Pat McNees

Writer, editor, ghostwriter, personal historian

Quick Links

Find Authors

Finding the perfect sofa

by Pat McNees

This piece, copyright (c) by the author, first appeared in the Washington Post magazine, years ago.

In the world of furniture, nothing looms larger -- in the mind or in the room -- than a sofa. If it's a mistake, you're sure to know it every time you look at it. And nothing can deprive your family of comfort more easily than the sofa or any other upholstered piece of furniture. We asked some of the top experts in upholstery for their guidance in this matter.
"I adore this sofa with the blue flowers," you think. "I've always wanted a blue-flowered sofa. It's perfect for my living room."

You don't necessarily like the style of the sofa. It's okay, but what you really like is the blue flowers. The salesclerk says this is the only sofa that comes with those blue flowers, so you buy it.

Choosing upholstered furniture for the fabric is a mistake many people make, says Ann Lambeth of Lambeth & Co., a custom line of upholstered furniture available for viewing (through an interior designer) at the Washington Design Center in Southwest Washington. "First you should find the style of sofa you like and -- most important -- that you feel comfortable sitting in." Fabric, she points out, is something you select afterward.

"Basically almost any fabric in a manufacturer's line is available through an industry source," Lambeth says. "Only so many mills produce fabrics, and the manufacturers all go to the same mills. Occasionally there will be a six-month exclusive to a large customer or manufacturer. Almost without exception, that fabric will be available within six months to a year."

You fall in love with a bottle-green fabric, which you see first on a $2,000 sofa. You think, "I really can't afford to pay $2,000 for a sofa, but I adore the fabric." Then you walk into another store and see the same fabric on a sofa that is $500. You think, "Wow, a real bargain."

Again, you are looking at the fabric. "For $500, you are getting a $500 sofa, and for $2,000, you are getting a $2,000 sofa," says Lambeth. "The fabric is, at best, 10 percent of the price you are paying. The other 90 percent is for the construction of the sofa, which you cannot see. The reason you want a quality piece of upholstered furniture – the guts beneath the top layer -- is because the sofa that is built with quality materials will still look as good and be as comfortable two, six, 20 years from now as the day you bought it."

Designer Barbara Campbell, president of the local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers, concurs. "It's not possible to buy a good sofa for $500," she contends. "When you think about what the retailer and manufacturer have to make, not much is left for the goods that go into the sofa. Five-hundred-dollar sofas are often fabric staple-gunned to a frame, have no insides and are combustible. They're going to fall apart -- or catch on fire."

There can be a big difference between sofas, says interior designer Connie Healy. "You have to consider the style, tailoring, scale, manufacturer's reputation, type of cushion -- from foam to down -- and your budget. A good sofa is an investment that will last a long time."

But as Lambeth says, many of the things you should know about a piece of upholstered furniture aren't visible. A knowledgeable salesperson can answer your questions, or you can ask to see the manufacturer's brochure describing the construction of a particular piece. In terms of construction and tailoring, you should look for certain things:

* Are you comfortable? We all sit and are shaped differently. A designer can make you comfortable by combining different seats and backs. Comfort is very personal; don't let a salesperson tell you that you will feel fine in something that doesn't feel right to you.

* The frame should be of hardwood that is "screwed, glued and never nailed," as Campbell puts it. The heavier the wood, the better it holds up (quality furniture from other countries is sometimes made with metal frames, but quality frames in this country are always made of wood). Most important is how the wood is put together. Corners should be doweled (so one piece literally screws into the other), not nailed or stapled. They should also be corner-blocked (with a separate, triangular piece of wood doweled or screwed into the inside of the corner), to keep the frame from wobbling. And the frame should go up into the padded arm, so the arm will hold its shape. A cheaper manufacturer will stick a curved, padded arm on top of a square frame, and in six months the arm will shift and lose its shape.

* Beneath the seat should be "eight-way hand-tied" spring coils, in the finest pieces, or the less expensive, prefabricated drop-in (or Marshall) spring units. The idea is to hold the springs in place by tying them to one another and to the frame in eight places. The front springs should be softer to accommodate weight distribution, and the corner spring should be a different gauge from the center spring, so that when you sit down the cushion sinks comfortably and you don't feel as if you're perched on top of it.

The cheapest construction is a flat piece of webbing staple-gunned to the frame, with no springs beneath and with cushions made of slabs of foam. More time and materials go into a quality piece -- including such fine points as stuffing cotton inside the springs to keep them from squeaking -- and you can expect to pay for them.

* Covering the frame and springs, says Campbell, should be: fire-retardant under-matting, then another fire-retardant layer of fabric, then some kind of polyurethane (foam rubber to us -- which should also be fire retardant), then muslin fabric liner, then the upholstery fabric.

To avoid the dangers of flammability and toxicity, be sure the furniture meets at least the standards of the Upholstered Furniture Action Council, a voluntary industry group that has set minimum national standards; the strictest fire standards are for furniture sold in Boston and California.

* You pay for tailoring in a good sofa or armchair, and here a firm's reputation counts. "One house will not be as careful with tailoring, and another will be fastidious about it," says Ina Mae Kaplan, president of the local chapter of the International Furnishings and Design Association. Obviously, you want the patterns on the fabric to match -- the birds to line up and be right-side-up, the flower to be in the center of the cushion and so on. If you are ordering custom upholstery, be sure the manufacturer guarantees such alignment. You want no loose buttons or threads, and you want the fabric tailored well to the frame. Manufacturers that value tailoring will accept COM, "customer's own material," because their cutters are skilled enough to deal with different fabrics. You will pay extra for such bells and whistles as pleats, tassels, braid and fringe. You can also order matching arm covers.

You purchase a sleep sofa for the upstairs den so you can watch TV on it and houseguests can sleep on it. The salesclerk doesn't ask you about the layout of your house, and you don't think to mention it. The deliverymen tell you the sofa can't turn the upstairs corner. The clerk also didn't ask what you wanted the sofa for, so he didn't mention that feather cushions have to be fluffed up all the time.

Many people make the mistake of not measuring or of not knowing which measurements are crucial. Another mistake is buying a piece of furniture that's the wrong scale for the room. You don't want an oversize, overstuffed sofa in a small townhouse living room. If the sofa you are looking at isn't the size you have in mind, ask if it can be ordered in a different size. Often it can be.

Another important consideration is the cushions. Do you want a tightback sofa or one with loose cushions? A tightback sofa with loose seats may be appropriate for families with children because you don't have to rearrange the sofa after they finish jumping on it.
Always ask what the cushions are stuffed with. "The best cushion filling depends on whether you want a firm or a soft seat," says Kaplan. "Some people like to be enveloped when they sit down."

Foam inside fabric (with no zipper at the back) is the least expensive construction; you should avoid shredded foam or kapok filling because the cushions will not maintain their shape. On a sofa of good quality, standard fill is a polyfoam cushion wrapped with dacron polyester; it sits firm, and it doesn't have to be tended -- punched and fluffed -- when you get in and out of the seat. Insist on high-density or high-resilience foam.

Encasing the foam in down (rather than in dacron) gives a softer feeling. Here you ask about proportions: 25/​75 means 25 percent down and 75 percent feathers (down is softer; feathers are cheaper, and they break); 90/​10 is only 10 percent down; 50/​50 is half down, and far more expensive than 25/​75, which is standard. The all-down cushion is soft, fluffy and costly. As Lambeth puts it, down gives a "messy, rumply look, with high `crown,' which is in fashion right now. A couple of manmade fibers are now starting to approach that look. These are good for people with allergies or lower budgets, but they take the same fluffing and care that down does, or the cushions will be flat as a pancake in a hurry." (Quality cushions of any type, including foam, should be encased in down-proof ticking, which is woven tightly enough to contain the filling.)

Then there is spring down. Inside a good spring-down cushion, individual springs are wrapped in some kind of muslin or linen, which is encased in good foam, which is then covered with down. With the springs, you don't "sit through it," as you do on an all-down cushion -- and you don't need to constantly fluff up the cushions.

"It's not that one is preferable to another," says Kaplan. "It's a question of what the person wants to sit on and what style the furniture is. Some people don't like to sit on a cushion that's too soft. Some don't want the mess of having to fluff a cushion. Families with children should get a firmer seat for durability. A designer always asks how the room is going to be used."

"It has to do with comfort," says
Lambeth, "housekeeping (the fluffing), look and style -- some people can't stand a rumply, bumply cushion and some people want that. It also depends on your piece of furniture. As much as people may like down, if they are doing a huge sectional for the family room, no matter how much they like down they are probably not going to want those 15 cushions all lumpy, bumpy and different. The bigger it gets, the more it magnifies itself."

For a similar reason, says Lambeth, "The wilder (the sofa) is, the less you should spend on it or the more correctible it should be. If you want to do something wild with fabric, do it with throw pillows, which are easy to replace. You will be able to live longer with something basic on the sofa."

One mistake people tend to make is to choose a pattern for furniture that is more appropriate in curtains. "They will choose a flowered print with birds on branches," says Lambeth, "with what we call a 45-inch repeat (meaning the main image appears once every 45 inches). Their sofa cushion is probably only 27 inches high, so there's going to be a lot of waste (if the pattern is centered on each cushion). Fabric with a 45-inch repeat was designed for draperies, where those long repeats will show. It can be done, but people should make more practical choices."
You want a natural look in your living room -- synthetics, so big 20 years ago, are out now -- so you buy an all-down sofa in cotton fabric. The pillows wrinkle from the start.

Fabric may represent only 10 percent of the cost of the sofa, but it elicits more than its share of errors in judgment. "All the 100 percent fibers have the same good and bad qualities on upholstery that they have in clothing," says Lambeth. "Silk fades in a sunny window, linen wrinkles and cotton is thin. Sit in a straight cotton skirt, and it gets fanny-stretched, and when you stand up there are wrinkles. Why would we not expect it to do that on a sofa?"

And, of course, you want the pattern woven into the fabric rather than printed on one side. Beyond that, "as long as fabric is tightly woven and easily cleaned, there shouldn't be a problem with any of the fabrics today," says Kaplan. "It's a fallacy that you have to buy the Herculon fabrics. Cotton is very durable."

A final word of advice from Kaplan: "A family room is absolutely the wrong place to economize. You can economize in a living room that is for show and not for blows. In a heavy-duty area, you'll have to throw a cheap piece away after five years. It won't even be worth reupholstering."

And when is a piece worth reupholstering? Get an estimate from a reputable upholsterer, then sit down and compare the cost of a new sofa (not including the price of the fabric, because the fabric cost is a constant) with the labor cost of upholstering.
"What a lot of people do is use slipcovers," says Lambeth, "which is a great fashion look, costs a lot less money, and you're still sitting on the good bones."

Pat McNees has had the same bottle-green velvet sofa and love seat (ordered custom-made from a furniture company in North Carolina) for 20 years.

Books, articles, and more

Writing or telling life stories
Everyone has a story to tell. What's keeping you from telling yours? Become a storykeeper or personal historian or find one.
Read aloud at a memorial service decades later
A loving testament, or legacy letter, sharing your life experiences and lessons with the next generation
Learn to write articles, reports, ethical wills, or life stories (memoirs and beyond).
Mom — hardworking, sassy, and full of surprises
Mutual support and discussion
Social history through the life of an ordinary Midwestern businessman.
Dancing, food, good books, and other diversions
Favorites of several book groups
What is the single lunch-bag item most hated by all children?
What heightens the caviar experience is the price of those little gray or black sturgeon eggs.
Links to dancing venues and calendars for the Washington, D.C. area.
Midlife "first dates"
Did she fall in love with the man or the waltz?
Also related: jive, hustle, hand-dancing.
All the dancing your feet can take
Choosing a school of dance
Contra, English country, international, Irish, Israeli, Scandinavian, Scottish
The big ones, with dirty stems
"A rich, varied, and highly rewarding collection," says Joyce Carol Oates
Ceilis (Irish dancing)
Medical mysteries, patient stories, and practical links
John Travolta played the boy in the movie. The real story ended far differently.
Thin little Marian had a cholesterol problem most people have never heard of.
You've probably never heard of this national research hospital and clinic. But someone you know may be able to benefit from it directly and all of us do, indirectly.
Understanding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the debate on health care reform. Avoiding medical errors
Dying, mourning, and other inevitable events
"This remarkable collection, coming from personal experience and wide reading, will help many find the potential of growth through loss." --Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement
For those dying, for caregivers, and for the bereaved
Listen to samples of popular songs and music
Girls and science
Cool science sites
Best practices for teaching science--to strengthen the science workforce.
Some links and a selection
Practical matters
Identify children's learning styles and improve their ability to learn.
Six weeks to hassle-free homework.
Why parents should be concerned.
Public speaking is a craft, not an art. It can be learned.
Can you wash it if it says "dry clean"?
Fact vs. fantasy
One woman's story.
Don't focus on the fabric.
Organizational histories
A frank history of the Young Presidents' Organization.
The little lift truck that could — a story of brilliant marketing in America's heartland.
Online Shopping
Best places to shop online