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  1. Buying Upholstered Furniture

    Buying Upholstered Furniture

    This section has been reproduced with permission from FIRA.

    Making Your Choice

    When buying upholstered furniture, the selection of products appears endless. There are many different styles, designs and price ranges. The temptation is to make the selection based on what looks good, feels comfortable (often after only sitting in it for a few minutes), fits in with the home colour scheme and meets the budget. However, strength, durability and maintenance requirements should also be considered.

    Lifestyles have changed, and as a result, upholstered furniture typically receives considerably more use than it did 30 or 40 years ago. Price is not necessarily an indication of durability.

    The following easy to read articles describe some of the factors that should be considered when buying upholstery:

    The Frame

    The frame is the 'skeleton' of a suite, to which all the different suspension and upholstery components are attached. It should be well made, stable and strong enough not to break or give way in normal use.

    Frames can be made from a variety of materials, which can include wood, metal and plastic parts. But generally sofa frames are made from hardwood, or from a mixture of hardwood, softwoods in stress areas, chipboard, plywood or fibreboard. Many manufacturers combine hardwood and softwood.

    However this does not mean that a non-wood frame is a poor option - these materials can still be used to make a sofa frame that is sufficiently strong and stable, but with a difference in the overall price.

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    Springs and Webbings

    A number of suspension systems are used for upholstered seating The most common assembles for sofas today are a series of serpentine or zigzag springs, or elasticated webbing made from either rubber or fabric. Other spring systems used include fishmouth sprung front edge units and coil springs.

    Serpentine or sinuous springs are fixed to the seat, back and arm sections of the frame, front to back, and securely fixed via various types of metal fixings or clips. Put simply, there should be at least five springs for each seat, dependant on the length. The frame fixing clips should be securely attached and someone sitting on the sofa or chair should not be able to feel any sharp edges through the upholstery. The suspension system provides flexible support for the seat, back and arms and is normally covered, which helps to ensure the user does not easily feel the clips or springs.

    Alternately, rubber or fabric elasticated webbing can be used which provides a flexible support system for the sofa or chair. There must be a sufficient number of webs to maintain the support system. The webbing system may be interlaced across the front to back webs to give additional support.

    The suspension is the major support system and must be capable of withstanding the constant initial impact of someone sitting down during the life of the furniture. Some sprung seat platforms incorporate a flexible front edge for improved comfort and reduced cushion wear.

    Avoid anything that creaks or squeaks.

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    There are three main types of cushion interior - foam, feather or polyester fibre. Customarily, thin layers or sheets of foam are placed on the suspension system and covered by either the main decorative fabric or by a less expensive non-visible platform or lining cloth to reduce wear on reversible cushions. Thus a platform is formed for the seat, back and arm 'sitting' surfaces of the sofa, according to the design, onto which separate upholstered cushions are placed. These cushions may be fixed, loose or detachable via a series of zip fastenings.


    Foam is a popular filling for upholstery. It is resilient, flexible, easy to manipulate, and can be moulded or shaped to meet the most complex upholstery styles and designs. Upholstery seat cushions are predominantly filled with foam. They will soften in the first few months until they find their natural balance and this is quite normal.

    Foam seat cushions are often wrapped in polyester fibre wadding to give an even softer feel for initial comfort and to reduce wear.

    Feather and fibre

    Modern upholstered furniture predominantly contains feather or fibre filled back and/or seat cushions. Both are popular for comfort because you sit 'in' them rather than 'on' them. But they do require a lot of plumping-up to retain their shape, and some people are allergic to feathers or the dust they generate. Feather and/or fibre cushion infills are often produced in sections to reduce the likelihood of the filling moving around inside the cushion where downward movement could be a problem. They are liable to appear 'untidy' after use but the original look can usually be restored by smoothing out creases to avoid premature fabric wear and frequent plumping for shape retention.

    There is no universal 'standard' for the plumping of seat and back cushions, and your retailer will be able to give you specific advice about care requirements. The Furniture Ombudsman recommends regular plumping.

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    Upholstery Fabrics

    Whilst all parts of upholstered furniture (frame, suspension, cushions and fabric) are important, the cover fabric usually attracts the most attention since it is the most visible element with the surface in constant contact with the user. The cover is subject to constant abrasion and flexing through body contact and will almost certainly wear out before the frame or fillings.

    Taking time to understand about fabrics will ensure that you choose the right product for you, and that it wears well for its intended location.


    There can be a vast range of different cover materials to choose from. Durability is not necessarily proportional to price so it is important to choose carefully. The best guide to performance is whether fabric is suitable for 'occasional', 'light', 'general', or 'severe' domestic use.It is important you discuss your requirements, needs and expectations with the retailer.

    A large number of fabrics meet the 'general domestic use' standard. You need to weigh up the kind of use the sofa will get and purchase one with a fabric capable of meeting those conditions. Modern lifestyles make great demands on upholstery and the average family would be well advised to opt for a 'general' or 'severe' fabric grade.

    Most fabrics in a display swatch are suitable for 'general domestic use'. Where this is not the case, fabric samples often have information on them about their suitability. If your retailer does not know the fabric's rating he can obtain this information from the manufacturer.

    Textiles are generally graded as follows:

    • Light domestic use - Fabrics for light domestic use are generally fashion fabrics; these are suitable for light, careful living room use.
    • General domestic use - Fabrics for general domestic use are suitable for most styles of upholstery.
    • Severe domestic use - Fabrics classified as 'severe domestic' use are suitable for upholstery likely to be used throughout the day.


    Leather is a natural product with its own unique characteristics - style, comfort, and durability. It will have been subjected to many environments and may bear natural marks and blemishes. The natural scars show that it is the real thing and should not give cause for concern.

    There are different types of leather, classified as follows:

    • Aniline leather - This is a leather that has been dyed to colour, but has not received any coating or surface finish. This has the advantage of showing the natural leather off at its best including evidence of natural marks and blemishes. This type of leather may need additional care and is likely to show all the signs of wear and tear. It will take on a 'lived in' appearance, which is a natural characteristic and adds to the charm to the product.
    • Semi-aniline leather - This leather has a small amount of surface coating which still allows the natural characteristics to be seen, whilst also protecting against soiling and aiding the use of cleaning products.
    • By-cast leather (split leather) - This is produced from the lower split of leather by melting a type of glue on the surface, then rolling on a film of coloured polyurethane. This varies in quality and can lighten when stretched and scratch easily.
    • Pigmented leather - This leather has a surface finish that gives a more soil resistant and durable finish that is easy to maintain. A pigment surface finish also allows leather to be produced in a range of fashionable colours (this should not be confused with By-cast leather).
    • Nubuck and suede - These leathers are buffed on the wearing (grain) side to give a velvet like nap. They are not surface coated and so are easily soiled, and the velvet surface can become flattened in use.
    • Antique appearance leather - This leather has surface lacquers applied, which are designed to rub off in use and give an 'antique' or lived-in appearance. This is often pleasing and complements certain styles of upholstery very well. However, it should be borne in mind that the surface colour is designed to wear in this way; consequently the overall appearance will change more than with other types of leather.

    The introduction of softer, more supple leathers alongside brighter, modern shades has increased the sales of leather furniture making them more popular than ever. A leather cover is normally expected to last longer than a typical modern textile upholstery covering. However as with anything, the lifetime of the leather cover will depend on the type of use and care it receives.

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    Fire Safety

    Domestic upholstered furniture must meet fire safety standards, which cover the fabrics, foam fillings and non-foam fillings.

    When purchasing any upholstered furniture look for the display label - a swing ticket attached to the furniture, which should be easily visible. The permanent label may be located under a loose seat cushion or if the upholstery is fixed, secured to the base of the item or located at the junction between the seat and back.

    For more detailed information read our articles on the upholstered furniture regulations.

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    When buying upholstery, take a tape measure to check that you can get the furniture into the desired room and that it will fit the intended location.

    Some retailers offer a 'trial delivery' service whereby they can check whether the furniture will fit before a firm delivery is placed.

    When your furniture arrives at your home, check carefully that it is 'as ordered' and fault-free. Damage and defects should be reported as soon as possible so that the matter can be resolved swiftly and satisfactorily.

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    Caring for Your Upholstery

    Proper care and maintenance will prolong the life of your furniture. Look for any available information - it is often hidden and may be a label under the seat cushion, in the seat/back junction, or on the base. Alternatively it may be provided separately as a small pamphlet. If you are unable to find any information, then ask.

    It is recommended that care and maintenance instructions for the furniture selected are obtained from the retailer and should be followed in preference to any other advice. However, here are a few simple instructions:

    • Lightly vacuum upholstery once a week, less frequently for feather filled cushions. Dust removal may be improved by pre-brushing with a soft brush. Accumulated dirt will accelerate wear and dull colours.
    • Regularly turn and interchange the positions of reversible cushions on constantly used upholstery. This will prevent excessive soiling and uneven wear.
    • Zips at the back of cushion covers are there to aid the manufacturing process and do not necessarily mean that the cover is removable for cleaning purposes.
    • Smooth out creases in the cushions to prevent them becoming permanent and causing early wear.
    • Avoid exposing furniture to direct sunlight and/or heat whether direct or indirect for long periods of time as this may result in fading or degradation. Protect the furniture by drawing curtains and blinds wherever possible.
    • Avoid repetitious wear on small areas of the fabric, such as arms and front edges of cushions.
    • Avoid snagging the fabric - pets' claws, jewellery, buckles, zips/studs etc. are all potential hazards.
    • It is difficult to give general instructions on home cleaning since different fabrics require specialist cleaning techniques. Consequently using a professional upholstery cleaner is recommended. The effectiveness of the specialist cleaning will depend upon the degree of soiling so it is advisable to have this done before dirt becomes too deeply embedded in the fabric. We would recommend at least every 12 to 18 months.
    • Leather should be cleaned in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. The use of cleaning solutions or preparations on products for which they were not intended could damage the surface of the leather.
    • The best advice where care instructions for the leather are not available is to wipe the leather with a damp lint free cloth, using a mild soap solution when necessary as a last resort. The affected area should be rubbed gently until the soil is removed; never use detergent and take care not to soak the leather. Alternatively, contact the manufacturer for assistance.
    • Trim loose threads, don't pull them
    • Don't put pressure on unsupported panels of upholstery (e.g. outside arms and backs) and don't sit on the arms.
    • If accidental spillage or damage occurs, take professional advice to ensure it is dealt with properly.
    • Do not wash or dry clean the fabric of your furniture unless the manufacturer's instructions specifically state that this can be done. Do not clean/wash only part of the upholstery where the product is designed to be maintained in this way, owing to possible colour change.
    • Ensure your furniture is professionally cleaned regularly.

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    Tips when Choosing Upholstered Furniture

    • Check the overall shape, look at the fabric and if pattern matching is important to you, confirm if this is possible if not obvious on the display model.
    • Feel the padding on the arms and back, and below the front rail. If you can feel the frame easily with little pressure, this may cause premature wear of the upholstery fabric.
    • Upholstered furniture should be tried for a reasonable time, in a way that you would normally sit, in order to assess whether it suits you. Remember foam softens naturally after the first few months of use until it finds its own balance.
    • Ask how long the product has been on display - this will give you some idea of how the suite will appear and feel after a period of use.
    • Move around on the furniture and avoid anything that squeaks or creaks.
    • Sit on the furniture with your partner or a friend and check that the cushions do not push you towards the centre or tip you forwards. The cushions should fit snugly and there should be no gaps between adjacent cushions or arms.
    • The back should provide firm support to the lower part of your back. Check you do not have to lean back too much. You should be able to sit with your back firmly supported with your feet on the floor.
    • Remember cushions filled with feather or fibre will compress and crease and will need regular plumping-up to retain their shape.
    • Consider how much you will use the item and ask about the fabric - is it suitable for general or sever domestic use?
    • If the furniture has a recliner action, check that the mechanism does not rub against the cover fabric as this could lead to premature cover wear.
    • Look for information labels or pamphlets providing care and maintenance instructions and/or details on the furniture's suitability for domestic use. Ask if you cannot find any. Upholstered furniture comes in many shapes and sizes - ensure that you can fit it through your front door and that it will fit your room.
    • When the selected furniture arrives at your home, check that it is what you ordered and that it is fault free. Any problems or damage should be reported immediately so that they can be dealt with promptly and satisfactorily.

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    Disclaimer: The information on this website is provided free-of-charge, and you acknowledge that it would be unreasonable to hold us liable in respect of this website and the information on this website.

    Whilst we endeavour to ensure that the information on this website is correct, we do not warrant its completeness or accuracy; nor do we not commit to ensuring that the website remains available or that the material on this website is kept up-to-date.

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  2. Upholstery, fire regulations and wearability

    Upholstery, fire regulations and wearability

    When choosing your upholstery, there are many different factors to take into account.

    Although once upon a time most people purchased a three piece suite, these days Sofas and Chairs are mixed and matched, both in terms of their shape and their fabrics, to create more interest and seating variety within a room.

    Upholstery Fabrics

    You must ensure that your choice of fabric is suitable for upholstery. There are 2 factors to take into account.

    The first is whether the fabric is durable. Fabrics which are to be used for upholstery should be tested by the fabric manufacturers to confirm the durability of the fabric. This testing gives a result often called the Martindale or rub test. The higher the rub test, the more hard wearing the fabric. Fabric companies tend to have slightly different ideas as to how many rubs should be considered necessary for each category of use, but the following is a rough guide:

    • Under 12,000 rubs - decorative upholstery only e.g. a bedroom chair etc
    • 12,000 - 15,000 - light upholstery use in the home e.g. chairs which will not be used a great deal
    • 20,000 - 30,000 - suitable for general upholstery use within the home (15,000 for some weaves)
    • 30,000 - 40,000 - very hard wearing fabric suitable for upholstery in the home which will receive a lot of wear, or suitable for use in a commercial environment e.g. a restaurant or hotel

    Secondly, fabrics must either meet the UK fire regulations, or be used with a schedule 3 interliner. The fire regulations are covered by the Furniture and Furnishing (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988.

    Fabrics to be used for Domestic Upholstery (i.e. for use in the home) must be tested in accordance with BS 5852 part 1, and must pass both the cigarette and match tests B and H:

    • B - Resistant to smouldering cigarette tested over standard foam plus 2 oz polyester wrap (Cigarette test).
    • H - Match resistant (Match Test)
    • BM - If the fabric does not meet these standards, it will often be classified as BM indicating that it is Exempt under the Fire Regulations and may only be used for upholstery with a schedule 3 interliner. Alternatively fabrics can be FR backcoated to bring them up to the required fire safety standards.

    There are some fabrics which have to be backcoated due to their composition, and others which are better used with an interliner.

    If fabrics are to be used in a commercial /contract environment such as a hotel, restaurant, meeting hall etc, then further fire regulations must be adhered to. In these instances, the fabrics must meet BS 5852 parts 1 and 2, when it will be classified as Crib 5 or BH5.

    Please contact us if you have any further queries regarding this.

    Disclaimer: The information on this website is provided free-of-charge, and you acknowledge that it would be unreasonable to hold us liable in respect of this website and the information on this website.

    Whilst we endeavour to ensure that the information on this website is correct, we do not warrant its completeness or accuracy; nor do we not commit to ensuring that the website remains available or that the material on this website is kept up-to-date.

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  3. iliv blog post - How to create the best seat in the house

    iliv blog post - How to create the best seat in the house

    Whether you’re giving a new lease of life to a forgotten favourite or working your magic on a flea market find, reupholstering is the perfect way to get old furniture looking fabulous. Here’s what to think about when styling your seat.

    Choosing the chair

    Before you can even think about reupholstering you need to pick your perfect chair. Start by considering the role it’s going to play in your home. Is it going to be a statement piece that’s more style than substance? How about a sofa sanctuary where you can curl up with a good book? Maybe it will be a communal couch, playing host to movie nights and popcorn. If it’s going to be mostly decorative then push the boundaries and go for something that will start a conversation, but in all other instances you’re going to want comfort and function. Think too about who’s going to be using the chair: if it’s going to be your own personal haven then find one that fits you perfectly, but if it’s for the whole family to enjoy then it might need to be more practical – not to mention durable. Make sure it’s not too big for the room, and always go for quality.

    Choosing the colour

    While admittedly a statement piece of furniture like a chair can make a good focal point to build a room around, when it comes to reupholstering it’s usually safest to decide on a room’s overall colour scheme first. The reason being is that, with the entire world’s fabric to choose from, it’s useful to have some influence to help you narrow down your favourites. The good news is that you really do have complete freedom to find your perfect colour match, so it may as well be one you love, right? A word of warning though: try not to be swayed too much by the latest trends. It can be tempting to opt for Pantone’s colour of the year to show you have your finger on the pulse, but only do that if you really, truly like the colour. If you’re just following fashion you might find it much less appealing once its ‘colour of the moment’ popularity wanes.

    Choosing the design

    Solid colours or subtle patterns are what’s most commonly used for upholstery, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. If you want something a little more adventurous then that’s fine, so long as you’re careful to make sure the fabric is right for the furniture. Stripes and certain patterns can be a challenge for some shapes, especially if you’re reupholstering yourself and have limited experience. You also need to make sure the fabric works for the era of the piece – an antique Victorian armchair probably wouldn’t work in outlandish geometrics, whereas florals might look out of place on a modern and edgy lounge chair. 

    Choosing the fabric

    Remember that design is as much about function as it is about style. The fabric you choose needs to be durable: woven patterns last longer than printed ones, and so do higher thread counts and tight weaves. This is another instance where you need to think about who will be using the sofa, for example if you have pets or young children the fabric will most likely need to be able to withstand extra wear and tear. On the other hand, if the chair is going to be placed in your bedroom then it won’t need to be quite so heavy-duty. It needs to feel good to touch too, so don’t choose anything scratchy and make sure you like the texture. If you can’t stand the feel of velvet, you definitely don’t want to curl up on a velvet chair!

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