SOFA STARLETS: Avoiding the "D" List!

Posted on 17 January 2016

We’ve all seen it and avert our eyes to avoid looking at it… the sad, disheveled sofa that’s been abandoned at the curb left to rot in place.  If it’s lucky, a college student might nab it and give it a second life, but most are quietly hauled away and probably just die in a landfill somewhere.  As you spot it, you may find yourself thinking: “What happened to you?!  How did you get to that point??”  And the answer is that once it’s lost its beauty, it’s tossed aside like an aging starlet who’s partied way too much….

When considering the purchase of a sofa, many get sucked in by the beauty on the surface.  They choose the route of buying an off-the-shelf piece rather than a custom-fabricated sofa because the cost difference can seem a bit daunting. Before making a decision, however, here’s a bit of info to help in the decision process.

 First, keep in mind that a large portion of the cost with larger manufacturers goes toward marketing and advertising, catalogs, sales people and storefronts, which doesn’t leave much to build a quality sofa!  So the kicker is, even if you spend a considerable amount of money, you may be getting a scrawny, poorly-built piece of furniture with a lot of beautiful marketing material to accompany it.  By contrast, a small, quality upholsterer has much less overhead and a strong motivation to keep each client happy.

An Expensive Sofa Doesn’t Always Translate to Quality! And...
Natural Innards are Always Best!

Look past its surface beauty.  A good sofa starts at its innards!  The bones of well-made sofas are constructed from 1.25” solid wood (Alder is best), with joints held together using double-doweling.  The corners of the frame are fitted with blocks that are glued and screwed together, producing a strong frame with just enough give to keep it from splitting when Little Johnny takes a turn too fast and ends up ramming his Big Wheel into it.

By contrast, frames of mass-produced brands are often constructed out of plywood or particle board and held together with so many staples you’d think whoever built it got paid by the staple.  With such flimsy bones, the beauty of a sofa will pass its prime quickly and begin showing signs of misshaping, sagging, breakage and excessive partying (which will inevitably lead to getting written up in the tabloids).

Other key sofa innards include the type of materials used for webbing, the twine holding springs in place, the density and quality of the foam, and type of padding wrapped over the shape of the frame.

Using natural materials in lieu of man-made nylon is always the best route.

Jute webbing from India serves as the sturdiest platform for the springs; they are held in place by 8-way hand tying made of Italian twine.  Collectively, these two elements work together to hold the bones of the frame and springs in place and keep the sofa from stretching and shifting.  The only place on a sofa where the use of nylon doesn’t compromise longevity is on the sides.  The outside of the frame should get a nylon webbing which provides an underlying strength and support to the final fabric.  Like going to a fly-by-night plastic surgeon in Tijuana, mass-produced sofas often skip this part, leaving the sides flimsy and vulnerable to injury.

As a cost-cutting measure, many manufacturers instead take the man-made route, fabricating bases and using twines made of nylon, which over time stretch and result in the springs moving and the frame losing its shape.  This, combined with the above mentioned lousy bones is the perfect storm of “cheap sofa” (or ending up on the show “Botched”).

Once the frame has been constructed, the next step is covering it.  Here again, the best upholsterers start with combination of what’s called “50/50 cotton” batting to create the shape and softness with an overlay of quality foam and then polyester batting. Since natural fibers have more inherent resiliencies, even after years of use, they spring back and hold their shape.  As you might guess, mass-produced sofas tend only to use polyester batting and wimpy foam. Using highly resilient foam with a density of 2.5 per pound will ensure that over time your sofa won’t feel like a fence post draped with burlap.

Since not every space is the same, the mass-produced sofas offered in standard sizes of 5, 7 or 8 feet don’t always fit the scale of the intended space and can seem as awkward in a room as Tara Reid trying to pull off Shakespeare.  A custom-built sofa, however, enables you to get exactly what suits the space and offers an almost endless amount of design options above and beyond fabric, feet, and firmness.

As luck would have it, there are a slew of small, highly-skilled upholstery shops everywhere, but the trick is how to find them.  If you’re not up to the on-site research and hunt, a good designer is your best bet.  When you hire a designer, you gain access to the relationships he or she has with talented professionals who are tried and true and vested in keeping a long-term business partnership.

Another bonus of having a well-built sofa means you aren’t stuck with its shape for eternity!  A skilled upholsterer can strip the sofa and re-work the frame to suit your changed tastes by adding or taking away from the existing frame to create a higher/lower/curvier/straighter aesthetic.  In the event that you don’t have a sofa with good bones, you would have to start from scratch and hit the stores again, because recovering a poorly built sofa would not be a wise use of money.  And no one wants to be the heartless monster who abandons their sofa at the curb.


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