Upholstery Styles & Definitions
Casual get-togethers with friends, family movie nights with the whole gang piled in together on the sectional or curling up with a good book nestled in a cozy chair and ottoman … these are the times that transform a roof over your head into a home you love. And while furniture may be the farthest thing from your mind during these moments, your relaxation and enjoyment have a lot to do with comfortable, inviting sofas and chairs.
Nothing transforms a room faster than upholstered furniture. It sets the tone with color, the feel of the fabric and the shape of the frame. These are fun decisions to make — and yet buying upholstered furniture can be tricky since you can’t see what’s beneath the fabric. If you know what to look for and which questions to ask, however, you’ll have the tools you need to shop for upholstery efficiently and confidently.
The term "upholstery" refers to sofas, chairs and other seating with permanently attached covers of fabric or leather. You can also find upholstery on some headboards, bedframes and coffee tables. Before you shop, consider two important furniture criteria: form and function.
Begin by determining which styles you like. If you’re not sure, browsing through home decor publications can be really helpful. Our upholstery is organized by four major style categories: Traditional, Modern, Country, and Casual Contemporary. We’ve set up our site this way to make it easier for you to find things, but don’t feel locked into choosing styles from just one category -- mix it up and feel free to pull a look together from a combination of style types for an eclectic look.
Some of the style differences among these categories may include:
Overstuffed: This is not a critique on the upholsterer, rather a style where fill or stuffing is applied over the frame to create a large, rounded look. The final look tends to be casual, comfortable and very inviting.
Exposed Frame: Parts of the frame, usually arms or legs, are exposed, while the seat and back are upholstered. The combination of short slipcovers and exposed legs is a very popular look at the moment.
Tight Back: A firm back, with tightly attached fabric and no loose or semi-attached cushions. Tight backs tend to be more formal with styles including rounded camelbacks, vertically stitched channel backs and button-tufted backs.
Cushioned Back: Backs are cushioned with separate or semi-attached pillows. Multi-pillow back or scatter back styles often offer greater seat depth and can be more comfortable for taller individuals.
Slipcovered: An overstuffed or exposed frame with a fitted or relaxed cover that can be removed for cleaning. These often offer a more relaxed, casual look and can be family friendly.
Consider how the furniture will be used and by whom. A den sofa for the whole family needs to be more durable and birthday-party-proof than seating for a single individual who occasionally entertains. The anatomy of the furniture, as well as fabric and leather wearability and cleaning codes, should be considered.
An Anatomy Lesson
No matter which form or function you choose, the comfort and quality of upholstery is based on what’s beneath the surface: the frame, springs and padding. The following is a general guide to better understanding what’s inside that seat.
- Kiln-dried, hardwood frames are traditionally the best for ensuring long-term stability and shape retention. (Soft woods are rarely used as they are more likely to warp or split.)
- Quality hardwood frames are joined with some combination of dowels, screws, glue, staples and corner blocks … and the best examples use a combination of these methods. Properly built furniture will not rack or twist when you lift it by one corner.
- "EIGHT-WAY" hand-tied: A time-honored construction method using a series of coils, each tied -- from front to back, side to side and diagonally -- eight times. This system creates even comfort and prevents “give” in the frame. This traditional method is reputed to offer superior comfort but has lost ground in recent years due to the advent of equally durable systems that are more cost-effective and less labor-intensive.
- "DROP-IN" machine-tied: A pre-assembled, machine-made coil system designed to simulate the hand-tied version. It drops into the frame and is typically fastened at the corners.
- "NO-SAG" or sinuous: A popular system using S-shaped steel components fastened to the frame from front to back. The highest quality versions use sturdy 8-gauge wire closely spaced and reinforced with horizontal steel supports. This method is used in many contemporary and traditional style frames.
Beneath all coil systems is a web of tightly woven jute strips or so-called sheet webbing, reinforced with steel straps under each row of springs. In the best upholstery, you can’t see between the strips.
Cushioning and Padding:
The way furniture “sits” is influenced by the cushioning and padding in the seat, back and arms. No matter which method is used, cushioning must be evenly distributed and conceal the feel of the springs and frame.
Most manufacturers produce a standard cushion using 1.8 - 2.0 density foam core with some form of a synthetic wrap, often Dacron fill. “DENSITY” refers to a cushion’s resilience. The higher the density the firmer or more resilient a cushion sits.
- “DOWN-BLEND” wraps are a popular method for producing a more sumptuous cushion. The down-blend is wrapped around a foam core to provide the look and feel of down without the maintenance. Down-blend is a mixture of down and waterfowl feathers. Synthetic fibers are also mixed with the feathers to give extra resiliency. A 10/90 blend refers to 10% down and 90% feathers mixed with 50% synthetic fibers. A 25/75 blend is 25% down and 75% feathers mixed with 50% synthetic fibers.
- “SPRING DOWN” cushions use a series of spring coils that sit within a “skeleton” of foam. This unit is then wrapped in down or down-blend and encased in down-proof ticking. The result is seating that has some of down’s luxury, but with built-in resilience and firmness.
Look for tightly woven, durable fabrics. Again, your lifestyle and predicted usage will help determine what will work for you. A silk or suede piece you fall in love with may be a showstopper, but will not be practical in a kids and pets situation. Busy households will be better served with quality top grain leather, patterned slipcovers or microfiber. If you are decorating a room that destined to be a showcase rather than a living space, then delicate fabrics may be fine.
Now that you know a little bit about what goes into upholstery, you can start thinking about what goes onto upholstery, namely, you! Armed with a little bit of research and some forethought, you will be able to confidently approach the buying process and bring home the looks you love.
Camelback: An eighteenth-century style distinguished by a curve (or camel back) along its back.
Channel back: A style distinguished by vertical channels stitched into a seat’s back, creating individual compartments.
Cushioned back: A style that uses separate or semi-attached cushions. Often have the same number of back and seat cushions, allowing for fabric matching of stripes and plaids.
Down: The undercoating of adult birds, used for fill because it has practically no scratchy quill.
Down-blend: A mixture of waterfowl feathers and down. Waterfowl (goose, duck) feathers are used because the quills are curved and provide a springy, buoyant feel. Polyester fibers are mixed with the feathers to give extra resiliency.
Drop-in machine-tied springs: A pre-assembled, machine-made coil system designed to simulate the hand-tied version. It drops into the frame and is typically fastened at the corners.
Edge roll: Thick jute cord wrapped in burlap. Used to soften frame and spring edges.
Eight-way hand-tied springs: A series of coils each tied eight times, which creates even comfort and prevents any horizontal “give” in the frame.
Gimp: Ornamental braid used to cover upholstery tacks that attach the fabric to the exposed wood.
Nailhead Trim: A row of evenly spaced nails or tacks along the edge of the upholstered piece. Once simply a way of attaching upholstery to the frame, it continues as a popular decorative extra that adds detail to an upholstered piece and highlights the silhouette of the frame.
Railroaded: Fabric that runs horizontally along the width of a piece of furniture and from front to back along the arms.
Scatter back: Also known as multi-pillow back. This style has more back pillows than seat pillows. The randomly tossed pillows across the back create a more casual look, often a mix of tones or patterns are used. These sofas tend to sit softly and often have deeper seat cushions.
Sinuous wire: Also known as “no-sag.” A spring system that uses S-shaped steel components fastened from front to back on the frame.
Skirt: Fabric panel that surrounds the base of a piece of furniture and hides the furniture’s legs.
Tufted back: A style distinguished by upholstery that is tied down or secured, often with a button, producing folds and patterns.
Tight back: Fully upholstered seat or back designed not to have additional loose cushions added. Presents a formal, tailored look with a firm feel.
Upholstery: The fixed, soft coverings for furniture, especially seating and reclining furniture.
Vertically run: Fabric that runs vertically, bottom to top, over furniture’s front, back and arms.
Welt: Cord wrapped in fabric. Used to trim upholstery seams and places where the fabric meets exposed wood. Can be single or double welt.