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The Ultimate Upholstery Guide
Everything to know about World Interiors' upholstered chairs & sofas
When shopping for furniture, not only do looks and comfort matter, but it's also important to know what materials are used to create the piece. This guide details all the materials we use for upholstery: the pro's and con's of each and why we use those materials to create high-quality, durable furniture.
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Leather, a hardy and flexible material made from animal hides, is an amazing choice for upholstery. It's incredibly durable, lasting decades with proper care. At World Interiors, we use 4 main types of leather for our furniture: Top-Grain Leather, Suede Leather, Bi-Cast Leather, and Vegan Leather.
Leather has been used for upholstery throughout history. Due to the labor-intensive process required to make leather for upholstery, leather, for the most part was reserved primarily for the wealthy. Dating all the way back to even before the Roman Empire, leather could be found in the homes of the wealthiest and most powerful. Before that, Arabian kings were using leather to decorate their throne rooms.
When the Industrial Revolution came, the leather upholstery process became more streamlined. This made leather upholstery much more affordable; however, the process still required much work to be completed by hand. Though leather more accessible to the masses, but it's still widely considered a luxury product.
Leather continues even today to gain popularity as new technologies and processes make leather cheaper and easier to produce. By the 1960s, leather became a staple in most homes.
Top-Grain leather, perhaps the most sought-after type of leather, is produced from the top half of the animal hide, with the outermost layer sanded off so that imperfections and irregularities are removed.
Top-grain not quite as tough as full-grain leather, which makes it ideal for use in conditions where exposure to the elements and rough use is avoided by enlarge. Top-grain leather is, however, much less expensive than full-grain leather, costing about 1/5 of the price. That's why top-grain leather is a favorite material to use for purses, wallets, briefcases, satchels, and of course, upholstery.
Since top-grain leather lacks the outermost layer - the layer that contains the toughest natural fibers - it isn't as durable as full-grain leather.
Despite not being as durable as full-grain leather, which typically lasts 15-30 years, the average lifespan of top-grain leather, when properly maintained, is 10-20 years.
The manufacturing process also reduces the breathability of the leather, which hinders the absorption of body oil and other impurities and prevents top-grain leather from forming a patina layer. The upside to this, is that the imperfections are removed, which gives the leather a consistent color and pattern.
The implementation of top-grain leather is especially exemplified by our Chiavari Dining Chairs. Top-grain leather is upholstered over a U-shaped steel frame, with foam cushions for added comfort. The result is a piece that beautifully melds industrial and contemporary design, while retaining top-rated durability and comfort.
Because top-grain leather lacks the outermost layer of hide, it is easier for manufacturers to work with and tool. Its flexibility allows top-grain leather to be used in a variety of products where both flexibility and a consistency in appearance is desired. While pieces may lack the hide pattern from the original animal, the leather can be made to resemble any hide pattern.
Much like solid wood, top-grain leather holds some moisture. We recommend keeping your leather upholstery away from heat sources such as fireplaces or radiators. Also, avoid placing your furniture in direct sunlight. It is also recommended to avoid using heat to dry spills. Prolonged exposure to heat sources can over-dry the leather, resulting in premature fading, stiffening, or cracking.
- Spot-clean immediately after spills. Always soak up spills immediately with a clean, absorbent cloth or paper towel. Be careful not to dab or rub as this will push the spill deeper into the velvet.
- Steam it regularly. Since velvet has a higher pile (taller strands of fabric on its surface), it has the tendency to compress when under pressure for long periods of time. This manifests as creases or white spots. Simply steam the creases out with a steamer or the steam setting on your iron, and gently brush in the opposite direction of the pile to release the wrinkles and remove the compression. Take care to make sure you set your steamer to low to avoid damaging the fabric.
- Vacuum it regularly. This ensures that loose dirt and debris gets cleaned up between spot-cleaning and steaming sessions.
- For harsher stains, mix a drop or two of dish-washing liquid with a cup of water. Shake it in a container until it bubbles; then, use cloth to lightly blot the affected area with the solution until you've removed as much of the stain as you can.
While the material used for upholstery is important when evaluating the quality of a chair, the frame itself may be of equal or greater importance. Think about it like this: if you have a nice material upholstered over a poorly constructed frame, the entire chair, including the upholstery, will need replacement. Compare this to having better frame and lower quality upholstery fabric - if the uphosltery is worn out, you can have the chair reupholstered and therefore won't need to replace the entire piece. Of course, it's best to have both a quality frame and fine materials, which is why we use handcrafted solid wood frames for each and every piece we make, in addition to our quality upholstery materials.
- Dust with a clean, soft cloth every few weeks.
- To clean, use a soft damp cloth and hand soap to wipe the surface.
- Before doing this for the first time, it's recommended that you test the leather in an inconspicuous spot to make sure it doesn't absorb the water. Use only a dry cloth if water is absorbed.
- Rub the leather with a new, dry cloth to buff the surface. There is no need to rinse the soap as it actually helps condition the leather.
- For spills, immediately use a dry cloth to blot and let the spot air-dry. It's important that you blot the area rather than wiping, since you want to get all the moisture out instead of spreading it.
- Condition the leather with a high-quality leather conditioner at least twice a year. This will help protect the furniture and ensure that it doesn't harden with time.
Scratches & Stains
- Never use harsh soap, cleaning solvents, detergents, or ammonia to clean a leather stain. Do not soak the stain in water. Doing so may actually be more damaging to the leather than the stain itself.
- For grease stains, blot the excess with a dry cloth. After a short period of time, the spot should disappear into the leather.
- Leather can absorb dyes easily, so avoid placing any printed materials on it. The stains left by ink are extremely difficult or impossible to remove.
- Leather can also scratch easily, so avoid placing sharp objects on your upholstery. If you happen to scratch your furniture,
- Gently buff the surface with a chamois or clean fingers for minor scratches on the surface
- If the scratch remains, rub a very small amount of distilled water into the scratch and blot with a dry cloth
Top-Grain Leather Versus Split and Bonded Leather
Top-grain leather is the second most durable type of leather, favorable to other types such as split or bonded leather. The following section goes into further detail about split and bonded leather.
Split leather, also called corrected leather, embossed leather, coated leather, and "genuine" leather, is the third layer of leather that remains after the top layers are split off for higher-grade leather.
An artificial grain is then applied to the surface and is then sprayed with stain or dyed in order to give it a more natural appearance. While this is still considered "real leather" since it comes from animal hide, it is a mid-tier leather in terms of quality.
Bonded Leather, also known as reconstituted leather or blended leather, is the absolute bottom tier of leather products.
Bonded Leather, much like MDF in the wood industry, is made up of the leftovers of other leather products. These scraps are shredded and ground to a pulp, then bonded together into a fiber sheet using polyurethane or latex.
The main advantage of this is its price. Bonded leather is cheap to produce, which allows manufacturers to pass those savings onto you.
The downside is that bonded leather is far less durable than top-grain leather; bonded leather has a 1-3 year lifespan versus top-grain leather's 10-20 year lifespan. In addition, the polyurethane coating that bonds the leather scraps together severely reduces its biodegradability.
Due to the low quality of bonded leather, combined with its low biodegradability and excessive use of polyurethane as a bonding agent, we do not use bonded leather for any of our pieces.
Cow Versus Goat Leather
Cow is of course the most popular animal hide from which leather is fashioned, but leather can be produced from a wide variety of hides. One of these is goatskin, which is used for a few of our pieces. Goat leather is thinner than its cow counterpart but can make for a softer and more cost-effective option for real leather upholstery.
Goatskin's thinness is actually its best characteristic, as it's the the thinness that makes it both softer and more flexible than cowhide. This allows for a tighter fit and makes it less labor intensive to make stitched leather pieces like our Hudson Collection of chairs and stools. Goatskin is also more water resistant than cowhide and costs 25% less.
Cowhide, on the other hand, is thicker and therefore more durable than goat leather. This thickness also allows craftsmen to add handcrafted or tools designs to the surface of the leather. It is also more resistant to abrasions and scratches but absorbs water more easily.
The Hudson Stitched Lounge Chair, as referenced earlier, is a great example of goat leather upholstery at work. The flexibility of this material allows for its use in vintage-modern design since the material can be stretched and manipulated easily, forming timeless designs such as the Hudson. In addition to its beauty, the goatskin is renowned for its softness as a leather. When combined with a sturdy iron frame, this piece achieves our high standard for durability.
Suede, a soft and fuzzy material, is another material with a rich history. The tanning process was traditionally used to show off the skin’s grain. The skins that had their grain sides scratched, and were otherwise unusable, were eventually put to use by making suede. The underside of the skin was processed, and the skin was worn inside-out. This was the initial making of suede leather.
Originally used in Sweden to make women's gloves, called gants de Suede. When these gloves gained favor in high society, the name stuck. During the 20th century, suede became a fashion trend. Famous high-fashion designers of the period such as Paquin, Givenchy, and Hermes preferred suede for their catwalks due to its versatility as a material.
Suede is the innermost layer of hide, usually from calf or goat or sheep. There are 2 major types of natural suede: non-refined and refined. Non-refined suede is made from sheep or calf hides. It is denser and more resistant to wear, but also more delicate and does not handle tolerate mechanical stress. Refined suede, on the other hand, is made from the hides of deer, goats, and pigs. This type of suede is extremely soft, thin, and breathable.
To produce suede, organic ingredients are used, such as linseed or fish oil. The naked hide is then soaked with fat and sent to a special "bead" to soak for several hours. After the fats penetrate all the layers, the material is painted and dried.
Typically, suede's quality is determined by the age and animal from which the hide came from. A mature cow would produce much lower quality, rougher suede in comparison to a sheep or a young calf.
Suede's production process imbues it with the following properties:
- Softness and silkiness
- Resistance to deformation
- The same texture on the back and front surfaces
- A breathable, porous structure for free air passing and water absorbing properties
Natural suede has a long list of pros and cons. Some of the pros include its rich appearance, wear resistance, good heat conduction, and, of course, its softness. Suede resembles genuine leather, so it looks expensive and stylish. It also can last a long time - 7 to 10 years with proper care. Even when scuffs and other small defects appear, they remain invisible and do not damage the suede. It also keeps you cool in the summer and warm in the winter, making it versatile in many different climates.
Some of the suede's cons include: moisture intolerance, easy tearing, dirt accumulation, a delicate care routine, and price. Unlike artificial suede, natural suede quickly absorbs liquid and dries for a long time. At the same time, its fibers absorb dirt and odors easily. Even a small amount of rain can ruin suede. Suede also tears easily, so keep the pets away! Suede also does not tolerate machine or hand-washing due to its high water absorption. It therefore, will need dry cleaning and additional care in order to maintain the suede's stylish appearance.
In order to better protect suede from dirt and spills, we recommend that you use a suede sealant. This will provide an additional layer of protection against dirt, oil, and water spills.
- Use a suede brush or even a dry, clean toothbrush to help keep the nap fresh
- For wet stains, try using talcum powder. A little bit of white vinegar can go a long way for dried stains
- For small spots, brush the fibers in one direction until the spot is removed
- Once you’ve removed the stain, you can restore the nap by using a rubber crepe brush in one direction
- The rubber lifts the fibers of the suede and restores it to original look
- Try a suede eraser. It is an inexpensive product that works for the tougher stains that a suede brush can't remove
- Use a suede eraser like you would a pencil eraser - rub the spot until the stain begins to lift
- Use your suede bristle brush to brush away any bits of eraser left behind
- Finally, use rubber crepe brush to restore the suede's look. Brush in one direction until the nap looks fresh
- Soak up the oil using household cornstarch. Sprinkle it on the oil spot and let it sit for a few hours.
- Remove the oily powder without rubbing it into the fabric, either by knocking the dust off or using a vacuum
- If the first pass doesn't pick up all the oil, repeat the process until all the oil has been absorbed
- Once all the oil is gone, use your crepe brush to restore the suede's appearance
After leather is split, the top layer is taken for top grain leather. The bottom layer is then coated with polyurethane and imprinted with leather pattern to mimic real leather. This end product is considered bi-cast leather. It is less biodegradable and durable than top-grain leather but is much less expensive.
Since bi-cast leather is a hide-vinyl hybrid, it has properties of both the hide it came from and its polyurethane coating. It is no where near as durable as top-grain leather - the average lifespan of bi-cast leather is 4-7 years of normal wear and tear in comparison to top-grain leather's 15-30 year lifespan.
When it comes to aesthetics, bi-cast leather is very versatile due to the plastic coating. It can be imprinted to resemble the top grain. It can also have higher glossiness and consistency than possible for natural leathers.
Due to its manufacturing process, bi-cast leather does not improve its look with time. It will instead develop unsightly cracks, rough patches and tears that cannot be repaired without replacing the whole covering. While the surface of laminated leather is initially smooth and has a bright shine, its appearance changes with use and shows signs of wear and tear relatively quickly.
One of the upsides to bi-cast leather is that it's fairly easy to maintain. Due to the polyurethane coat, the leather is less breathable and lacks water absorption.
- Soak a cloth or sponge in warm water to wipe down the surface. This will be sufficient for daily cleaning and lightly soiled areas.
- Use a bar of soap, dish detergent, or liquid soap for harsher stains. Use unscented soap to ensure no chemicals or possible residue will affect the leather.
- Wipe away soap with a wet cloth and let the piece air-dry. You can speed up the drying process with a dry cloth.
Vegan leather, a variety of faux leather, is made primarily from organic plant matter such as pineapple leaves (Piñatex), cork, and apple skin, as well as plastics such as polyurethane. While more eco-friendly and animal-friendly than bi-cast leather, vegan leather still makes use of fossil-fuel-derived polyurethane, making it unsustainable overall.
Vegan leather, much like bi-cast leather, is not as durable as top-grain leather. While the lifespan of vegan leather isn't as short as that of bi-cast leather, it still has a 3-5 year lifespan, roughly one-third of top-grain leather's lifespan.
Vegan leather is often times much thinner than real leather and more lightweight, making it much less labor-intensive to work with. Its plastic coating also makes it waterproof. Vegan leather is also much easier to repair than top-grain leather, which typically requires a leather repair specialist
Although vegan leather still makes use of polyurethane plastic to seal the material, it is still more eco-friendly than other synthetic leathers such as vinyl, due to its plant base. In addition, the lifespan of our vegan leather chairs is still longer than other synthetic leather pieces. This leads to the chair being replaced less often, which results in less landfill waste. The most beneficial aspect is that, since vegan leather isn't entirely plastic, less off-gassing of hazardous chemicals occurs during its lifecycle
One of our flagship vegan leather pieces is the Avery Modern Dining Chair. This piece features a square, stitched back made of high quality vegan leather and solid chair construction, combining to form a durable piece that can work in a variety of settings from vintage & transitional to minimalist & modern.
Much like bi-cast leather, vegan leather is fairly easy to maintain due to its plastic coating.
- Because of its lack of pores, stains remain on the top and can be cleaned easily
- You can use a mild detergent and a soft cloth to wipe down as needed
- We recommend applying a conditioner afterward, as vegan leather tends to dry out more quickly
Another great option for upholstery materials is cloth. Cloth is durable, flexible, and eco-friendly. In addition, cloth upholstery boasts a rich history, beginning as early as the 17th century.
Linen is a durable natural textile, made from the fibers of the flax plant. Linen textiles are one of the oldest textiles in the world - dyed flax fibers have been found in prehistoric caves, dating 36,000 years ago.
In ancient Egypt, linen was used for mummification and for burial shrouds because it symbolized light and purity as well as wealth. Linen was so valued in ancient Egypt that it was used as currency in some cases.
Linen is soft to the touch and gets softer every time it's washed. Linen is also two to three-times stronger than cotton cloth, leading it to be one of the most durable textiles in the market, lasting roughly 4-7 years. It also has a lower thread count to guarantee high quality, enduring linen.
Linen also possesses the ability to wick moisture, trapping liquid and drying quickly. In addition, nearly all flax possesses the natural ability to inhibit bacterial growth, allowing linen upholstered furniture to "stay fresher" for longer.
Due to its plant-based heritage, linen is an eco-friendly and sustainable material. It is also one of the most biodegradable materials ever used in the furniture industry.
The Chloe Contemporary Dining Chair exemplifies the utility of linen upholstery. This chair takes advantage of the natural flexibility of linen to create a transitional piece with a classic diamond tufted pattern. The result is a durable, yet comfortable piece that is incredibly versatile, due to its transitional design ethos.
Linen is actually one of the easiest fabrics to maintain. For extra protection against stains, we recommend scotch-guarding your furniture. Any store-bought scotch guard should be sufficient to protect your upholstery.
- If you’re in any doubt about how to care for the fabric, hire a professional linen upholstery cleaner.
- For small stains, wash the affected area with lukewarm water. Just dab gently with a wet cloth. Avoid rubbing the affected area as that could just push the stain deeper into the fabric.
- For tea or coffee stains, gently blotch them with glycerin. Allow the glycerin to soak on the fabric for a few minutes, then wash off with lukewarm water.
- For grease marks, you can remove them with the aid of some talc powder or corn starch. Dab the stains with a clean, dry cloth, then spread the powder on the area. Let the powder sit for a few hours to absorb the stain, and vacuum when finished.
- Allow the cleaned areas and cushions to dry completely before reassembling the sofa.
- Once the sofa is dry, vacuum cleaned areas again to restore any flattened nap.
Brushed cotton is a material made from the cellulose fibers of the cotton plant. After the cotton fibers are spun into cloth, the material is then brushed using a metal brush to create a soft, napped texture. The result is a soft, hypoallergenic material that offers better heat conductivity and breathability.
The main difference between regular cotton and brushed cotton is, of course, the brushing process. Normally, when most fabrics are finished, a flame is applied to singe away any raised fibers, resulting in a smooth surface. Brushed cotton's finishing process is the opposite.
After the cotton is woven into cloth, the material is carefully brushed by a fine metal brush in order to lift the fibers and produce a softer material. This process is a modern form of an age-old technique, originally using the dry, spikey heads of thistles for a brush.
You may hear "brushed cotton" used interchangeably with "flannel." While both materials are brushed, brushed cotton is only brushed on on side for a soft product that is both breathable and retains heat. Flannel, on the other hand, is brushed on both sides. This results in a fabric that is warmer, fuzzier, and thicker.
Brushed cotton's use in upholstery is exemplified by the Rebel Dining Chair. Performance-grade brushed cotton meets solid wood frame with iron legs for added support and is cushioned with foam padding for unrivaled comfort. The brushed cotton is breathable which helps keep the seat warm in the winter and cool in the summer, in addition its inherent softness. This all culminates into a striking piece that combines several styles, while remaining extremely comfortable and durable.
Velvet is a durable, multi-layered fabric with dense piles that are soft to the touch. Velvet boasts a rich history of luxury. Originating as early as the 14th century in East Asia, velvet was originally spun purely from the silk produced by silkworms. Although Asian silk was already very soft and prized (hence why it became one of the first globally traded goods), the unique production process of velvet creates a material that's even more lavish than other silk goods. Velvet was commonly used in the Middle East, eventually gaining popularity in Europe during the Renaissance.
Velvet is made using a special loom that spins two layers of the fabric simultaneously, with one above the other. These layers are then cut on the loom by a knife that travels back and forth through the center and wound up in rolls.
Once a velvet is woven, it is put through the process of dyeing and finishing. The velvet is piece dyed in 300 to 500 yard baths, which means a fabric is dyed after it is woven, as opposed to the actual yarns being dyed and then woven to make the fabric.
The end product of this labor-intensive process results in a durable fabric with a strong sheen which can last 7-10 years with proper maintenance. This process, combined with the accessibility of materials, explains why velvet is an expensive material.
The Avery Velvet Armchair combines luxury velvet with a solid wood frame, creating an extremely durable chair with a timeless aesthetic that makes for an excellent addition to any modern home. This piece truly sets the standard for upholstered velvet chairs.
Velvet, like many other materials, is prone to fading when subjected to prolonged sunlight exposure. That's why we recommend placing velvet upholstery in areas that aren't in direct sunlight. If that's not possible, you could drape a throw pillow over the affected area to protect it.
Tying it all Together: The Importance of Frames
Most chairs on the market today are considered Knock Down (KD) chairs, also known as Ready-to-Assemble (RTA). If you've ever bought furniture from a major retailer, such as IKEA, you've owned a KD piece. KD furniture typically come in a box with assembly instruction and require customer assembly.
These chairs have grown in popularity over the years due to their inexpensiveness, mobility, and space-efficiency. Since the piece can be disassembled, it can be transported with relative ease, as you no longer need to hire furniture movers or a moving truck to move a bulky piece. These pieces are typically built to be more compact as well, with sliding features to reduce space.
A big drawback of KD chairs is their short lifespan. These pieces, especially if they have been assembled and disassembled several times, deteriorate rather quickly. In addition to this, they're also primarily built of MDF, which is of much lower quality material when compared to solid wood.
We opt to use solid wood frames that are pre-assembled. This allows for us to implement craftsmanship techniques that increases the chair's lifespan from a few years to several decades. This construction technique is also showcased in our Charles Classic Welsh Leather Club Chair. This difference in processes leads to our Charles Collection of chairs lasting 3-4 times longer than its KD counterparts.