1. Do Your Research: The easiest way to find a reputable upholsterer is to find out who your friends, family & neighbors have used (and loved!). Getting their opinion is great, but I also suggest you take it one step further and physically take a look at their reupholstered piece. Quality means different things to different people, so what's fabulous to them might not be so hot to you. Do not pass go until you've had a chance to judge their reupholstery job for yourself. Check the seams, symmetry, lines and decide for yourself if the work lives up to your expectations.
2. Check The Inventory: Any upholsterer worth his or her weight will have at least one completed project you can see in their shop. And if, on the off chance they have not a single piece of furniture available, someone should be currently working on a piece, sewing drapery, or finishing a pillow. I prefer to check workrooms and actually watch people working on pieces so I can get a feel for whether they know what they're doing or not. It sounds silly and dictatorial, but when you're buying 10 yards of fabric at $50-$100/yard PLUS paying reupholstery costs, being dictatorial will be the least of your concerns. If you go to an upholsterer and they have nothing to show you in person, RUN. (I feel stupid even typing this, but my "awful experience" upholsterer had nothing for me to see. NOTHING. If that's not a sign, I don't know what is!)
3. Know What You Want: Unless you're working with a designer, I don't suggest you show up at the upholsterer's and expect them to guide you in making the best design selections for your ready-to-be-refinished piece. Spend time gathering your inspiration and getting clear about the exact style/design you're looking for (Google, Houzz, and Pinterest are great places to start). Want to change the legs or add a skirt? Lose the loose cushions and turn it into a tight back? Add trim, banding, piping or nailheads? Figure this out before you get to the upholsterer. Yes, upholsterers are highly skilled people, but not all of them are great at coming up some of the same cutting edge ideas we see in shelter mags. Don't allow yourself to be discouraged from doing something you have your heart set on because you'll only end up hating the end product. Save yourself the trouble and be clear about what you want before you go--don't depend on the opinion of someone who doesn't know your likes, style or needs.
4. Pay Attention To Details: I've already mentioned it a few times, but I'll say it again.
DETAILS ARE PARAMOUNT. If you're looking to have detail work done--contrasting piping, bias-cut trim, nailhead detailing, railroaded fabric, pattern matching--make sure you inspect your upholsterer's work in this area. Check to ensure piping seams begin & end in inconspicuous places, nailheads are completely linear, fabric is railroaded when necessary, zippers are hidden, and piping is straight (not curvy!). Patterns should run the same direction on both sides of a cushion and should always match as it wraps a chair, pillow, bench or sofa (unless otherwise specified).
Where nailheads are involved, does the upholsterer use the ones on a roll or individual nailheads? Ask if you can sit in one of the finished pieces--do the cushions feel solid and soft or fluffy and cheap? What type of cushions does your upholsterer use--polyfill, down-wrapped, or some combination? These are all details to know before you start your project.
Working with an upholsterer isn't hard, but following these basic tips will ensure a successful and long-lasting relationship between you and your upholsterer. If you've had a really good (or really bad!) experience with an upholsterer, share your story below!