Design SOS: Selecting the Right Upholstery for Your New Furniture

We were emailed the following question recently regarding furniture selection. I thought it would be good to address on the blog because furniture is a big purchase! It’s important to know these kinds of things before shelling out big money:

...We have started shopping for a new sofa. The one we have now we bought second-hand just to get us by after we moved—then I blinked and 5 years went by! It’s terribly uncomfortable and an embarrassment when we have guests over.  No one sits on it! I am so excited to finally make this purchase, but I’m so overwhelmed! The salesmen seem to throw dozens of different terms at me and I don’t really know what they mean. Especially when it comes to fabric! How do I know what is going to be the best for us?? We have teenagers, two dogs, and a cat (the animals are not allowed on the sofa, but they are sneaky).  My husband wants leather, but I'm not sure. What kinds of fabrics should I be looking at? How will I even know what I’m sitting on when I try one out??...

Lauren, Virginia Beach

Before I go into specifics—let me just say that I highly advise above anything else that you shop in place that has knowledgeable staff that aren’t just pushing for a hefty commission. They should not only be able to help you with an appropriate selection, but they should know everything I am about to get into. And they certainly ought to know how to tell what a certain upholstered piece is made of! If they can’t do any of those things, it’s probably best you shop elswhere.

But in the event you have limited choices (due to budget or lack of local retailers) I’ll break it down into the three major categories to make it easy:

1.     Cotton/Linen – These are your natural, down to earth basics. They can be casual or elegant, depending on how upholstered.  Most slipcovers will be linen or a cotton/linen blend. They may also occasionally be blended with synthetics (like polyester or rayon) for a little more durability. Light colored linens are very popular right now, especially in slipcovered options. They are beautiful and conveniently washable—but keep in mind if you go too light, some stains may not come out all the way.

Pros: breathable, comfortable, washable, upholstery easily, age well

Cons: may stain and wrinkle easily; may pill, shrink, or lose brightness if laundered too frequently; can get pricey, especially linens

Good to know: ask if covers are pre-washed/pre-shrunk; can be treated with stain-repellant; if it’s a bright color always test a spot on the back or in a discreet place (like the underside of a cushion) before spot cleaning


2.     Synthetics and Microfibers – Microfibers are exactly what they sound like: tons of tiny little microscopic fibers woven together. Synthetics and microfibers envelop tons of different titles and fabrics such as chenille, microsuede, polyester, rayon, nylon, etc. Unless it’s silk or wool (not likely), if it doesn’t say cotton or linen on the label, then it’s most likely a polyester/synthetic. They are very popular today because of their durability and inexpensive production (i.e. good value for durability). I had a microsuede sofa once and managed to get red wine out of the powder blue upholstery on more than one occasion.

Pros: inexpensive, durable, easily cleanable, usually washable if covers can be removed

Cons: heavier, don’t breathe well, sometimes have noticeable “handing” (this is the term for when you swipe your hand across a fabric and can see visible marks—you’d likely see pawprints if your animal pranced across it); don’t age gracefully— can stretch and pull in areas that get a lot of use

Good to know: Retailers are constantly renaming synthetics to have more appealing names (like the “microsuede” movement), especially with the popularity growth for more natural fibers. It’s important to ask to see the fabric card for the upholstery so you know exactly what’s in it.

Also, because microfibers are easily manufactured and inexpensive, they often (but not always) come standard on easily manufactured and inexpensive frames. Make sure you investigate the construction integrity and warranty of the piece as well. You wouldn’t want to trade cleanability for cushions that sag after 2 years.


3.     Leather – pretty self-explanatory….or is it?? Because leather is probably the most durable of all upholstery choices, many companies are trying to offer this feature at a more affordable price point, sometimes defeating the purpose of choosing leather. There are now “recycled,” "blended," "bonded," and “renewed” leathers that aren’t really leather at all (by now I'm sure there's more than that). They are typically polyester backings with a very thin layer of ground up leather scraps that have been remolded and dyed back into a thin piece of upholstery. Any honest and salesperson will tell you this. While they perform well, the colorfastness is weak, the surface is easily scratched, and it doesn’t breath like real leather. You want to look for the words “top grain” or “genuine” leather. Real leathers are worth the price.

Pros: breathable (when top grain—that is, the top most layer of cow skin—a true leather will not make you sweaty), extremely durable, can be repaired and refinished by a leather professional giving you years and years of use, ages and patinas beautifully

Cons: the most expensive option

Good to know: for optimal color-fastness and longevity, make sure the leather is not surface-dyed—ask for a sample of the leather and turn it over. If the color on the back matches the front, it will be easiest for a leather specialist to work with in repairing it, should you tear, burn, or scratch it.

One of the biggest fears with leather and pets is that cat or dog nails will “puncture” the leather. This is simply untrue, and only brought about because there are so many cheap and imitation leathers out there leading consumers to believe that leather is not as durable as it seems. If you have a leather purse, or shoe, or belt, imagine trying to “puncture” that thing. It would take a nail and lot of hammering before you did any damage!

And here’s a tip: unsure of what you’re looking at in a retail location? Look for seams. A real leather hide will not be able to stretch the entire span of a chair or sofa without seams. Sometimes the back and sides of a piece may be synthetic while the arms, seat, and back are genuine leather. This is totally fine, but my only warning is that you keep the back concealed against a wall or out of direct sunlight. Because the synthetic will fade over time and your sofa will be two-toned after a few years.


I hope this helps break down options for any of you making a big furniture purchase anytime in the near future. The worst feeling is dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars on something and having it last only a few years.  Just remember, you get what you pay for. Furniture should really be an investment, in my own opinion. Consider what gets the most use in your home and buy accordingly.

And if you can’t afford a great piece brand new, shop wisely second-hand! Under every chair or sofa should be a tag with the manufacturer and model number. Use the internet to your advantage! Google that sucker! And there’s always floor models! My own sofa was a returned custom order for a client who returned it when it arrived damaged. The manufacturer repaired it and because custom items are hard to sell, it was sold as a floor model and marked down to near cost. I got a $1300 sofa for $500.  A steal.

And if you’re still unsure, there’s always the chance we are able to help! Drop us a line and maybe we can guide you through a smart choice!

Happy Shopping!