
The Modern Slipcover
What we were talking about above were essentially Custom Slipcovers. Things haven’t changed much now, except that you have a wider variety of fabrics and patterns available due to the overall progress in textiles. The price tag for a custom couch cover did become friendlier for mass-produced furniture, but, unfortunately, it still can’t be called cheap and it has remained pretty high for a completely custom project due to the work involved.
In the 1910s, a few companies began to mass-produce ready-made slipcover brands. Over the next 100 years, the market has continued to steadily evolve, and now, in the 21st century, we truly believe we’ve arrived in the Golden Age of slipcovers!
Along the way, in the 1940s and ‘50s, slipcovers experienced a resurgence with new materials like clear vinyl and plastic. At the time, these plastic coverings felt modern, novel, and high-tech, but (thank goodness) they were a short-lived trend as new technologies evolved for cleaning and maintaining furniture. Gone are the days of sticky plastic, or rushing to uncover your sofa before guests arrive.
Finally, new stretch materials have stepped up to the scene and what we have now are the Ready-Made Slipcovers. They are affordable and serve as viable way to transform your favorite couch into a fresh, new piece of furniture, if chosen diligently. What’s more, is that one cover can fit not only one couch, but many due the elasticity of its fabric. And since it’s a couch cover, it still serves it’s initial purpose – furniture protection, just like it did hundreds of years ago.
Slipcovers have come a long way from being a simple tool for furniture protection to an extravagant decoration accessory for a single furniture model to finally combining all of this in one offering and make it versatile.
(For a deeper look into what we have today take a look at our sofa cover comparison post)