Understanding upholstery

From frames to flammability, Phil Reynolds from the Furniture Industry Research Association answers your upholstery queries

Firstly, what type of frame should I go for?

The frame is the ‘skeleton’ of a suite, to which all the different suspension and upholstery components are attached. In a more traditional frame, joints are glued, dowelled and screwed and the corners are further strengthened by the addition of reinforcing blocks. More modern sofa frames tend to be glued and stapled. This technique can provide a more affordable option, with the strength you would expect from a sofa and these products usually meet British Standard requirements with ease.

What are the options for cushions?

There are three main types of cushion interior – foam, feather or polyester fibre.

Foam is popular because it’s resilient, flexible and easy to manipulate. It is normal for foam cushions to soften by 20-30 per cent in the first six months under normal use, until they find their natural balance.

Feather or fibre are popular cushion options for comfort as you sit ‘in’ them rather than ‘on’ them. But they do require a lot of plumping-up to retain their shape, and some people can be allergic to the feathers inside. Feather and/or fibre cushion in-fills are often produced in sections to reduce the likelihood of the filling moving around inside the cushion where downward movement could be a problem.

Foam and fibre combinations (and indeed foam and feather combinations) are also very popular, offering comfort but with the added benefit needing less regular ‘plumping.’ If you want a really soft seat then consider down cushions. These are seen as the premium choice – which is reflected in their price.

What should I consider when selecting a fabric?

Durability is not necessarily proportional to price so it is important to choose carefully. Consider whether your fabric is fade resistant especially if it will be placed in a sunny room or close to a window. If you have an allergy consider a fabric such as micro-fibre as it’s lint free and does not attract dust. If you have pets avoid using delicate fabric such as silk, or any fabric with lots of texture. Instead select pet-friendly upholstery.

How do I ensure the product meets fire safety standards?

Domestic upholstered furniture must meet the Furniture & Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations, which covers the fabrics, foam fillings and non-foam fillings such as feathers. 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. The permanent label contains important information about the safety of your sofa, and allows a sample to be identified if any problems are found with the production of it. After purchasing the sofa you may feel the permanent label is unsightly and be tempted to remove it. However at FIRA we would strongly advise against this. When you pick up a new sofa you now cannot pass your old sofa to a charity for re-use without a permanent label, as this is the only means of checking that the sofa meets UK fire regulations. Without the label the sofa will need to go to a waste recycling centre.

Will I need to compromise on materials to achieve fire performance?

The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988 (as amended) set levels of fire resistance for domestic upholstered furniture, furnishings and other products containing upholstery. It’s illegal for a retailer to sell a product which doesn’t meet the regulations. This means that when you visit a showroom all sofas will meet minimum requirements on fire performance, regardless of whether the fabric is a fine silk or a more heavy duty weave.

For many fabrics this will mean that a fire retardant coating is needed (normally on the back of the fabric) to meet the requirements of the Regulations. Historically these coatings could make a fabric feel stiff and less comfortable, however, in most instances modern chemical formulations can offer fire protection without significantly affecting the feel of the product.

What should I check on delivery?

When your sofa is delivered it is important to check that the product is ‘as ordered,’ and fault-free. Ensure any damage and defects are reported as soon as possible.

What steps should I take to care for my sofa?

Proper care and maintenance will prolong the life of your furniture. Look for any available information; this may be on a label under the seat cushion, in the seat/back junction, on the base or within a leaflet. If you can’t find information then ask the retailer or manufacturer.

Leather should be cleaned in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. This is because the use of cleaning solutions or preparations on products for which they were not intended can damage the surface of the leather.

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.

Any final pieces of advice?

It may seem obvious, but check the product will fit through doors and fit in the room without having to compromise on space. If space is tight or your property has limited or narrow access, consider a sofa or armchairs with detachable arms or one that comes in sections.

Phil Reynolds is general manager at FIRA International