Disaster Resources - University of Illinois Extension

Buying Upholstered Furniture

Shopping for upholstered furniture can be tricky because much of what you are paying for can't be seen. It is wise to be well informed and ready with questions when you begin shopping for that special sofa or chair.

Types Of Furniture

Overstuffed. The filling or stuffing is applied over the frame. It does not mean that too much stuffing was used.

Exposed Frame. Certain parts of the framework such as arms or legs are exposed wood, but the seat and back are upholstered.

Styles

Your taste and preference will probably guide your choice of style. However, within the range of styles you will find loose cushion or "tight back" construction. Loose cushions, if well made, have the advantage of being reversible. Tight backs and seats cannot be reversed, but they won't shift or slip out of place as loose cushions might do.

Major Cost Factors

Construction

  • Frame may be molded plastic or wood. If wood is used, it should be seasoned, kiln dried hardwood (maple, ash, birch or oak) which will maintain its shape. Soft woods are more likely to warp or split. Pieces should be joined with dowels or mortise and tenon joints rather than simply butted together. Exposed wood should be smooth and well finished. Look for corner blocks that are screwed and glued to secure corner joints. Staples are a sign of lesser quality if used in place of screws.
  • Springs. The number of coil springs and how they are tied and reinforced will determine cost and quality. In better furniture many coils are used in close formation while in inferior pieces the coils are farther apart. Each spring should be tied eight ways (or more) to hold it in the proper position.
  • Webbing is found under the springs. The webbing should be woven or laced tightly. In poor quality construction you can see between the webbing strips. If sheet webbing is used, it should be reinforced with steel straps under each row of springs.
  • Padding is important in determining the comfort and quality of a chair or sofa. Better quality pieces have two or three layers of padding. Types of cushioning include down, polyurethane foam, natural latex foam rubber, and polyester fiber. Cushioning should be evenly distributed and should conceal the feel of the springs and frame.

Covering

  • Fabric is the first thing you see and is a major selection factor. Fabrics are priced according to grade. Grades are determined by quality, design, and the amount of fabric needed to match patterns if the fabric has a design motif. Fabrics may be non-pile weaves (damasks, satins, basket weaves, and tweeds) or pile fabrics (velvet, corduroy and plush).

  • Fiber. There are two categories of upholstery fibers: natural and synthetic or man-made. Natural fibers include cotton, linen, silk and wool. Leather, although not a "fiber," is also considered a natural material. Often, natural fibers are combined with synthetics so that the resulting fabric has the best characteristics of both fibers. Generally, synthetic fibers are durable and take dye well. Nylon, olefin, and vinyl have excellent soil resistance. Fabric performance is determined by many complex factors and is difficult for the average person to judge. Try pulling the fabric sample in several directions to test for strength. The yarns should not separate. Run a fingernail over the fabric to see if it pulls or marks easily. Surface loops, nubs and other textures may break and show wear under normal usage. If fabric is a dyed print, the dye should go through to the underside of the fabric.
  • Tailoring is the way the fabric panels are stitched together. Look for even stitching and smooth surfaces with no puckering or wrinkling. Welting or cording, if used, should be straight and smooth. Buttons should be firmly attached. Cushion zippers should be flat and smooth. Stripes or patterns should be centered and matched. The "deck" or platform under the cushion should be color coordinated to the fabric used and of a tightly woven material.
  • Finishes. Special finishes can be applied to fabrics to make them easier to clean and more resistant to soiling. Ask the salesperson about availability, guarantees and cost.
  • C.O.M. (customer's own material). Some stores will offer the service of letting you select a fabric other than that which is provided by the manufacturer. If you choose to order the fabric separately, you would usually order the sofa or chair at the price you would pay for the lowest grade of fabric plus a service charge and, of course, you pay separately for the fabric.

Sit And Read

While you are looking for the style you like, in a fabric that is serviceable and attractive, take time to sit on the piece and see if it is comfortable. Bounce gently to test for solid construction, and check for squeaks, lumps, or bumps. Read the tags and labels to discover what materials are used and what guarantees/warranties are offered.

Questions To Ask Your Salesperson

  • How is the frame constructed?
  • What material is used in the frame?
  • What is the fabric grade?
  • Ask to see the underside and check the webbing and construction.
  • Check the "deck" fabric under the seat cushion for strength.
  • Ask about finishes and guarantees.
  • Ask about complimentary interior design service, if you desire it.
  • How long will it take to receive it, if it is a special order?
  • Can you order extra arm covers?

Sources

Council of Better Business Bureaus, Inc. (1990). The Better Business Bureau A to Z buying guide. New York: Henry Holt.

Fuschsen, C., & Carter, P. H. (1985). Upholstered furniture (Home Furnishings Fact Sheet). Urbana: University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.

Prepared by Barbara Dahl, Consumer & Family Economics Educator, June 1994.

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