Master's Class: Upholstery 101

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Most people would not argue that upholstered pieces form the backbone of most the rooms in their home. And yet—I find it alarming how few people are armed with enough facts to make informed decisions when shopping for these big, important purchases.

A typical piece of upholstery has 4 major components: the frame, the springs, cushion-fill and covers. Now, any combination of these can produce a comfortable piece—the real question that needs to be answered is less about initial comfort (you know, when you settle into the piece in the store and declare, “This is the one!”) and far more about what sort of wear and tear the piece will face and how long you intend for it to last. With my clients, I prefer to buy the best structure that we can afford, so that we can have a piece that will last a long time, even if we have to recover it several times in its life.

Image via merchant circle

Frames

Almost all frames are made from hardwood, but in particular you should look for KILN-DRIED Hardwood (caps for emphasis). This is wood that has been heat dried (as the name suggests), which makes it both stronger and more stable. Luckily, you will find most pieces that are available will be made from this material. However, what sets a quality frame apart is the way the individual pieces are joined. A lesser-made piece may be dowelled, screwed, glued or stapled together. What you really want is a frame that uses a combination of at least three of these techniques. You will find that seeking out this quality is the most important when you are considering, for instance, a sofa in your family room, where it will have to hold up to a lot use.

Springs

One of the most important aspects of your upholstery is how it is sprung. Essentially all pieces will be done in one of the following three ways, listed below. Each style has its own pros and cons, but I personally still believe that the highest-quality technique that produces a comfortable “sit” and longevity is the “eight-way” hand tied (hey, sometimes you just can't beat tradition).

“Eight-way” hand tied: In this system each spring is tied to each other and then to the frame eight ways; front-to-back, side-to-side and diagonally. This system creates an even comfort across the piece and prevents “give” in the frame. This technique is generally regarded as both the most comfortable and longest-lasting way to build a piece of upholstery, pictured at left.

“Drop-in” machine tied: This is more of a mass-produced technique using a pre- assembled machine-made coil system that is dropped into the frame. It is typically fastened to the frame only at the corners. While this technique is gaining popularity, it presents issues for people that are looking for longevity and durability.

“Sinuous” springs: This technique uses “S” shaped springs that are attached to the frame front and back. It results in a fairly stiff sit, and you will find this used in a lot of contemporary furniture styles, especially out of Europe.

Cushion Fill

This is probably the most tangible part of your upholstery purchase. It is almost impossible to see the frame and springs in a completed piece, but the fill of the cushion will reveal itself the moment you sit down. Cushions will have one of three types of fill: Dacron, Spring-Down or Blended Down. In my designs, I tend to use a mostly Dacron seat cushion with a mostly Blended Down back cushion, as I feel it gives you the best combination of comfort and ease of use. But here is a breakdown of the pros and cons of each:

Dacron: In this technique a high density foam is used at the core of each cushion, which is then wrapped in dacron. This is a very common technique and offers the user a couple of big advantages, as it is the least expensive and it also requires the least maintenance. This is because foam and dacron bounce back to their original shape almost immediately.

Image via Real Simple

Spring-Down: These cushions are built around a spring unit that is wrapped in dacron and usually covered in muslin, which is then wrapped in either more dacron or with down. The springs in theory give the cushions support, while the outer wrap provides the softer, more luxurious feel. Personally, I am not so much a fan of this technique, as it is not only more expensive, but with advances in foam construction I can achieve the same quality more easily with foam cores.

Blend-Down: This is the technique I favor. It begins with a sturdy foam core that is then wrapped in down or a down blend. The foam core allows the cushion to keep its shape, while the down creates the softness that most people are looking for in their furnishings. However, I will give you one word of caution— an all-down wrap does require maintenance, and needs to be fluffed regularly to keep its “loft”. This is why I prefer the technique I stated earlier, and suggest you do the same: more dacron on your seat cushions and more down on your back cushions.

Covers

While I could probably write an entire book on the pros and cons of one cover versus another, there are basically two camps—natural versus man-made fibers. Within each of those groups there are many varieties and blends, but here is basic breakdown that might help you make a more educated choice between them all.

Natural Fibers: These include cotton, linen, wool and silk. All of these fibers will wear well, albeit in different ways. For a heavy-use situation I think cotton is a great choice; it cleans easily, breathes well and holds color in a very reliable way. In a more formal situation, silk or wool would be good choices, though with both of them exposure to sunlight will create an issues with keeping color and sun rot (or the process of fibers weakening over time in sunlight).

Man-Made Fibers: There have been so many advances in this category it is hard to keep up these days. Almost any natural fiber you can think of now has a man-made counterpart. Typically, though, you will get great stain-resistance and wear-strength out of a man-made fiber. Most of these fibers still have some fading issues, so be careful in areas with a lot of natural, direct light. On another note, you may also be surprised to know that some of these fibers now offer amazing fire resistance, such as Trevira, which can now be found in linen, cotton and silk lookalikes.

Image via archithings
Image via One King's Lane

Last note: good luck in your hunt for unique and durable furnishings! I hope you can use this handy guide as a way to make more informed decisions before heading to the checkout line for purchase. And if you’d like advice on a particular question regarding your upholstery, feel free to send me a shout out @markcutler. I relish the opportunity to give you all at nousDECOR more of my design expertise.

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