Handmade furniture indicates high quality, though furniture upholstery quality comes from more than just being made by hand, but also by the techniques used and the quality of the materials employed. Here, we shall discuss what you should be looking for when you purchase upholstered furniture.
First, a definition of upholstery so we are all speaking the same language. The word derives from the old English ‘Upholder’, or one who held up his goods for examination. There are a few versions of how this was transferred to chairs and sofas, although many believe it to be the way the upholstery holds you up on the seat!
Believe that or not, furniture upholstery applies mainly to furniture intended for seating, such as chairs and sofas, and also to those intended for support such as footstools and ottomans. High quality handmade furniture of this type involves four specific elements: the frame, the seating support, the cushioning to provide comfort, and the cover.
Each of these plays a very important part in the comfort and overall look of your chair or sofa, and the importance and function of each is explained here:
Handmade Furniture: The Frame
The reason your body has its shape, and can tolerate the stresses and strains it does while you work, is its frame – which you know better as your skeleton. Your furniture also has a skeleton, which is known as the frame to which the total support system of your seating and back cushioning is attached – just as your tendons hold your muscles to your skeleton.
Properly crafted handmade furniture should be made with a solid frame, or skeleton. That is why our forefathers devised the solid mortise and tenon, dovetail and pinned joints – for strength so that the frame can offer a strong skeleton for the visible part of the furniture. All of the furniture upholstery is attached to the frame, which should be solid and strong enough to hold the weight for which it is made – yours!
Furniture Upholstery: The Support
When you flop down onto a seat it has to be able to take the initial shock of your weight, and then spring back to offer you support. As you lie back, the back of your chair should offer support but also yield somewhat to pressure. In modern furniture upholstery, this comes from springs that have been designed to move with the contours of your body.
There are two fundamental types of spring: wires compressed in a wave-shape (sinusoidal springs) that are connected together in a single unit, and individual chesterfield footstool coiled springs attached to the frame. Even the latter can be pre-fabricated into an individual framed spring unit. However, the most effective forms of furniture support are individual coiled springs attached to a compressible base.
Not only do the springs compress, but the base to which they are attached is also compressible, offering the maximum of comfort. In handmade furniture, this base is formed by nailing (or tacking) tightly stretched fabric webbing from front to back, and then woven side to side of the base frame of the seat. The individual coiled steel springs are then tied to the webbing base with twine, and then the tops of each spring connected with lengths of twine that are stretched down and nailed to the frame, tensioning the springs.
The Comfort Layers
Springs are not comfortable to sit on, so a layer of canvas is placed over the spring layer, stretched, and then nailed down to the same frame. On top of that is placed the padding. Traditionally, this would be a layer of horsehair and then of wool, but today would be layers of synthetic materials built up over the support until thick enough to offer the level of comfort required.
There can be several comfort layers in a modern chair or sofa, including cushions for the seat, and pillows for the back. Cushions need not always be required, particularly with handmade furniture utilizing furniture upholstery techniques to stuff the seat to such a high level of comfort that cushions are not necessary.
You can still purchase such traditionally upholstered furniture today, although most will provide cushions to cover the base seat. In fact, cheaper sofas will have a thin covering over the spring unit with cushions over that.
The Outer Covering
The outer cover originally covered a layer of canvas or linen stretched and tacked over the final stuffing layer. Today, it is more likely to be a cushion cover for the seat and back, with a layer of the same material covering the rest of the framework. Whatever that material is, it is the outer covering for your furniture and will have been chosen carefully.
Made properly, handmade furniture utilizing proper jointing techniques and solid hardwood lasts significantly longer than its factory-made equivalents, using dowels, glue and low-quality woods and laminates. However, once covered up with the outer fabric or leather it is often difficult to tell the difference: that comes with use.