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Designer tip: When in doubt, cover it up


In Victorian times, the change of seasons was heralded by a metamorphosis of decor: In the springtime, dark sofas and chairs were transformed by pale linen slipcovers, which were whisked off to storage with the first brisk breezes of autumn.

The ritual was repeated for decades, but with the advent of modern conveniences like air conditioning and Scotchguard fabrics, slipcovers were deemed passe, a quaint vestige of Great-grandma's generation.

But, true to the adage that if you wait long enough everything comes back into style, slipcovers have resurfaced -- and with such a boom that even retailers are surprised.

"We never dreamed it would become such a monster business," said Liana Toscanini, the marketing manager of Sure Fit, a New York company whose inexpensive casual slipcovers are sold through various outlets including Caldor, Spiegel and the JC Penney catalog. Six months ago, Ms. Toscanini said, her company produced 8,000 slipcovers a week; now they're producing 30,000 -- and the demand is still growing.

Indeed, just flip through decorating magazines and catalogs -- -- Spiegel, Pottery Barn, Ballard Designs -- or stroll through a furniture store, and you'll see plump, enveloping sofas and chairs slipcovered in everything from seersucker to cut velvet.

Why the current craze for cover-ups? Lon Habkirk, the creative director of furniture for Crate and Barrel, attributes the slipcover renaissance to current furniture trends, plus the "cleanability and versatility factors."

"We're into a relaxed look now," he said. "Instead of the formal, hard-edged pieces of the Eighties, we're now into furniture that is cozy and inviting -- something you want to sink into."

"And if you have young kids and pets, you don't have to worry about dirt with slipcovers because you just remove them, drop them off at the dry-cleaners or pop them in the washer," he said. "And when you get tired of a style or want to freshen your furniture up for the summer, you can get a new look without spending a fortune."

Despite being touted for their practicality and economy, slipcovers can sometimes become a pricey investment. The Expressions chain offers big, plump sofas slipcovered in everything from damask to denim, from $1,500 to $2,500.

"Our more expensive styles are selling best," said Amy Freese of Expressions, based in Metairie, La. "Our customers are buying them for the look."

If you're a skillful sewer, you can whip up your own slipcovers at a fraction of the retail cost. But beware: Sewing your own slipcovers is no easy project. "Slipcovering is at the graduate-school sewing level," said Catherine Revland, author of Slipcover Chic" (Hearst Books). "It's not as hard as tailoring a suit, but it's tough."

Jean Schissel Norman, editor of Do It Yourself magazine, a publication from Better Homes and Gardens, recommends that do-it-yourselfers start with something simple and small, like an ottoman. The more fitted the style, the more difficult it is to make. Nevertheless, many Do It Yourself readers were eager to try their hand at slipcovers. In response to their demands, the magazine ran an article on how to re-cover a variety of chairs. There are no patterns, however, as slipcovers must be made to fit specific pieces of furniture.

"We did a survey and were surprised how many people wrote in requesting information on basic techniques for making slipcovers," says Ms. Norman. "If you can't afford to buy new furniture, slipcovers are a terrific way to change the look of a room."

Those whose sewing skills are zilch can try covering chairs with a fabric throw artfully pinned or stapled into place. With a lot of patience and creativity, you may achieve a fairly attractive look with this quickie cover, but more often than not the result resembles nothing more than a chair swathed with a sheet.

The Sure Fit slipcovers combine a large throw which you drape around the sofa or chair and then secure with a separate elasticized skirt.

"You have to spend a little time and play with it a bit to get it to look like the picture on the instruction sheet," conceded Ms. Toscanini. "The arms are the most difficult part to drape, but we show you how to pleat them." The slipcovers, which come in over 50 fabrics, cost $39.99 for a chair and $69.99 for a sofa.

If you'd prefer to have a professional make your slipcovers, you can get references from decorators, department stores or fabric stores.

Steve Gulin, owner of Artistic Slipcovers and Upholstery Co. in Baltimore, charges about $240 for a slipcover such as the one pictured in the photographs here. He does offer clients the option of providing their own fabric, however, which can lower the cost. The fabric pictured is about $12 a yard, but upholstery fabrics can be found for as little as $5 a yard. For labor alone, for this particular slipcover, Mr. Gulin would charge about $150. After he makes his measurements, it usually takes another two to three weeks before the slipcover is completed.

It's more economical to have a slipcover made than to have a piece of furniture completely reupholstered. Mr. Gulin, who offers both services, says customers frequently think they need to go to the expense of having a piece reupholstered, which costs about 2 1/2 times as much, when all that is necessary is maybe more stuffing in the pillow and a slipcover.

Which fabrics are best to use for re-covering? "Slipcover Chic" author Revland, who has been sewing for 30 years, advised using "natural fabrics like linen or heavy cotton that wash well." Ms. Norman's choices were canvas, twill and denim. Sheets, she said, are too lightweight.

Ballard Designs' spin on shabby chic style is their Vintage Vogue collection of slipcovered sofas, chairs and ottomans. Prices range from $1,175 to $1,445 for a sofa to $595 to $735 for a club chair.

According to Myriam Van Steenlandt, the merchandise manager Ballard Designs, the line is doing so well that it's going to be expanded.

"The slipcovered sofas and chairs are the big, squooshy kind," said Ms. Van Steenlandt. "You sit down and you're just enveloped in a sense of comfort and nostalgia. What more can you want?"

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