One Stitch at a Time

In the corner of a no-frills workshop north of Boston, a carpenter is hand-tying metal springs to a bed frame, his fingers weaving a spider web of cotton yarn across the coils. Nearby, a colleague stretches yards of plaid wool fabric over a wingback chair, taking care to align every stripe with every edge of every cushion. “Once people watch us do this, they never look at furniture the same way,” says Kevin McLaughlin, third-generation CEO of McLaughlin Upholstering. “When you’ve been spoiled with nice stuff, you don’t want to sit on a stiff sofa.”

Design-wise, McLaughlin might just be New England’s best-kept secret, serving as a go-to resource for persnickety décor pros (local designer Frank Roop has been known to fill entire houses with such made-to-order pieces) and homeowners who can’t find the ottoman of their dreams. Almost all projects are made from scratch, starting with as little as a pencil sketch, fabric swatch, or magazine tear-out. Working with outside metal- and woodworkers to create frames, McLaughlin first builds life-size models, allowing customers to modify their designs before final construction begins. Once approved, a piece can take up to 10 weeks to produce; the 120-year-old company turns out more than 400 custom pieces a year, from sofas and side chairs to plush headboards and throw pillows.

The services don’t come cheap—the average couch takes almost 60 man-hours to upholster, and some of McLaughlin’s high-end sofa designs sell for $15,000 or more. (Most items are commissioned and sold through designers.) And it’s no sweatshop; many of the skilled craftsmen earn $50 an hour. But their finished, hand-stitched products last decades, thanks to details like the stuffing—instead of foam, which breaks down over time, most McLaughlin furniture is filled with a mix of horsehair and down.

Sometimes, bespoke projects turn into signature styles. “See this piece?” McLaughlin says, gesturing toward an olive-colored slipper chair on the factory floor. “We’ve made this half a dozen times. We did it for one designer, then someone else wanted it bigger and in a different print. And so the design evolves.” Another client wanted the same couches replicated for his home, his office, and his vacation home. To keep up, the company catalogs every item they’ve manufactured. “When you take the time to work with people on a quality product,” McLaughlin explains, “it’s pretty likely they’ll be back for more.”