Deciding on the Upholstery of Your New Living Room Furniture

Is your current living room, den or family room sofa covered with stains from when a chocolate bar melted in your son's pocket last Fourth of July? Do you have messy kids, stinky dogs and a couch that is beyond help and destined for the local dump? If you answered "yes" to either of these questions, then banish the thought of purchasing that luxurious velvet couch from your mind because it won't survive nature's most destructive force... children.

On the other hand, you might be a swinging single or childless couple and want to determine which upholstery type on your modern sofas and sectionals will stand up against a glass of spilled wine at your next cocktail party. Whatever the scenario, choosing the right type of upholstery is just as crucial as determining the ideal size and style of sofa, loveseat or sectional for your space. If you're unsure which type of upholstery is best for your home and lifestyle, here are the most popular choices:

Leather -- Leather is an excellent choice for a variety of situations. It can withstand the stains, wear and tear of children, but also looks expensive and elegant enough to suit even the most discerning shopper. Leather's biggest downfall is price and a good quality sofa will cost anywhere from $2000 and beyond. Leather is also difficult to maintain and requires special cleaning to prevent discoloration and fading.

Wool -- The price of wool upholstered furniture removes it from many people's "must-have" list. Wool is also difficult to clean, stains easily and cannot withstand the slightest exposure to several chemicals, including bleach. Aside from this, wool is very durable, resilient, holds dyes and is naturally flame retardant.

Cotton -- Cotton holds dye well and is available in a wide variety of colors and patterns to suit almost anyone's taste. The fabric is also easy to clean, especially if treated and naturally resists moths. Cotton also absorbs almost any liquid and is prone to wrinkling and fading.

Rayon -- If you're looking for an inexpensive alternative to cotton, leather and other natural fabrics, then rayon is an excellent candidate. The fabric is available in a variety of colors and resists fading and mildew. Unfortunately, rayon ages quickly and will show it, especially if you have kids.

Polyester -- Polyester is another synthetic alternative that also resists fading and is available in a variety of colors. Easily damaged by oily stains, including salad dressing and hand lotion, polyester also wrinkles and is prone to crumpling and shrinkage.

Nylon -- If you are the proud parent of children, both human and fur-bearing, nylon is probably your best bet. It will slightly wrinkle, but resists stains, fading and wear. Nylon is available in a variety of colors and one of the most inexpensive upholstery options.

Olefin -- Olefin, otherwise known by the brand name "Herculon", is a fairly new fabric and widely used in the production of upholstery and carpets. Moisture and stain resistant, olefin unfortunately doesn't absorb dye well and is available in a limited amount of colors and patterns. The majority of chemicals, including bleach, cannot penetrate olefin and the material is resistant to heat and insects. Unfortunately, olefin is fragile and is easily damaged by friction.

Microfiber -- Microfiber is any synthetic material that measures less than one denier. Basically, microfiber upholstery is manufactured from a combination of polyester and other synthetic fibers. The material is easy to maintain and clean and available in a variety of colors. Soft to the touch, consider microfiber for you high-traffic areas, including the living room or den.

Shopping for Your New Couch

Keep in mind where you'll keep the sofa before purchasing. For instance, consider a sofa upholstered with microfiber, rayon or nylon for the living room, especially if you have children and pets. If you have a formal space that is only used during special occasions, go ahead and indulge in that leather, wool or velvet sofa. Thread count is another consideration if you're purchasing a cotton, wool or any other woven fabric. The higher the thread count, the more durable the upholstery and the more expensive the price tag.

Read the sofa's label or hang tag to locate the fabric classification. The lower the number or letter, the more expensive the fabric. For instance, a letter "L" indicates a lesser quality fabric than the letter "C." Also, give the sofa an once-over and watch for upholstery defects including:

  • broken, loose or wavy seams
  • loose buttons
  • mismatched patterns

While you're in the showroom shopping for a new couch, don't be afraid to check the durability of the piece, including the frame and cushions. Remove the cushion covers and pull on the fabric to check for separation. Sit on the sofa to not only make sure it's comfortable, but also feel for the wooden frame. If you can feel the frame through the cushion and upholstery, walk away from the piece.

Judith Stern began her interior design career as in-house designer to a prestigious furniture retailer. Today Judith and her family run Modern Furniture Classics in addition to several other furniture websites. Her expert advice has been helping home decorators find the perfect sofas as well as many other furniture or home décor needs.