Upholstery: the Price vs. the Cost

One of the larger pieces of upholstered furniture in your home is usually a sofa or couch. And this can be an item where you want to save some money, but not understand what your really paying for, or what you're not paying for to be more specific.

As we all know, the internet has opened up a world of purchasing options. Home goods manufacturers and distributers are really taking advantage of e-commerce, and sometimes it's just too easy and alluring to purchase furniture while in the comfort of your home and possibly in your pajamas at 1am in the morning.

All right, let's get to it....how do the manufacturers sell sofas and other pieces of upholstery at such a low cost? It's a combination of low cost materials and labor expenses, which afford the consumer to purchase at exceedingly low rates. 

Let's start with the outside of the sofa and work inward to see how all of the parts equals a whole.

1. Fabric/Textile: Never has there been more of a need to make inexpensive fabrics to meet the demand of instant gratification and "savings". The consumer wants an attractive and comfortable material that costs less. Textile mills accomplish this by blending synthetic and natural fibers which tend to be short. Short fibers are not good. When fabric fibers are too short, piling, shredding, and fuzzing will take place. These materials also ATTRACT dirt and oils. As a consumer, you will never know if a fiber is too short. However, it is safe to assume inexpensive blends are comprised with short fibers. This is how manufacturers hit that price point that sounds like coins are falling from a slot machine into your piggy bank when you locate a below market rate cost for fabric.

2. The Sewing: All upholsterers use machines to sew the fabric that covers the sofa and pillows. An over locked stitch is created by a sewing machine which is called a serger and is the most used stitch needed to hold together fabrics which are constantly being pulled on and re-enforces the location of the stitch. Serger sewing machines are more expensive than a typical sewing machine. Lower end manufacturers will not use an over lock stitch in various areas of the sofa to save literally pennies on the dollar. You as a consumer will find examples of this that could be something like the included accent pillows are opening up, and the filling pushes out. Installing zippers that actually work is also an area to scrimp on. So sometimes you will not even find a zipper on a side, seat or back pillow. 

3. The Fill: Old world upholstery that you find in museums, castles, and estates, are filled with animal hair to plump up the frame. As you can imagine, it is a limited resource and is a bit too firm and crunchy for us these days. Currently a good upholsterer will use cotton fibers mixed with down and feathers and frequently a natural laytex that are encased individually inside the sofa. These materials are used in various parts of the seat and back cushions as well as the arms and frame. The more malleable feathers and down are reserved for the seats and back cushions. Now the manufacturers who charge less use synthetic types of foam and fiber and reduce the padding in the frame and overfill the seat and back cushions with the least expensive material, a polyester fiber which is not fluffable. Additionally, the synthetic materials give off fumes, which are proven to cause cancer and at the very least allergies. No, I'm not joking regarding the big "C"...scary stuff. Lastly, areas of the frame are filled with Styrofoam and cardboard. Synthetic glues are also used in the low-end market place which are extremely toxic.

4. The Springs and/or Webbing: Springs as well as Webbing support the area of the sofa that we sit on.  There are two types of spring systems: Sinuous and coiled. The sinuous spring looks like many zig zagged long wires which runs the width or length of the sofa frame and is welded to braces every 15" or so. It acts like a trampoline when pressure is applied. The same goes for Webbing. Webbing is ribbon of tough fiber and is woven into an open grid system and stapled to the frame. Webbing provides support with very little bounce or give and obviously costs the least amount of money regarding support. And the most expensive, traditional, and long lasting is the spring, which is in a pigtail coil, and are hand tied together to move the pressure away from the area being sat upon. Some of the better manufactures also add a spring system to the edge of the frame of the sofa in the area we call the front rail. So when you scoot off of the sofa the edge of the frame gives, compared to a hard piece of wood possibly wrapped in fiber greeting you on your backside upon your departure. 

5. The Frame: This is an area which I find a lot of over embellishing from manufactures.  And a typical lay person, furniture sales person, and most decorators don't even know what to look for regarding this common practice of smoke a mirrors. Hardwood frame...ugh, this kills me. It sounds good right? Well the definition of hardwood actually relates to the size of the leaf and has some relevance to the wood being hard or strong. Some hard woods used are almost as soft as young pine and dent easily and if pressed on by a 10-year-old child can break like balsa wood. This less expensive and faster growing lumber "hard wood" is typically forested from countries with no regard to deforestation, and the welfare of the local people. How the wood is dried is also a factor, and if not dried properly the wood will warp if moved from a moist to dry climate i.e.: moving your bargain sofa to Louisianna from Arizona. The joints are important as well. Dove tailing is one of the best joinery techniques used in more quality upholstery frames and in the areas which need the greatest amount of support. In the cheaper upholstery, staples, nails, and glue are used in the joint areas.

6. Labor: Yes, this is the most provocative area of high-end vs. low-end market place regarding the home goods manufacturing industry. In the low-end market place, wages paid to the laborers can be suppressed to a point that families are on the brink of starvation, and local government, and ultimately the consumer support these modern day slavery techniques. In contrast, higher-end labor/craftsmanship, is typically learned in an apprenticeship under a master upholsterer or frame maker during which a myriad of old world techniques are passed on to the next generation. Obviously the latter takes more time to produce the product, with an increased cost.

As you might understand now, the lower cost $500-$2,500 dollar range for sofa is a shorter term investment with economic and consumer heath issues to be aware of. There are larger retail brands that sell a fabric covered sofa into the $2,500-$3,800 range that mix in the low end materials and labor techniques with some of the more quality materials and techniques to meet the more sophisticated consumer demand. 

If you know what style of sofa you would like to purchase, bring in a picture of it to your local upholsterer and ask the questions from this blog. You would be amazed at how many talented people are out there, and you might even save some money. With a little leg work, you can get the best investment with your hard earned dollar.