A random analogy came to me the other day and I’ve been really pondering on it. Is it too “cliché,” too tacky? My mom says its, “potentially off-putting” At this age, I really should listen to my mom, but here goes. Because...well, I like analogies and I think it’s funny.
What if we picked our spouses or significant others the way we pick upholstery?
I can imagine the scenario now, late-night chardonnay shopping on your phone (you know you do it – I do too)
“Hey. You’re looking good! I’ve been searching for YOU for-ever! That navy velvet looks really hot on you, and I’m loving your curvy arms and super sleek legs! Yeah baby. Single cushion? Tufts everywhere? No problem – I like high maintenance! Plus…at that price? With free shipping? I’d have to be insane to not want you!”
Fast forward a year or so.
“I’m just not sure how this is working out for us. Clearly this relationship isn’t going anywhere. Somehow, I thought you were going to be more supportive! More durable. I didn’t really expect that every time I sat on you I’d have to fix you. I had no idea your tufts would be so, how can I say this nicely…wimpy. You looked so plump and luscious in your profile picture! You know, It’s okay. It’s not you…It’s me. (but really, it’s you)”
Hold on. Just bear with me a minute. This is where I’m going to lose a few of you.
Yes, I know that’s a super simplistic analogy and that many lovely, high quality people are both incredibly trendy AND well-built, thank you very much. And yes, I understand that for many people, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and they don’t bother to even pay attention to the outside – because “true beauty is found within.” And to those of you uttering that phrase to yourself, number one, your momma raised you right and number two? I thank you for making my point for me!
So how about THIS honest approach instead?
“You know. I’ve really taken the time to think about who I am and what I need in my life. I’ve been around the block a bit and I’m comfortable with who I am. I know what I want, and if you fit into it…great!
I like long Netflix marathons, so I’m going to need you to need be supportive for hours on end. Fair warning, this is a potential deal breaker for me. Sometimes, I’ll even fall asleep on you and maybe I’ll just stay there all night. I expect comfort and I won’t settle for less!
I drink red wine and coffee and I tend to spill. But here’s the thing, I MUST be able to clean you up. Look, I know that’s asking a lot and I realize that will take some effort on my part. I’m just being honest here.
I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe so that means you need to be both classic and flexible. I just can’t make any promises about what your surroundings are going to look like in a few years. I’m sure you’re lovely and popular, but too trendy and I know that I’ll get tired of looking at you…and neither one of us wants that. I just don’t have time, energy or money to keep doing this “thing” over and over every few years! I want one and done, can we do this? Did I mention I have 4 children and a dog?”
If you want your upholstery to be a long-term commitment, there are a few things it MUST have in its construction. I’m not going to talk today about how we live in a disposable society, or how 9.8 MILLION TONS of furniture account for American trash. That’s a soap box for another day. But if you want to know how to make informed buying decisions about your upholstery, check out my online courses here.
I want you to be an educated consumer!
We spend more time reading the labels on our cereal boxes than we spend really researching about what is going on inside our sofa. Why aren’t we taking the time to learn about what is happening underneath that pretty fabric on our upholstery? Consumerism. Fast fashion. Keeping up with the Jones – or Kardashians or whatever. Sorry guys. That’s just NOT my thing and I’m unapologetic about it!
First let’s talk about the frame. A great chair relationship starts with a great frame! Stylistically? Stripped down, it’s just a box with different components added to create differently shaped arms, different types of backs, maybe even fancy legs. But without a good, solid lumber frame, the stress and weight of daily wear will cause it to crumble under normal couch potato usage. Frames should be built from kiln-dried hardwood, no. that is not the same as “engineered hardwood.” Not even close. Straight lumber, not warped, no knot-holes and preferably oak or maple. The purpose of kiln dried is to reduce moisture within the grain.
Joints should be double doweled, glued, blocked, and for good measure, screwed to keep that all important frame foundation square. Have you ever lifted the corner of a sofa and the rest of it stayed on the floor? Did it creak when you lifted it? It was likely stapled together. Staples don’t hold the grain of the wood together; the holes will loosen over time with weight pressure and their ability to keep the wood held tightly together diminishes. So, always choose frames that are reinforced with dowels, blocks and screws. Frames constructed this way will stand up to heavy wear, multiple superman leaps off the back (I know…no one in YOUR house ever does that) and maybe most importantly in this age, repeated moves.
Legs. Can we talk about legs for a minute? They really need to be an integral part of the frame, at the very minimum, the back legs should be part of the structure. When your seat has a long, consistent piece of wood with a solid graining pattern going from the top of the chair down to the floor, that is strength. For anyone who ever tips back in their chair, you know who you are and why this is important.
How about the foundation? Heavy jute webbing woven in a basket weave with very little space between straps is best. It is attached to the underside of the lumber frame to act as a foundation base for individual steel coil springs which come in different heights and the size will depend on the depth of the rail (the front part of the frame box) Steel spring coils can be either 8 gauge for firm or 9 gauge for medium firmness. These coil springs deflect independently and spring back into shape almost indefinitely. When reupholstering or restoring upholstery, the original springs are almost always reusable. In new construction, I’ve seen a movement toward nylon webbing to cut down on manufacturing costs, but I’m old school.
The individual coils are attached to the webbing base with a thick thread or a metal clinch-it clips. (These metal clinch-it clips are why you should be careful running you hand on the underside of coil spring upholstery.) The springs are tied together from back to front, side to side, and corners to corners to create what is often referred to as 8-way hand tied.
RANDOM TRIVIA: Before spring tying, springs were just placed on the foundation and stuffed with wool, straw or other natural fiber to hold them in place.
I really prefer when coil spring upholstery has a spring front edge, and here’s why. Downward pressure isn’t only in the tush part, it’s also in the knee area. Think about how you sit. When your behind is down, it’s pretty much stuck there. But what are your legs doing? I bet they’re fidgeting, crossing, stretched straight out. All that repeated movement creates compression on the front of a cushion. When the cushion is on a solid front edge rail, it has nowhere to go except to collapse, but with a spring front edge? It can deflect and preserve the front of your cushion, allowing it to last longer and keep its shape.
Let’s talk a bit about that seat cushion, shall we? There is a lot of debate about cushion fillings. There are people who sit firmly (Ha! See how I did that?) in the camp of “spring/down cushions are the best!” There are others who feel that only latex foam is the responsible choice, followed by an equally large contingency for standard polyurethane foam. I personally think that there is no right answer. There are pluses and minuses for each option and only your tush knows what it prefers. I will add this one caveat. If you choose to use a polyurethane, only purchase HR or High Resiliency foam and here’s why.
Foam, a petroleum based product, is rated with a series of four numbers. The first two digits are for density, the next two are for Indention Load Deflection, or ILD. Density is measured by weight per cubic foot. The higher the density, the firmer and heavier the foam because there is more product per cubic foot thus fewer air holes. More product per cubic foot translates to long term shape retention because the cells of the foam can support itself with product to maintain its shape for years to come. A High Resiliency foam is 3.0lb per cubic foot. Most manufactured furniture is 1.8lb per cubic foot and accounts for the sag and compression in cushions after just a couple of years of use.
Indention Load Deflection, ILD means how many pounds of pressure will it take to compress a piece of foam to 25% of its original height. For example, most upholstery seating foam is 4” thick. How many pounds of pressure will it take to push down the cushion 1”? An HR30 foam (considered a good rated foam) will take 30lbs of pressure. For a firmer cushion, many of my clients preferred an HR50, especially elderly or those with back or hip problems. A higher quality polyurethane foam will last about 15 years with regular use
Inner coil spring cushions are my personal favorite. But I will say this…I prefer vintage coil cushions to modern coil cushions. I feel like the quality of the Marshall spring units used these days isn’t what it used to be, and my professional upholsterer friends agree with me. It seems like the coil is a lighter gauge, somehow. And are often nestled in a foam box casing anyway, that foam may or may not be a higher quality, long wearing foam. It’s hard to know. Fewer manufacturers create proper spring coil cushions with multiple layers of cotton wrapping followed by a muslin wrap with a down envelope, because frankly it is costly.
A less common and much more expensive seating option is latex foam cushions. Gaining in popularity among the “green set” Latex supporters assert that Polyurethane foam off-gasses harmful chemicals into the air and that Latex is biodegradable. I’m still researching the properties of latex and I’ll get back with you on the details on if its manufacturing process. From an informal survey of professional upholsterers, they find it clumsy to work with, with a sofa size slab weighing about 50lbs. It is dense, heavy and very susceptible to degradation in heat and sunlight. Consumers will want to keep their upholstered pieces away from windows and hot air vents or risk their cushions becoming a crumbly mass of powdery dust. Those who have touched a crunchy, decomposed vintage chair know what I’m talking about.
Cushions are wrapped in either a down and feather blend envelope casing or a synthetic product called Dacron. While down has a really nice loft and creates a lovely crown effect, there are concerns about harvesting methods for the feathers and a gentler option is bamboo or microfiber filling. Which ever loose fiber is chosen, it will require regular maintenance to keep the airy loft effect. Fibers and feathers notoriously clump, leaving Dacron a popular choice for low care seating.
Moving up to the arms of an upholstered piece. We need to have a little chat here about a personal habit many of us have, (cue sad public service announcement music) Arm Sitting. Many people don’t give a second thought to perching on an upholstered arm at a party or gathering. What they don’t know is if that arm can support their weight and chances are, it can’t. Yet another reason why having legs as an integral part of the frame construction is so important!
When the front of the arm extends downward and terminates in a leg, as in a chair with a straight cushion, as opposed to a t-cushion, weight goes straight to the floor. Stress on the corner joints is minimized. But that’s a side note. Poorly constructed frames made of engineered wood, soft or knotty lumber, will buckle under the weight of a hefty arm sitter. Cardboard wrapped arms will crush, never to bounce back and short of reupholstering, they are beyond hope or repair. The same goes for an upholstered back. People perch there too! Only a kiln dried hardwood frame with vertical back rails will support a back sitter.
Back cushions, just like seat cushions they are a personal preference, but some materials hold up better than others. My personal preference is for a tight back style sofa or chair because loose cushions make me nutty; they always need to be fluffed or adjusted. But on a positive note if you have a loose back cushion sofa, it can double as extra sleeping for guests because the width increases when the back cushions are removed. The key to loose back cushions is maintenance. The fill needs fluffed daily whether its down or synthetic, it will tend to clump in the corners and bottom of the cushion. Pillow fight anyone?
Have I left anything out about frame construction? I hope not. Fabric is a whole other topic and one I’ll get into soon, but this is enough to digest for today. There are great upholstered frames out there to buy, if you are an informed consumer. Don’t just trust a brand to be good quality. Every manufacturer line has good frames and not-so-good frames. Investigate or buy vintage for a sure thing! Some days it feels as though I’m swimming upstream trying to convince consumers to search for vintage pieces to restore. The same tips I’ve shared here for new frames are valid for vintage and odds are you’ll have a much better product even after the investment of reupholstery than you would have for a similar price buying new.
One last soapbox stance. Invest in local upholstery craftsmen and really understand where your dollars are going!
Hi! I’m Richelle! I teach people who sit on sofas about the construction of upholstery and how to make sure it lasts!
I owned and operated a design studio and workroom for upholstery and draperies for over 6 years in the Kansas City area. I’ve seen the insides of well known brands. I know how different fabrics wear in real life and I’m here to share my insights.
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Thank you for reading!
XO - R