The Fascinating History of Upholstery and Slipcovers


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 slipcovers 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 Is Upholstery? What Are Slipcovers?

First, upholstery refers to the act of covering a furniture frame with cushioning and textiles. It sometimes also refers to the materials used. The interior components of an upholstered couch, such as the padding, dictate how comfortable the seating is, while the exterior fabrics and materials determine the visual effect.

In a nutshell (or a couch shell), slipcovers are removable upholstery.


The History of Upholstery 

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. Furniture­—which prior to this point was mostly wooden, or occasionally wicker style, due to Eastern influences—began to look immensely different. Upholstered armchairs popped up with side wings and cushioned backs, offering more enclosure and protection from drafts and chill. Even now, the upholstered chair or sofa can feel decidedly Anglo-Saxon; British social clubs in particular helped the form rise to prominence. (Just think of the iconic and heavily stuffed Chesterfield sofa, which is said to have been commissioned by the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, who wanted somewhere for a gentleman to sit without wrinkling his suit.)

Upholsterers also began to experiment with springs, which gradually evolved into the coiled, compressed form we now know. By the 20th century, furniture technology developed further, due to the availability of materials like foam, sponge rubber, plywood, retardants, molded plastic forms, body-conforming sacks filled with tiny plastic balls, Naugahyde, and synthetic fibers. Now, upholstered furniture typically uses metal springs and foam for greater comfort and durability.


Upholstery Coverings

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.

If you want to preserve and protect your upholstery fabric, or change the look of it, you can turn to 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. 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 to match your furniture, well, this was the era for you.


The Evolution of Slipcovers

Although slipcovers came into existence purely as a practical solution, they quickly became a focal point for interior décor. By the 18th century, wealthy Englishwomen 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 women to express the latest home fashions.

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.


The Modern Slipcover

Custom slipcovers have long been an option for covering your sofa in almost any fabric of your choosing. The price tag for a custom slipcover, unfortunately, has also remained steadily high 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!

Ready-made slipcovers have become a viable way to transform your favorite couch into a fresh, new piece of furniture. Gone are the days of sticky plastic, or rushing to uncover your sofa before guests arrive. We’ve come a long way; slipcovers can be on-trend, reasonably priced, and hold up to your (and even your children and pets’) daily activities.

For a deeper look into what we have today take a look at our sofa cover comparison post.


Homeleon Slipcovers

At Homeleon, we offer a new generation of ready-made, modern slipcovers. Instead of ill-fitting sofa covers that keep slipping and require tucking and re-tucking, our covers actually fit—the result of our extensive research and experimentation.

Instead of outdated colors, we offer rich, upscale neutrals as well as vibrant, trendy colors like Mustard and Blueberry. We also chose a durable, thick, and touch-worthy fabric, and offer enough customization options to allow you to express your own unique style. You can even customize the color of your sofa cushions separately from the base—a powerful feature that can change the feeling and mood of your room in an instant and make it feel like your home and no one else’s. We’ve worked really hard to create a ready-made solution with a custom-made feel.

Check out our slipcover products here; we believe they are the most highly evolved ready-made slipcovers in the history of slipcovers!

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