The Seating Upholstery Guide
Everything to know about World Interiors' upholstered chairs and sofas
When shopping for furniture, not only do looks and comfort matter, but also it's 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 and can last 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 requires much work to be completed by hand and still widely considered a luxury product.
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.
Though less durable than 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 is that imperfections are removed, which gives the leather a consistent color and pattern.
The implementation of top-grain leather is showcased 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 and 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.
- 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 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 like goatskin, which is used for a few of our pieces. Goat leather is thinner than its cow counterpart but is softer and a 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 tooled 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, is a great example of goat leather upholstery and its ability to be stretched and manipulated more easily to form 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.
Originally used in Sweden to make women's gloves, called gants de Suede, 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. In order to maintain suede's stylish appearance, special care must be taken.
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 less durable than top-grain leather but is 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. The average lifespan of bi-cast leather is 4-7 years of normal wear and tear in comparison to top-grain leather's 10-20 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 leather. It can also achieve a higher glossiness and pattern consistency than 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 by wiping 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 the least sustainable leather material.
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. 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 wood construction, combining to form a durable piece that can work in a variety of settings from vintage and transitional to minimalist and 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
- 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 sometimes used as currency.
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 and then vacuum the cleaned area
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 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 Armchair. 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. 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 is soft, 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. These pieces are typically built to be more compact 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 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.