Upholstery: Buttons, Channels, Tufts and Fabric

Design Tips for Buttons, Channels and Tufting

Tight-Back Upholstered Furniture

"No extra back cushion" defines tight-back furniture.  You sit against the fabric-covered padding attached to the frame with no extra cushion beyond that.  A fabric panel applied over a smooth, evenly padded back can be called "plain backed".

Variations of tight-back upholstery design evolved for a variety of reasons - only one being that sometimes 'plain' is just plain!  The three most common enhancements to plain are: buttons, channels and tufts.

This sofa has a plain back and tufted inside arm panels.


The most simple variant from a plain back is a button back.

Tight-back sofa in plain and tufted styles


Here, fabric covered buttons are attached with a strong thread pulled through the padding. They are pulled just tight enough to slightly dimple the otherwise smooth sweep of the fabric. Buttons are often used to provide a more firm feel by slightly compressing the padding.  They also prevent wider areas of fabric from distorting or wrinkling from use.  You can see the pattern and the compression in the photo.  Both plain and button backs are compatible with many fabric patterns, although buttons will distort a very regular pattern.

Button back sleeper sofa - mid-century style.

Channel (or channeled) Back

Channel-back arm chair in a tough vertical pattern.

Here, the back padding is arranged into a series of tubes or pockets. The backing fabric is laid out on the chair and the channels are marked.  It is then removed from the chair and the upholstery fabric is cut and sewn onto the backer. Some slack is established to form a 'pocket' which is then filled with padding.

Channeling generally yields a vertical look which can help shorter, wider chairs from appearing 'squat'. 

Shallow, graduated channels - gracefully restrained.

The channels do not have to be plump nor deep. The technique used and the choice of stuffing can deliver wide and flat channels.  This chair has a nicely tapered or fluted appearance that accents the sweep of the frame. The channels are flat and shallow.

As in the chair above, regular narrow patterns and stripes are not especially good fabric choices for channeled upholstery.  The channels usually taper from bottom to top and those patterns will not match evenly - especially with a narrow horizontal repeat.  Solids, florals and more random patterns work well - as below, an extreme type of channeling.

Irregular channels on scrolled fireside chairs accent the shape of the backs.


Another variant is tufting.  Take the buttons mentioned above and pull them deeply into the padding.  The fabric will pucker around the button.  Control the puckering (it's all in which method) and you have a tuft.   Some are sewn, some are folded and others need special shaping of the underlying padding.

Tufted backs can be rather plush and are often used on backs with a deep curvature or that blend into an integrated arm. They take up slack that might otherwise form with a plush fill on a curved back.  With firm padding and deep buttons, tufts can also be quite firm.

Shallow tufts on a soft fill.

Classic diamond tufting, deep buttons and firm padding.  Note the random pattern in the fabric.

Because the tufts indent and fold the fabric, regular patterns (think grid block), stripes and high contrast patterns don't show well when tufted.  The pattern of the tufting clashes with the fabric motif, creating a jumbled look.  Low contrast tone-on-tone or monochrome patterns fare well.  Botanical clusters, vine patterns and other random patterns work well, too.  Textured solids show nicely and mini-prints can work.  Stiff fabrics just look sadly puckered.

Sometimes, rarely, a high contrast regular pattern can allow for tufting.  On the chair below, the larger pattern and the puffy nature of the padding allowed the tuft pattern to fit within the fabric pattern.  Kind of a 3D mosaic.  Luckily, the fabric was rather soft.

Loose tufts on plush fill.  Tufts were positioned to keep the regular pattern of the fabric.

Thanks for reading!  I hope it helps.  Questions or feedback?  Comments are open.

The furniture workshop of JH Conklin & Co. upholsters furniture for people and businesses throughout Southern New Jersey, Delaware, Philadelphia metro and the southern shore areas. The workshop also provides custom window treatment and fabric resources.

Our general service area includes: Gloucester County, Camden County, Burlington County, Cape May County, Atlantic County, Cumberland County, Salem County, NJ; Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia county in Pennsylvania; and New Castle County DE.  #NJupholstery