Upholstered furniture at it's finest. Even Grandma's sofa is great looking

How To Buy Upholstered Furniture Like A Pro

The sofa looks tired.

It sags in places. It’s lumpy. The fabric is faded/worn/spotted/stained/ripped. The color bears no relationship to the rest of the décor because you’ve been lugging said sofa around since college.
Totally true or not, you know it’s time for a change.

It’s the way we live. We sit or we stretch out to nap, to read or watch a big screen. We lounge around talking to friends and loved ones. It’s hard to imagine a home without at least one piece of upholstered furniture to “live” on.

We don’t lack for choice…but it’s not  clear as to what the differences are between a $1500 sofa, a $2500-5000 sofa and a $10,000- 20,000 sofa. Frankly, unless you know a least a little about what constitutes, good, better and best upholstered furniture, you’ll be not only baffled, but skeptical about why some furniture costs more than others.

More importantly, you will be hard pressed to understand why you are better served to buy the best your budget can afford.

The good old days, sort of. Until fairly recently, the only reliable route to the quality upholstered furniture of your dreams was to have it custom-made. You were assured of good construction, with the added benefits of a made-to-measure piece of furniture, in your choice of fabric.

Bespoke upholstery is a luxury for good reason: It’s expensive to produce well made furniture.

Getting real. While everyone wants the best value for the least amount of money, you can seriously undermine your long term satisfaction by purchasing for cost vs. value. Well made upholsterd furniture lasts for many years and will look great for as long as you own it (with the exception of re-upholstery every 10-15 years or so).

Shopping is different these days. Duh. You have probably noticed that we are no longer limited to shopping in stores. You can buy high quality furnishings “off the rack” and online.

Buying upholstered furniture online is actually worrisome: It’s not like you can look under the hood, as one would do if considering a car purchase.

Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but… Unless you very specifically just want an inexpensive item to satisfy need in a hurry, then you really are better off visiting your prospective purchases in person. You want to be able to ask questions from a trained and experienced sales person in a reputable store…AND  you want to sit on the furniture itself to see if it fits YOU.

Why is that? How complicated can this be? It’s not complicated if you know what to look for (more about that shortly). What you can’t assess on line is how any given piece of furniture is going to fit your body. Seat depth, height and the pitch of the back are variable.  And, there is the major matter of personal preference in terms of comfort.

There is no substitute for personal experience. You want to “try on” a prospective piece of upholstered furniture as you would try on clothing before buying.

  • Is the arm height comfortable for you?
  • What about seat height and depth?
  • Do you prefer a firm seat or do you love sinking into something soft and cushy?

What am I doing here? As a general statement, if your sofa and chairs are meant for rooms where you will be watching a big screen to relax, then the deeper seats, roughly 22″ to 24″ (or even deeper in some cases) could be the right “fit” for you. With deeper seating, extra pillows for back support might be needed for smaller people or those with any back issues. If your furniture is for use in areas that are generally meant for conversation, you might be more comfortable in a seat depth around 19″ to 21″. A shorter seat will have you sitting more upright and alert.

Show me the money. There are certain “good upholstery” basics to look for regardless of your budget, whether it’s ready-made and off the showroom floor, or custom-made.

This is where your money will be well spent or not. Inquire as to what fills the cushions. The construction of any upholstered piece affects the quality and longevity in ratio to the cost.

Warning: there are companies that sell expensive furniture of very poor quality. This is one of the best reason to become an informed consumer.

It’s cheap because it’s cheap. This is probably because it’s poorly made with cut-rate materials. Not only will your bargain furniture be saggy/lumpy/uncomfortable but the inexpensive fabric it was upholstered in will look worn and discolored in very short order too.

How is that a bargain? Take this caveat with you when shopping for upholstered furniture: always buy the best quality you can afford. A well-made piece of furniture will hold up for many years, vs. kicked to the curb and replaced within five.

Beauty is only skin deep. Don’t make assumptions about the actual framework construction of a prospective piece of furniture. If it “talks” to you when you sit on it, something is amiss. Also, notice the little things, like whether the seams are straight and finished well.

Make specific construction inquiries and consider the reputation of the store where you are considering purchase.
This is an inside job; the best upholstered furniture has these features:
  • Kiln dried hardwoods, (maple, for example) and hardwood laminates, double doweled, both glued and screwed at the joints with corner bracing.
  • The top of the line is the eight-way hand tied coiled springs in the base. This spring system acts as a “shock-absorber” for your cushions and is very instrumental in increasing the life of your furniture.  However, it’s expensive to make. There are reputable companies that offer excellent alternative spring/coil systems that are much less labor intensive to create. Ask about the warranties. A good company will offer them on all parts.
  • Another point often overlooked is that the front of the base should be padded. Knocking into a hard wood base in nobody’s idea of comfort.
The most important point is stability.
Heavy and solid is good.

New kid on the block. What about Pirelli webbing? This is a recent re-posing of Italian tire rubber,  but already  a common support system now used in many modern sofas. This is because Pirelli webbing allows for support in sofa models that cannot accommodate the depth of regular base support systems . While it will last several years, eventually the webbing will sag.

Looks vs. comfort. There is no webbing system that compares to the comfort of a proper spring support system. This is why an 8-way hand-tied innerspring base is still considered the gold standard for upholstery interiors, cost not withstanding. They offer the most even, comfortable support over the entire cushion for your body and they don’t sag or move.

Old school high maintenance. It used to be that all feather/down filling, (80% white goose down and 20% white goose feathers) was considered the most lux way to go is. Though exceptionally comfy, it has to be fluffed up all of the time. If hired help is available, fine. Otherwise….

A spring down seat is the perfect solution. It’s a system of individual muslin covered springs wrapped in layers of high density foam, then wrapped with poly-dacron, or a fiber-feather combo. This construction mimics feather/down filling without the required daily fluffing…so comfortable with no upkeep and a very long life

Usual and customary.  Aside from the wonderfulness of a spring down seat, the typical stuffing for the average sofa or chair is a foam cushion with a poly-dacron wrap. This makes for firm but comfortable seating.

Great. You have identified well made upholstered furniture,  but what  does it look like?

The modern Bespoke Sofa. The best furniture companies have programs that offer options that were previously only available with true, custom made furniture. Semi-custom upholstery has become a popular alternative. You can choose overall depth, arm, back cushion and leg styles. You will select the wood finishes and a wide range of fabric or leather options.  You can also order “COM”, which means “customer’s own material” and supply the fabric from your own source.

Speaking of which: What should your furniture wear? Whether you are buying new upholstered furniture, reupholstering, or having a slipcover made for what you already own, it takes well considered thought to select just the right fabric.

This is where it gets complicated…

There is are seemingly limitless fabric options, in every conceivable color and material. This often produces total Consumer Paralysis due to confusion and indecision. Even if you do manage to make a decision, some unerring instinct will probably cause you to gravitate to the most beautiful, most expensive fabric at hand.

Fabulous, but does this fit your real life and real life style?

Fortunately, there are perfect and perfectly beautiful solutions for every budget.  Synthetic fabrics have improved to the point you can’t tell they are manufactured. They have higher stain resistance than natural fibers and can usually be spot cleaned. This makes them virtually kid/pet proof. Blends of synthetic fibers with natural fibers are available too.  The average price per yard is lower than with an all-natural fiber fabric in most cases.  You also get the easy cleaning properties of synthetics, along with the beauty and better “feel” of a natural fiber.

Here’s a short checklist to help inform your prospective decisions:
  • Consider the suitability of fabric weight (thickness), weave and texture for the intended use. A fabric with texture, versus a smooth finish, is less likely to show dirt, wear and spots. Medium to dark colors are good for the same reason. Unless the piece of furniture is specifically to be used as an accent piece, lean towards interesting, textured neutrals so you can more freely use colorful rugs, artwork, etc.
  • Durability: including an understanding of the natural life of some fibers. Silk, for example again, is very fragile, and fades at the mere hint of sunlight. Fabric companies, submit their fabric to rigorous testing, including a run through equipment that “double rubs” the fabric thousands of times to rate durability. A fabric that has been subjected to 20,000 double rubs is considered suitable for heavy duty. I should hope so.
  • Ease of cleaning and overall resistance to wear, dirt and spotting. Scotchgard is old school and doesn’t have a very long life. You are much better served to investigate High Performance fabric, particularly the brand Crypton. The stain resistance is inherent in the fibers themselves, and then there are additional treatments to add to ease of spot cleaning and durability. With some of the newer materials, spilled liquids will just “roll off” and never be absorbed in the first place
In other words re-think using a pale silk for the family room sofa where three small children, their friends, two dogs and a cat will be playing. You have much smarter options available to you.

Well, it used to be a cost effective idea. If your existing furniture is still in good shape and serviceable, consider slipcovers. Slipcovers are a less permanent investment, can be removed for dry-cleaning, as well as give you an opportunity for seasonal design variety. You could have a set of slipcovers for the cold months and a different set when it’s warm.

Buzz Kill: The cost of fabricating slipcovers has become almost as expensive as buying a new sofa. But then, perhaps it depends on the sofa. If you have purchased a great sofa for love and for life, it could make more sense.

Be forewarned. It isn’t a good idea to wash slipcovers, unless the manufacturer specifically gives the OK. Washing changes the body of the fabric, and could cause some shrinkage. The cover may not fit as well afterwards, if it fits at all.

We all like cheap, but consider the cost of fabric vs. longevity of service. Upholstery fabric can range in price from under $50 per yard (some canvases for example), to several hundred dollars for various reasons of fiber content, intricacy of weave, foreign manufacture, etc. Some fabrics, though expensive, are so beautiful and wear so well, that the initial high cost amortizes to a very good deal over many long years of use.

Cheap, fast, good: Pick two. It takes time to construct a fine piece of furniture. Better materials are used with more labor intensive details that enhance not only comfort but long term use.

Try not to squirm over-much with 10-12 week delivery times.

Wide load ahead. Don’t forget to check clearance dimensions for getting new furniture into the building, into the elevator, and through the doorway.

It’s an Urban Legend that hoisting the sofa up the side of the building and through the window is an easy alternate solution.
Large Photo: Decoding Décor Archive, “Patti’s Story”
I love your comments and do feel free to share!
These articles are written as guides with general advice to help you, help yourself find the best design solutions for your home. Please understand however, that it isn’t possible to give specific answers to your design and/or paint questions.
Thank you for the opportunity help where I can.



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