upholstered chair with pillow

The Ultimate Guide To Selecting High Quality Upholstered Furniture

Are you ready to look for new upholstered furniture? Are you sure you know what to shop for, besides good looks and better price? Here is the ultimate guide for everything you’ll want know about upholstered furniture before you set out on this important shopping adventure.

saggy upholstered chair
You loved this chair, but it isn’t loving you back anymore.

The sofa looks tired

It sags in places. It’s lumpy. The fabric is old, worn, stained and/or ripped.

The sofa design doesn’t work with your current décor because you’ve been lugging it around since college.

Whatever. It’s time for a change.

Why are sofas important?

You probably have a sofa in your living room. It’s a given. And you didn’t give it a second thought.

We sit or we stretch out to:

  • Nap, read or watch a big screen.
  • Lounge around talking to friends and loved ones. 
  • Be cuddly with selected friends and loved ones.
  • Play games.
  • Eat casual snacks and meals.

do you need an upholstered sofa?

You don’t, if you couldn’t care less about being comfortable. Any old flat surface, sheltered from the “elements” will do.

I’m going out on a limb and guessing this is not your first choice.

What makes some upholstered furniture more comfortable and long lasting than others?

So here’s the thing: if we assume there will be some upholstered furniture in your home, why is it that most of us don’t know what makes some upholstered furniture more comfortable and durable than another similar looking upholstered piece?

in lieu of information, we make assumptions

If you shop at a high-end brand name store, are you sure that:

  • Comfort and quality are baked into the brand?
  • The degree of comfort and quality is reflected in the price?
  • Purchasing from a “quality” name brand furniture store is a safe bet?

Maybe…but maybe not

high cost is not a barometer for high quality

It’s smart to make specific construction inquiries on any upholstered furniture of interest, regardless of the brand reputation of the vendor.

Some very high-end companies sell very expensive, poor quality upholstered furniture.

gold wainscot and walls, heavy brocade drapery and loveseat.
Custom upholstery is considered a luxury for good reason. It’s literally hand-made from scratch with the best materials and the finest fabric.

what is the most expensive, highest quality upholstered furniture And why?

Until fairly recently, the only reliable route to the quality upholstered furniture of your dreams was to have it custom-made. Usually, you would collaborate with an interior designer to work out the details and over-see production and delivery.

Your designer’s responsibility was to know how your furniture was made and with what materials. If you asked, the price would be explained and justified. You could be assured the right materials were used for the best construction, with the added benefits of a made-to-measure piece of furniture AND your choice of fabric.

Custom upholstery is considered a luxury for good reason.
It’s literally hand-made from scratch with the best materials and finest fabrics available.

can good upholstered furniture from retail stores be affordable?

Let’s take SOFAS for example:

We don’t lack for choice, but it’s not clear what the differences are between a $700-$1500 sofa, a $2500-$5000 sofa and a $10,000-20,000 sofa.

At first glance, WHY some upholstered furniture costs more than others is baffling. Any prospective consumer is justified to be skeptical.

This is why YOU should know what constitutes Bad, Better and Best quality upholstered furniture.

Everyone wants the best value for the least amount of money, BUT you can seriously undermine your long term satisfaction by purchasing for cost instead of value. Well made upholstered furniture lasts for many years. It will look good and age well, with potential re-upholstery every 10-15 years or so.

Cost amortized over time = value.
In other words, how much and how often do you want to RE-SHOP your upholstered furniture?

dark room, man, laptop
Shop on line first to narrow down what you like, what works & what works with your budget.

can you shop for good furniture on-line?

Yes and No. On-line is the way we shop now, because it’s the most efficient way to look at various product lines. It’s the easiest way to start narrowing down what you like, what will work and what will work within your budget parameters.

BUT if you buy on-line without “visiting the furniture” in person first, you do so at your own risk.

Anything for sale on-line will be photographed and shown to best advantage, of course. This is where the assumption that the product IS as good as it looks may do you in.

That sofa may look great, be affordable and have speedy delivery BUT, you won’t know until it arrives, that it might only have all the high quality construction of a cardboard box.

You want comfortable furniture that will hold up and look good for a long time.

How can you be sure of that from a photo?

upholstered chair in store
There is no substitute for actually sitting on upholstered furniture before you purchase

visit upholstered furniture in person before purchase If possible

Why? How complicated can this be? It’s not, if you know what to look for (more about that later). The main point is that you can’t assess on-line how any given piece of furniture is going to fit your body. Seat depth, height and the pitch of the back are variable. Also, HOW you like to sit or lounge in different rooms, with differing purposes, is a matter of personal preference.

There is no substitute for “in-real-life” 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?

seat depth matters

Do you lounge or sit on your sofa?

  • Are your sofa and chairs meant for rooms where you might lounge back or curl up to relax while watching a big screen? Then deeper furniture (44″+) is perfect. Layer on extra throw pillows to adjust the depth when needed.
  • Is your furniture for use in areas meant for conversation? Then a shorter seat depth (around 19″ to 21″) will allow you to sit upright and be comfortable.

picture details upholstered sofa construction
Well made upholstered furniture includes all the details for fine construction

how is good upholstery constructed?

There are certain “good upholstery” basics to look for regardless of your budget, whether it’s ready-made, semi-custom or entirely custom-made.

This is where your money will be well spent or not.

This is why you want to talk to the sales consultants wherever you are considering a purchase. Inquire about what fills the cushions and what base spring system is used.

The construction of any upholstered piece affects the quality and longevity in ratio to the cost.

This is an inside job: the best upholstered furniture has these features. (refer to photo above)

  • Kiln dried hardwoods, (maple, for example) and hardwood laminates, double doweled, both glued and screwed at the joints and corner bracing.
  • Eight-way hand tied coiled springs in the base are considered top of the line construction. There are other spring systems that are very good and less expensive as well.
  • Spring edges are used on many styles.
  • Back springs for maximum seating comfort.
  • Protective cover for the back springs.
  • Fiber backs encased in ticking with individual filled channels.
  • High resiliency foam cushions surrounded with luxurious fiber/down/feathers encased in a polyester cover.
  • Premium seat denim.
  • Cotton batting creates shape, protects the outer cover and pads the front of the base. Knocking into a hard wood base in nobody’s idea of “nice”.
  • Exposed wood legs are made from select hardwoods

The most important point is stability. Heavy and solid is good.

why is an eightway hand tied spring system considered to be the best?

Some sort of spring/webbing system base is essential because it acts as a “shock-absorber” for your cushions and is very instrumental in increasing the their longevity before replacement.

No system is more comfortable than eight-way-hand-tied springs. They offer the most even support over the entire cushion for sitting and they don’t sag or move.

However, this system is expensive because it’s so labor intensive to produce. There are reputable companies that offer excellent alternative spring/coil systems that are much less labor intensive and are consequently less expensive.

what is pirelli webbing?

This is a recent re-purposing of Italian tire rubber, but already a common support system used in many modern sofas. This is because Pirelli webbing allows for support in sofa designs that can’t accommodate the depth of regular base support systems. While it will last several years, eventually the webbing will sag.

upholstered chair with flower pots
Good upholstery looks as perfectly finished as it is constructed

what’s inside a seat cushion?

Not surprisingly, there are different types stuffing. Also not surprising, there will be a difference in cost, depending labor and cost of goods.

General seat cushion composition

  • Old school, high maintenance feather and down. Once upon a time, all feather/down filling, (80% white goose down and 20% white goose feathers) was considered the most lux way to go. 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 (called a Marshall Unit) wrapped in layers of high density foam. Another wrapping of poly-dacron, or a fiber-feather combo is applied around the springs and foam. This construction mimics feather/down filling without the required daily fluffing…soooo comfy with no upkeep and a very long life.
  • The lower-end version of spring down seats. These would be variations of a couple of layers of different density foams with a fiber-feather combo wrap, but without the springs.
  • The usual and customary filling. Typical stuffing for the average sofa or chair is a foam cushion with a poly-dacron wrap. This makes for firm but comfortable seating.
cheaply upholstered gold chair
Look for straight seams and solid construction when shopping

Is low cost, high quality furniture an oxymoron?

It depends on where you shop. It’s smart to investigate high-end outlet stores if you are familiar with the component parts of good construction. (see details above) You might get very lucky indeed.

Otherwise, anything is possible in Utopia.

If an item is cheap, it’s probably because it’s poorly constructed with cut-rate materials. Not only will your bargain furniture be saggy/lumpy/uncomfortable sooner rather than later, but the inexpensive fabric it was upholstered in will look worn and discolored in very short order too.

Pay attention to obvious red flags

  • If it “talks” to you when you sit on it, something is amiss.
  • Take notice of the little things: are the seams straight and finished well?

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.

When you think about it overall, how is CHEAP a bargain? 

What is Semi-custom upholstered Furniture?

There are programs available in many reputable furniture companies that offer options that were previously only available with true, custom-made furniture.

This means that once you have found the right frame that “fits” you and your preferred “cushy” level, you can then create the LOOK and STYLE of your selection in almost countless ways.

potential customization options to choose from

  • Overall depth, arm and leg styles as well as type of back cushion
  • Wood finishes
  • Wide selection of fabric or leather upholstery materials at varying price points
desk with furniture sketch for selecting fabric swatches
It’s worth taking time to plan the design and color details for semi-custom furniture

furniture companies usually have a wide selection of fabrics and leathers to choose from

Some of these options will be available as “stock”. This type of furniture inventory is pre-made from a limited selection of best selling fabrics and ready for delivery from the warehouse. Stock items have a better price point for this reason.

There are times though, when the fabric selection doesn’t have what you are looking for. You can purchase the yardage needed separately from fabric vendors, usually through a designer, if not a retail source. This type of purchase is referred to as C.O.M., or Customer’s Own Material. Once it’s purchased, your sales consultant will give you shipping instructions for delivery to the appropriate workroom.

short checklist for fabric selection options

  • 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. Lean towards interesting, textured neutrals for your most used furniture. You’ll be able to use colorful rugs, artwork, etc more easily.
  • Durability: understand the natural life of some fibers. Silk for example is very fragile and fades at the mere hint of sunlight. Fabric companies submit their textiles to rigorous testing, including a run through equipment that “double rubs” the fabric thousands of times to rate durability. A heavy duty rating would be 20,000 double rubs.
  • Fabric cost vs. service longevity. 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.
sofa upholstered in leather is a great choice
Leather upholstery is both beautiful and durable with care

Is leather really a good choice for upholstery?

Yes, leather can be a great, long lasting choice. Some leathers more scratch resistant and easier to clean than others, by design.

Leather tends to fade faster than fabric if placed near sunny windows. You can extend the life of leather and help minimize fading by wiping leather furniture down with a leather conditioner every 6-12 months.

Checkout Crypton leather. It’s cleanable with bleach, anti-bacterial and also has properties that will help reduce color fade and UV damage.

There will be stock and C.O.M. options here too. As always, make inquiries with your design consultant.

yellow slipcovered sofa
Slipcovers offer the additional benefit of easy cleaning

what about slipcovers?

Slipcovers are an option if your existing furniture is still in good shape and serviceable. They can be removed for dry-cleaning, or in some cases, can be machine washed. You could have a set of slipcovers for the cold months and a different set when it’s warm for seasonal variety.

Buzz Kill: The cost of reupholstery or 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 superior construction to ensure a long, lovely, comfy life, it could make more sense.

Don’t wash slipcovers, unless the manufacturer specifically gives the OK. Washing them changes the body of the fabric and could cause some shrinkage. The cover may not fit as well afterwards, if it fits at all.

what are delivery times for semi-custom furniture

Sign of the times: Cheap, fast, good.
Pick two.

It takes time to fabricate a fine piece of furniture. The workmanship includes more labor intensive details. Producing fine furniture, given the more intricate labor, requires using better construction materials too.bUnfortunately, since the global pandemic, materials in general are harder to come by. Even more so, with higher quality materials.

Long delivery times have become a fact of life.

don’t forget to measure aLL points of entry

If you are planning to purchase large items like a sofa, you MUST measure your doors, hallways and elevator (if you have) before placing any new furniture orders, even if they “look” big enough. Some furniture companies offer Fit Appointments. If so, by all means take advantage and let the experts measure for you.

Over To You

I’d love to know what you think...

Was there a tip that was especially helpful? Hopefully, you found a little inspiration and maybe even resolved a long standing quandary brilliantly!

are there other topics you might be interested in?

Setting out to create the best version of beautiful home design, tailored especially for you, has a lot of potential questions built in. Please let me know. I’m here to help.

Don’t miss a thing!

Follow me on Pinterest, or Facebook better yet, why not subscribe to the Decoding Decor Newsletter?

Get all the “How-To’s” and “Logical Whys” you can use to decode your own home decor delivered right to your mailbox. You’ll have the latest posts in the Library from Elements of Decor and Design & Style to help you, help yourself to the home you’ll love to come home to. Sign up in the box at the bottom of this page!

Pin this post To read later

Are you ready to look for new upholstered furniture?
Are you sure you know what to shop for, besides good looks and better price? Why does pricing for upholstery have such a wide range from "less expensive" to "serious investment consideration"? What constitutes high quality upholstered furniture, actually? Do you get what you pay for? You are in the right place. Here is the ultimate guide for everything you'll want know about upholstered furniture before you set out on this important shopping adventure.

about the author

Cindy Bergersen is a professional design consultant turned full time writer about home design: what is it, how it works and how to make it work for anyone. Decades of experience as a design consultant to private clients, retail clients for well known, high end furniture retailers has proved to be invaluable training. She is both passionate and committed to sharing her experience and knowledge to help anyone, to help themselves to a beautiful, comfortable home, without feeling confusion or overwhelm about where to start and how to proceed. She lives in New York with Olivia, the cat. When not writing posts, she can be found cycling through city parks, watching a lot of film, or curled up on the sofa with a good book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.