‘WICKER’ furniture is much loved, even though there’s no natural plant or material called wicker (a generic term for woven willow, reed, rush and rattan and several other varieties of plants and grasses).
Natural wicker can remain natural or it may be
dyed, stained, painted, shellacked, varnished or lacquered.
Hundreds of species of pliant woody plants as willow, reed, rush and rattan are prepared in different thicknesses of varying flexibility in order to weave diverse patterns strong enough for all styles of wicker furniture.
These natural materials must not be too dry or brittle in order to be to be woven; and large diameter rattan and bamboo must not feel rough. The natural color of the frames and the wickerwork should be uniform. Many manufacturers bleach natural materials to achieve uniformity.
Colorful all weather wicker furniture —woven of resin,
vinyl, high density polyethylene, or other—on aluminum
frames which do not rust, has become very popular.
‘Man-made wicker’ has no ‘protruding fibers’—because
these synthetic materials provide continuous fiber; just
as a large ball of yarn provides for a sweater.
Weaving must be meticulous. Where lengths of pliant fibers are joined, endings are tucked-in and clipped—to appear ‘invisible’.
Woven natural wicker is firmly attached to, or built upon strong structural components of hardwood, bamboo, rattan, wrought iron or other material chosen for strength and style.
Structural frames for smaller pieces of wicker furniture as chairs,
are usually bamboo or rattan. Large sized wicker furniture usually
has frames of hardwood— capable of mortise and tenon joinery. Wicker dining tables and chairs are often combined with wrought
iron or tubular steel components as arms and legs.
Bamboo or rattan structural frames are nailed together.
Mortise and tenon joinery is not possible.
Nail heads are covered with wood-fill and wrapped with fine willow.
Finished wicker furniture is singed to eliminate protruding fibers—and then, ‘wetted-down’ to tighten as it dries —before staining, painting or lacquering.
JUDGING THE QUALITY ofNEW and VINTAGE NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE:
Examine corners where woven material is attached to the frame to make sure joined components are wrapped in willow. If nails are visible, pass.
If all joining is secure, good. If any joined components ‘wiggle’, it’s seen better days, pass.
If woven wicker is ‘clogged with paint’, think twice.
Stripping paint on wicker is difficult.
If you see screws or staples in wicker furniture—pass.
Never accept protruding fibers.Endings of joined fibers should have been ‘singed’ at the factory—and wetted-down before staining, painting or lacquering.
Desks, bookcase, table and chairs, dressers or any large furniture made of wicker must have strong structural components as hard wood or metal. If rickety,pass.
If wicker chairs or sofas have springs,suspension standards (see upholstered furniture) apply. If suspension standards are inadequate:pass.
CARE: Use the brush attachment of a vacuum cleaner to keep wicker clean. Keep wicker away from heaters, radiators and fireplaces.
Avoid direct sunlight (natural wicker can dry out).
The beauty of hand work is lack of perfect uniformity,
not lack of standards.
Woven wicker has natural variations: but INSIST ON EXCELLENCE.
About 4,000 B.C.,
man began to weave nature’s pliant woody plants
into baskets to carry burdens, serve foods and cradle babies.
This became a universal culture known as WICKER;
even though there is no plant or grass called ‘wicker‘.
(In Swedish, wika means ‘to bend’, vikker means willow.)
This post is about NATURAL wicker furniture—
made of woven willow, rush, reed, rattan and other pliant woody plants.
But know that colorful all weather wicker furniture
made of resin, vinyl or high density polyethylene woven on frames of aluminum (which doesn’t rust)
is also available.
Natural wicker stools, chests, baskets and even wicker sandals were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Diverse styles of natural wicker furniture and accessories continue to be made globally.
NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE
Willow: Pliant branches from a species of deciduous trees and shrubs growing in temperate climates and known for diverse application for basketry and wickerwork.
Rush: A grass-like marsh plant having pliant, hollow or pithy stems. Rush was used in medieval times as a covering for stone floors, baskets, mats and chair seats. The thinner the rush and the more it’s twisted, the finer the finished product.
Reed: A tall grass with straight-slender leaves and growing in marshland.
Rattan: A variety of climbing palm with long, tough slender solid core stems used for wickerwork.
Split stems of rattan, called cane, have been used since the mid-17th Century for interwoven chair seats and backs.
Bamboo: Bamboo is a rapidly growing tree — known to grow 16 inches in one day in tropical climates. Bamboo is often the structural wood component for woven wicker furniture. It has slender, woody, hollow stems with well-marked joints or nodes.
Bamboo furniture originally was simple and described as “rather rickety”.In the 18th Century the influence of bamboo furniture from the Far East spread and the ‘look of bamboo’ was simulated by turning hard woods on a lathe. Replicated bamboo furniture became very popular in Europe and the United States.
Because of its’ rapid and sustainable growth, bamboo is increasingly used for cutting boards, kitchen counters, hardwood floors and as a textile fiber. Soft shoots of new bamboo growth are savored as a vegetable.
For centuries, plants and grasses from Italy’s Macerata region were harvested for wicker furniture, handbags and baskets. Today, this fertile land is more productive for growing food and sunflowers for oil.But the tradition of artisan production of wicker furniture has lingered with the skilled craftsmen—who must now import natural raw materials —usually from Pacific Rim nations.
PRODUCTION OF NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE:
Wicker furniture is currently made in countries having a strong tradition in techniques of construction and weaving natural materials. Bamboo, rattan and some hardwoods provide structural components for woven wicker furniture. Bamboo and rattan is joined with nails because mortise and tenon joinery is not possible for these woods.
A lot of natural wicker furniture is also made with structural components of wrought iron and/or tubular steel.
I visited a renowned manufacturer of wicker furniture in the Macerata region of Italy and was amazed by the variety of their imported natural materials.
Bamboo and rattan—for sturdy furniture frames.
Flexible willow—for weaving.
Fine willows—for wrapping nailed joints.
Bamboo —bent by heat and pressure.
Steam is used to soften many woods for bending—but because bamboo has a high moisture content, it can be held in a vice while craftsmen use heat and brute strength to bend bamboo corresponding to a template.
Bamboo poles are measured, cut and nailed together as furniture frames.
Nail heads are covered with wood-fill and joints are wrapped with strips of willow for a refined look.
A sofa takes shape as flexible willow is woven and pulled tightly through vertical bamboo ribs securely attached to the base frame. New lengths of willow are added periodically and endings are tucked-in and clipped in a neat, secure manner.
The craftsman’s hands move with rhythm, speed and dexterity
— reminding me of how warp and woof interlocks on a loom.
Protruding fibers are singed with a torch and the furniture is wetted-down to tighten as it dries. The finished furniture is spray-painted to specification— for international destinations.
CANE: Cane is the hollow, jointed stem of a tall grass
as bamboo, sugar cane or the split-stem of a palm as rattan. Since the mid-17th Century,
cane has been interwoven for chair-backs and seats.
Hand-caning used to be an inexpensive way to ‘seat’ a chair. Today, ‘skilled-labor’ hand-caning— is very costly.
Machine-caning, woven by the yard,
is popular for today’s chair-backs and seats.
In Venice, I visited a shop specializing in repairing and restoring rush and cane seats for antique furniture. Their major clients were European art galleries and museums.
After removing worn caning, hand carved pegs are placed into holes around the entire perimeter edge of a chair seat. Strips of cane, kept wet as they’re pulled and wrapped around the pegs–are woven horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. Care is taken that thin flat pieces of cane do not twist and are not pulled too tightly.
Strips of cane are joined only at edges where a finishing strip of cane is whipped under and over secure tapered pegs—and hammered back into the hole. The woven cane shrinks as it dries to provide a firm and comfortable seat.
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
My next post: JUDGING THE QUALITY OF NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE
After the Industrial Revolution, styles of metal furniture and accessories originally handcrafted by artisans, inspired the mass-production of metal furniture and accessories in broad price ranges through the use of different metals and technology. This became a format for the democratization of many everyday home products.
The 20th Century introduced mass-production of flat and tubular steel furniture. The first tubular steel chair made in 1925 is cited as the beginning of modernism.
Enchanted by the golden sheen of Chianti Country while driving to my appointment at a metal furniture factory—a bend in the road suddenly revealed an Industrial Park—home to the furniture factory.
In an office filled with international awards, the factory owner revealed many facts about the ‘global-consumer’ for whom this affordable metal furniture is made.
My factory tour began in a hangar-like space—housing diverse steel tubing for both capital and labor intensiveproduction.
A craftsman bends a single hollow steel tube into a perfect chair frame.
An identical single hollow steel tube is bent by a mechanical robot —into the identical perfect chair frame—in less than one minute.
Mechanical robots enable increased production to meet demand for styles that continue to be made in the factory by craftspeople. Selling large quantities of a style affords better technology for greater efficiency —while maintaining quality. This marketing practice is called ‘economy of mass’.
Good quality tubular steel furniture demands ROUNDNESS of hollow tubing is maintained —especially at corners.
Tubing—flat when turning corners, and frames made of joined pieces of tubing,
After steel tubes are bent into a chair frame, tubing ‘ends’ are soldered together. This creates oxidation which is polished away before frames are chrome plated.
Some styles of bent tubular steel chairs are original
—others are influenced by the ‘classics’ as Thonet’s bentwood chair.
Steel furniture can be brushed, polished, chrome plated or painted.
Leather seats and backs, sewn by a leather contractor,
complete a popular design.
In a cavernous part of the factory–steel tables and chairs,
hanging from conveyor belts suspended from the ceiling—
fly slowly through a journey of rust proofing and very hot air.
Brilliant colors of paint are sprayed on the furniture by ‘masked-men’
and baked with very hot air for maximum durability. MY FILM WAS BAKED, TOO.
METAL FURNITURE SUMMARY
IDENTIFY THE METAL: Iron, brass, steel, aluminum, chromium.
Iron, brass and steel furniture is currently mass-produced in a broad range of price, quality and style. If we understand differences in metals and basic artisan and mass-production techniques, we can choose with confidence, tables, chairs, beds and other metal furniture at prices we can afford.
Brass furniture components are cast, hand-hammered or cut from
hollow brass pipes.
Iron furniture components are cast, hand-forged or cut from hollow
Flat steel furniture components are cut from flat steel. Tubular steel components are cut from tubular steel and shaped by bending.
Shapingflat or tubular steelfurniture requires capital-intensive
machinery to bend very hard metals.
Mass-production of cast metal requires labor-intensive tasks performed by skilled workers. There must be no mold markings —nor visible seams where components are soldered together. Surfaces must not have pits caused by impurities in the molten metal.
HAND-FORGED: Expect variations in hammer marks—but sloppy soldering is unacceptable. The beauty of hand work is lack of uniformity—not lack of standards.
BALANCE: Chairs of any metal must be perfectly balanced so they won’t easily tip over. Sit down and attempt to rock back and forth; chairs should resist.
Quality metal furniture has heft so it won’t blow over on a windy day.
BRASS: Solid brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Harder than copper, brass usage began in the 16th Century.
Make sure furniture is solid brass—not plated.Avoid lacquered brass;
it inevitably peels. Solid brass usually requires polishing once or twice a year.
IRON: Iron is second to aluminum as a common element found in ore. It was first used by early man for weapons and later, for utilitarian and ornamental objects. Iron is soft, ductile and malleable. Cast iron is an alloy of iron and carbon —added as a hardener.
STEEL: Steel is 85% iron alloyed with other elements. High carbon steel is 12% carbon. It is similar —but harder than cast iron.
STAINLESS STEEL: Stainless steel is stain less-–not stain proof. An alloy of iron, chrome and nickel, stainless steel was developed in England in 1913. Different formulas have varying tensile strength; 18/8 or 18/10 means iron is alloyed with 18 parts chrome and 8 or 10 parts nickel. 18/10 is superior. Stainless steel resists corrosion.
Examine all corners of tubular steel furniture to assure roundness of the tube. All joinery of tubular steel must be invisible and all endings of flat steel must not be sharp (as bottom of legs).
FLAT & TUBULAR STEELchairs are relatively heavy and won’t tip over easily. Tubular steel is often CHROME PLATEDfor a durable and bright finish.
ALUMINUM: Many styles of hand-forged iron furniture are copied using aluminum—a smooth, strong, hard grey surface which is less expensive and lighter in weight than iron.
Aluminum, the most abundant of metals, was not isolated until the 19th Century. Second in usage to iron/steel, it is lightweight and easy to shape. Anodizing is an electrolytic process that thickens the natural skin of aluminum to createa smooth, strong, hard grey surface.
CHROMIUM: Chromium (chrome) discovered in 1797—was commonly alloyed with iron, nickel or cobalt for hardness and strength. Chromium is 8 to 10% stainless steel. Because of its’ brilliant shine, hardness and corrosion resistance, chrome is often electroplated on metals requiring a durable finish.
CARE FOR ALL METAL FURNITURE :
• Follow all care directions on manufacturer’s labels. • If solid brass is not lacquered, brass polishes can be used. • If wrought or cast iron furniture or railings need painting: use rust-proof paint. • Chrome plated tubular steel and flat or tubular steel requires only dusting.
Soap and water will remove sticky hand-prints—but dry thoroughly.
Iron, first smelted in 1000 B.C., brought boundless benefits to mankind; historians labeled it THE IRON AGE.
Since antiquity, wrought iron, cast iron and brass have been used to make head and foot boards for beds and other furniture.
Wrought iron furniture (hand-forged), traced to the Romans, became popular in the 17th Century as garden and cemetery furniture.
Hand-forged iron requires painstaking craftsmanship. Iron must be heated (annealed) frequently so it can be hammered into shape without splitting – before all components are soldered together.
Cast iron was used commonly for out-door furniture in the 1840’s. Skills for casting iron include making intricate plaster molds, melting and purifying the iron so it’s devoid of impurities, pouring molten metal into molds, grinding away mold marks —and soldering metal components together.
After the Industrial Revolution, machine technology enabled
mass-production of metal furniture and by the 1870’s, brass beds were popular in England—not for their beauty—but because
“they didn’t harbor bed bugs“.
Since the 1920’s, global acceptance of metal furniture for kitchens, formal living spaces and gardens keeps growing.
A factory/showroom in a 16th Century villa in the outskirts of
Firenzé was a perfect setting to showcase artisan-made brass
candlesticks, 3′ tall brass vases, brass cymbals for symphony
orchestras—and cast brass and hand-forged iron furniture—
made to specification for international architects and interior
The clarity and amazing tone of the brass cymbals
— made for international symphony orchestras—
is attributed to the exceptional purity of the brass.
In the foundry, skilled craftsmen create intricate
plaster molds and make sure the molten brass is
devoid of pits and impurities before being poured
into the molds.
Great care is taken when removing hardened brass components from the intricate molds.
Before soldering brass components together, mold marks from each section must be ground away. Finished table bases are polished and topped with glass.
In another building, an artisan hand-forges tables, chairs and chaise lounges for the Villa San Michele in Fiésole. Each strip of iron is annealed before being hammered into shape and soldered together.
One month later, my visit to Villa San Michele proved it a perfect setting for this furniture. Matching tables and chairs graced the veranda cocktail lounge—now with fresh white cushions.
Small hand-wrought iron tables and chairs nestled in the gardens— and lawns were filled with matching chaise lounges and umbrella tables.
At another Italian metal factory, artisans hand-forged iron
and hand-hammered brass and pewter for home accessories:
cutting, bending and soldering hollow iron pipes to become
small tables, sconces, candelabra and chandeliers.
A tub of acid in the middle of the factory was for pickling small
hand-forged iron shapes to remove oxidation and residue before
painting. Hand-forged iron products are painted white; prior to
hand-painted poly-chrome finishes.
My respect for metal artisans is limitless because of the meticulous
craftsmanship I observed in diverse international factories.
Chairs and sofas can be reupholstered IF THE FRAME AND SUSPENSION SYSTEMS ARE GOOD QUALITY.
But first: how do you know if an upholsterer is a good upholsterer?
No matter who recommends an upholsterer,
you must visit their workshop,
examine their craftsmanship,
appraise their organization and professionalism!
Then, it is critical to verify where your furniture will be upholstered: by workers in their supervised premises? or sent to a sub-contractor?
I’m emphatic about this because of my experience!
My family sofa needed reupholstering.
A prestigious NYC interior decorator firm recommended an upholsterer as
‘one of the best’.
…..this photo illustrates one reason their work was unacceptable!Balls of questionable filling!
No cambric or muslin casing! These are ‘hidden crimes’!
After discovering ‘this’ and several other objections to their work, I ‘dropped-into’ the upholsterer’s workshop without an appointment
and learned my sofa had been re-upholstered by a sub-contractor!
Ultimately, all inferior work was corrected, but
I won’t recommend this upholsterer to anyone.
I was later shocked to learn that many upholsterers
My experience compels me to advise against hiring an upholsterer who uses sub-contractors!
When you finally proceed with a work order,
no matter how ‘simple’ you think your work is,
specify and clarify each detail ON PAPER!
Consider each of the following — and include all details as: Tightening joinery of frame components. Retying or replacing of springs. ‘How’ a pattern must be matched. List lining—if your fabric should be lined— including the skirt. If you require welting, what kind?(plastic is not acceptable). Specify quality of cushion fillings: all to be encased in cambric or muslin. Specify additional pillows and specific quality of fillings. Specify arm covers and their size.(skimpy will keep falling off). ………………et cetera, et cetera.
Take nothing for granted!
List every minute detail!
Make it known you will ‘drop-in’ to observe progress on your furniture
Slipcovers change ‘the look’ of furniture. They also hide worn upholstery—but must fit well.
Some furniture manufacturers sell good quality furniture ‘upholstered’ in cambric or muslin — for consumers who want slipcovers.
‘Perfectly-sized’ slipcovers are made in a variety of fabrics so the furniture ‘looks’ upholstered.
This is a good way to buy good furniture that’s easily maintained and transformed as income and needs change. Slipcovers are practical for families —because most of today’s fabrics can be washed or dry cleaned.
If you want furniture to have seasonal change; slipcovers are magic!
And when you no longer want slipcovers,
you can re-upholster
if the frame and suspension system of a chair/sofa is good.
No matter how you hear about slipcover craftspeople: first: visit their workshop, second: examine their craftsmanship, third: appraise their organization and professionalism!
Before buying a used or vintage upholstered chair/sofa,
answer the following:
Who previously owned the chair/sofa? Even if it’s ‘family’ furniture, answer the following questions honestly to decide if you want to incur the expense of re-upholstery! ( I truly enjoy each of the family chairs/sofas I’ve had re-upholstered!)
Is the chair/sofa frame sound? This is critical; most of the sofas I’ve seen ‘curbside’—had collapsed frames. If the frame is NOT sound, pass. If the frame is sound: consider re-upholstery.
Does the chair/sofa have webbing and tied coiled springs! If yes, this indicates good suspension.
Without webbing or coiled springs, pass.
Is the upholstery fabric worn? This indicates only usage.Consider re-upholstery.
Open the zipper of a cushion. Is the soft filling within a cambric casing? Shreds or lumps of fabric or polyester without casing is poor quality but if the frame and suspension are okay, consider re-upholstery.
Lift the corner of the chair/sofa. Is it relatively heavy and stable? Light and wiggly indicates poor quality frame and suspension system.pass. Heavy and stable is necessary for lasting quality.okay.
Can you feel the frame through the arms, top or back of the chair/sofa? If you can’t: good! If you feel the frame, fillings and padding are inadequate and the frame will
eventually poke through upholstery fabric. A good upholsterer can correct this.
Do you hear squeaky sounds as you sitand move around on the chair/sofa? This probably means springs are inadequately tied — but can be re-tied
by an upholsterer.
If squeaks come from ‘joined components’ of the frame: the components are probably not properly joined. pass.
Is the depth of the chair/sofa right for you? Because chairs and sofas must accommodate human frames of different sizes, chairs/sofas are made in many sizes.
Too deep, add throw pillows.
Not deep enough? Keep looking!
Is the height, width and mass of the chair/sofa right for your room? Remember, room sizes, ceiling heights and sizes of other room furniture are variable. Chairs and sofas need to be in proportion to the room. Only you can judge this !
Be sure to carry a magnifying glass and tape measure so you can examine upholstery with the professionalism of a home inspector. If you describe inadequacies using specific terminology to explain why a price is too high for the quality, you can gain leverage for negotiation.
20 years ago, shopping for loveseats, I investigated everything a consumer should investigate. The frame, suspension system, fillings, etc. were good quality but the upholstery fabric I had chosen was no longer available—and I was given the option to supply my own fabric.
The furniture manufacturer approved my choice of Pierre Deux’s tightly woven red and white plaid linen. I purchased the required yardage and sent it directly to their factory. Despite my anticipation of two beautiful loveseats……… ………they were DISASTER !
The president of the factory refused my phone calls.
A librarian researched the name of the CEO/owner of the furniture company —and I wrote him a letter.
The indisputable power of my letter were the 21 photographs—accompanied by specific, detailed descriptions of unacceptable work! e.g.:
1. No attempt to line up and match the small repeat plaid anywhere! 2. Cheap plastic welting causing irregular edges. 3. Insufficient fillings in back cushions caused sagging excesses of fabric. 4. Facing over a zipper was incorrectly stitched and teeth were exposed. 5. A staple was exposed in the back of a loveseat. 6. Instead of ‘feathers and down in a cambric casing’ cushions; cheap
poly material was shoved into upholstery cushions. 7. Raw edge fabric was STAPLED onto the frame under the skirt. 8. Fabric on one side of a love seat was tighter than the other side. 9. Skirts were of different lengths and the plaid ran downhill. 10. Parts of the frame were covered with linen without PADDING!
The CEO/owner called —apologized—and told me the
loveseats would be remade to my approval.
20 years later, I still enjoy my good quality plaid loveseats!
My advice? Never, never, never, give up!
OKAY! READY TO SHOP?
Choices are endless when selecting sofas and chairs.
Choose a style and size to fit you— and your room.
The lack of labeling information means you must verify
information about the frame, joinery, suspension system,
fillings, padding and cushions.
COMPONENT PARTS & RAW MATERIALS:
frame………hard wood of one species. joinery……..mortise and tenon preferred. Double doweling is also good. webbing…..tightly woven quality jute as a base to hold springs. springs…… coils of steel wire, 8-way hand-tied. fillings……..animal hair or man-made fillings cover frame and springs and
creates the shape of the sofa or chair. padding……final layer to assure a filled, smooth surface for upholstery fabric. edge roll……sturdy coil of fiber, eliminating gap between cushions and base. cushion fillings…..varieties from down to man-made for seating comfort. upholstery fabric….consumer’s choice of color, pattern and texture. welting………fabric coveredcotton cord sewn between seams to retain shape. dust cover….cambric tacked to chair/sofa bottom keeps dust out of springs.
Frames: Chair and sofa frames must be kiln-dried hardwood of the same species and frame components should be joined with mortise and tenon or double doweling. Where legs are joined to seat frames, corner blocks must be glued and screwed to the seat rails for reinforcement. About these, there is no compromise. Don’t be afraid to sit on the arms of the chair or sofa you plan to buy and verify the strength and solidity of the frame.
Suspension system: Taught, woven webbing topped with closely placed 8-way hand-tied steel springs is best. When the design of a chair/sofa is very ‘slim’ and there is no space for 8-way hand-tied steel springs: sinuous steel springs are probably used. These must be in very close parallel rows and connected by small steel helical springs to help the sinuous springs act together in counteracting weight and combating ‘sag’.
Even though you like the style of a chair or sofa, be sure it’s comfortable for you. Test for the ‘bounce’ you prefer—just as selecting a mattress. Check all labels and discuss the warranty regarding springs. A sofa not guaranteed for at least 10 years casts doubt about its quality.
Fillings & Padding: For comfort and durability, fillings must be firm, resilient and covered with quality padding for a soft hand. If you feel the wood frame through the padding, fillings are not adequate and frames can eventually rub or poke through. Ask the specific names of the fillings and padding materials used in the chair or sofa. If the store can’t tell you, don’t hesitate to contact the manufacturer.
Application of Upholstery Fabric: Upholstery fabric may or may not be lined —but if the fabric it is not tightly woven, it should be lined. Upholstery fabric must be securely pulled, stitched and tacked to the frame.
If fabric is sewn together with welting,the welting cord must be cotton—not plastic. Plastic welting is rigid and causes fabric to fray at the corners.Insist upon good sized removable arm covers and make sure they can be laundered or dry cleaned. They add years of wear to a chair or sofa.
Open cushion zippers.
Exposed foam or shreds of foam are a ‘red flag’.
FILLINGS SHOULD BE IN THEIR OWN MUSLIN CASING!
Too hard? Too soft? Sink down and can’t get up? If cushion fillings are not pleasing, inquire if there’s an option to make them more soft or more firm. If not, leave and shop in a different store.
Be a Goldilocks!
Finding ‘one size’ to accommodate both a 5’2” and 6’2” person is daunting.
Sit in all of them until YOU find one that is just right! Sit back. Is the pitch right for YOU? Does the depth allow the front of the cushion touch the back of YOUR knees? Do YOUR feet reach the floor? Good. Do YOUR knees reach toward your chin? Bad.
Be sure a chair or sofa is scaled for the room: Height, Width, Depth & Mass.
Be adamant. Be persistent. Don’t buy anything until you have legitimate confirmation from the manufacturer or retailer about ‘everything’ under the outer fabric.
If complete information is not available from your retail store, • check the manufacturers’ website • phone them
• shop at a different store.
I visited two celebrated upholstery factories in the U. S. and one in Italy:
each fastidious in their choice of raw materials and production methods for upholstered chairs and sofas.
Their collective standards of excellence provide the criteria necessary
to judge the quality of upholstered furniture at any price.
Each frame is a non-splitting hard wood of one species.
After components are joined with mortise and tenon, frames are ready for the suspension system: strips of jute webbing are tacked to the frame and stretched, tightly woven and stitched to provide a firm, flexible foundation for springs.
Steel coils are placed by a springs specialist—to fill the entire seating area. The size and gauge of the coils is varied to support stress; heavy coils are densely packed and positioned under the knees and along exterior edges.
Spring coils are sewn to the tightly woven burlap base and the process is repeated for the back of chairs and sofas as well as upholstered arms.
Springs are compressed and 8-way tied so their original
tension and shape is retained throughout use.
Hand-knotting allows differentiation in stability and pressure.
Burlap, placed over the 8-way hand-tied coiled springs, is tacked down as a foundation for fillings.
Every layer of filling, whether foamed plastic—animal hair or whatever the specifications require —is covered with flannel or muslin—to prevent filling from shifting. This ‘unseen’ covering is sewn as carefully as if it were upholstery fabric.
Flying fingers reveal the sensitivity of a craftsman’s touch as he judges the amount of filling for a chair and then sews a second covering of burlap over the filling.
Frames must never be felt through fillings.
A craftsman rhythmically moves a magnetized hammer to his lips to retrieve an upholsterers’ tack clenched between his teeth.
An edge roll, (a heavy coil of fiber) is attached to the front edge of the wooden seat rail to add strength where body pressure is applied when changing from a sitting to a standing position.
Edge rolls eliminate gaps beneath cushion. It also raises the appearance of the base of the sofa. Edge rolls are stationary (not connected to the spring action) and covered with muslin for a firm application.
Cambric covers are sewn to encase
specified fillings for seat and back cushions. Above, light and fluffy goose downisstuffed into cambric covers.
Here, a dacron polyester fiberfill is the final padding
tacked and sewn to provide a soft hand beneath the upholstery fabric.
Upholstery fabricis cut from a pattern and usually lined to impart body and combat stretching. If welting is specified, soft cotton cord (never plastic)is covered with bias-cut upholstery fabric and sewn into the seams.
Upholstery covering is both hand-tacked and hand-sewn by master craftsmen.
To create real tufting, craftsmen must pull cords from a button on the front of a sofa through to the back where each cord is secured.
Physical force is necessary to pull heavy cords from front to back. In a ” SOFA VS. CRAFTSMAN” battle. The craftsman won!
Tufting on less costly furniture may be only an ‘appearance of tufting’,
achieved by inserting a pronged button— known to fall out in time.
The final step for good quality upholstery is a cambric dust cover— tacked to the bottom of chairs and sofas to prevent dust moving up and into the webbing and springs.
Production of good quality upholstered furniture
is undeniably very labor and capital intensive.
Remember jumping up-and-down on your couch or sofa or whatever you called that big, comfortable piece of furniture in your living room?
Kids in the 17th Century would have had a hard landing; upholstery was only in homes of the well-to-do.
And bounce wasn’t added until the invention of the furniture spring—-
in the 18th Century.
Perhaps no product requires ‘digging’ from the inside-out —more than upholstered furniture. We fall for pretty fabric at the expense of the most critical but invisible components.
Shopping for a sofa, I asked why information about frames, springs and fillings wasn’t on the label. The store owner said, “it would cost too much”. NONSENSE! Production tickets in every factory list all technical information which can easily be reprinted for consumers.
In a privately owned furniture store, a salesperson understood all my questions and directed me to a sofa that had every element of quality I asked for. I later viewed the manufacturer’s on-line video; it confirmed the excellent raw materials materials and production techniques I required.
I ordered the sofa in full grain, drum-dyed full-aniline red leather.
It’s comfortable—and beautiful!
FURNITURE FRAMES FOR UPHOLSTERY:
Frames must be kiln-dried hard wood of the same species because different species have different degrees of density which contract and expand differently.
Components must be joined with mortise and tenon or double doweling—nothing less, and chair legs must be secured to the seat rail/apron with properly screwed and glued corner blocks.
Frames must never be felt through fillings and upholstery fabric.
If you feel the frame, it will eventually protrude through the covering.
Do not compromise.
THE SUSPENSION SYSTEM:
Better upholstery manufacturers use woven jute webbing as the
foundation for their furniture’s suspension.
Webbing strips are tacked to one side of the frame, stretched tightly and tacked to the other side. Cross strips are tacked, tightly woven, then stitched to provide a sturdy base for hand-tied springs and layered fillings.
Some manufacturers use perforated flat steel webbing, corrugated steel webbing and corrugated jute combined with steel webbing—but these cannot provide the durability and comfort of woven jute webbing layered with coiled springs and fillings.
Steel wire in different gauges is coiled into springs of different sizes and shapes. Coiled metal springs absorb shock, add resilience and add spring. Varieties of springs are commonly used; spirals that widen at both ends are called’ double-coiled’.
Gauge numbers range from 00, the heaviest, to 15, the thinnest.
The heavier the wire, the stiffer the spring.
Coiled springs for better upholstered furniture seats range from 9 to 12 gauge and from 5” to 14” in height in hard, medium and soft tension. Back springs are 12 to 15 gauge and 4” to 10”.
I had read manufacturers use from 4 to 8 coiled springs per seat, so I asked
an artisan upholsterer why he was using so many more. He laughed saying, “Lady, how can you have rules like that when each style is different—you gotta fill the whole area!”
The way springs are joined to each other is a critical component of quality.
Chosen for comfort and strength for each design, different gauges and sizes of coiled springs are first sewn to the webbing base and then joined to each other in a technique called ‘8-way hand-tied’—which prevents coils from shifting with use.
Hand tying allows variation of the degree of compression according to the placement of the coils; some areas need to be more firm than others (e.g. when rising from a sitting to a standing position, springs behind the knees must be firmly tied ).The twine has a waxed finish and is very durable.
Some manufacturers join springs with metal clips because it’s faster and cheaper–but this results in uniform spring tension, a quality ‘no-no’.
The National Home Furnishing Association states,“Eight-way, hand-tied remains the standard of excellence for those who want good quality”.
Very slim styles of upholstered furniture cannot accommodate the depth of coiled springs; ‘sinuous springs’ must be used.
Sinuous springs are made of heavy steel—closely aligned in parallel rows for strength —and cross-connected with small steel helical springs that act together to counteract weight and provide comfort and stability.
Fillings give shape and comfort to upholstered furniture.
In better quality production, burlap is sewn over the springs to become a sturdy support for fillings that give a chair or sofa its shape. Fillings prevent the suspension system and frame from being felt through the upholstery fabric.
Chair and sofa fillings:
Fillings depend upon the desired softness or firmness for end use.
Animal hair blends as mohair, hogs or cattle hair mixed with other fibers, foamed plastic or Dacron polyester available loose or in rubberized pads are preferred for flexibility and comfort. Horse hair, a more traditional filling, is quite firm.
OTHER GOOD FILLINGS:
• Fiber mats from fibers of the sisal plant. • Mossfrom an air plant. •Kapok(silk floss) from seed pods; resilient and resistant to moisture. • Foam rubber(flat sheets) available in compression: from medium to firm. •Polyurethane foam(flat sheets) densities range from soft to high resiliency.
PADDING: Padding is applied over filling materials—beneath the upholstery fabric
to create a smooth and perfectly filled and smooth surface.
Cotton padding—-excellent for durability and softness. Polyester fiberfill —soft and resilient padding available in rolls of various thicknesses. It is also used to wrap polyurethane foam in cushions.
Soft cotton cord (welting) covered with bias-cut upholstery fabric is sewn into the seams of joined pieces of upholstery fabric to define shape and prevent wear. Plastic welting is rigid; fabric coverings easily fray, especially at corners.
CUSHIONS: Good quality seat and back cushions should be cambric casings —
stuffed with a good filling and covered with upholstery fabric.
Down: the under plumage of fowl, preferably goose. It is very soft, expensive and must be plumped after being sat-upon —to avoid ‘looking squashed’. Synthetic down fillings are beneficial to people with feather allergies. Don’t confuse feathers with down.
Feathers:listed as a filling can be misleading because quality judgments cannot be made unless the specific variety and amount of feathers is known.
Polyurethane foam wrapped in cotton or polyester padding iscommonly used for cushion fillings.Premium polyurethane foams provide soft resilient seating. Qualities of foam are not equal;densities range from super soft to extra firm. The higher the density, the greater the durability.
Polyurethane foam topped with down, quality feathersor one of the better synthetic lofty products achieves resiliency with a luxurious hand.
Ready-made coiled spring unitscan be topped with down, feathers or a lofty synthetic product to achieve a desired softness or firmness with a luxurious hand.
We’re attracted to upholstered furniture by the color, pattern and texture of the fabric. You may like it—but how do you know if it’s good?
Animal, vegetable or mineral? Did you play this word game? You probably weren’t aware that textile scientists uncover and restructure fibers for textiles fromeach of these natural sources.
Highly complex and capital intensive global textile businesses have replaced the traditional homespun and cottage-industries of spinning and weaving. Technical specialists constantly strive to develop fibers that can be spun into yarns. e.g.bamboo is currently a popular textile fabric.
Color can be added in either the fiber or yarn state.
Capital intensive technology is used to knit or weave
undyed or dyed yarns into piece goods—which can
be dyed a solid color or printed with colorful patterns
by hand or machine.
For decades, textile scientists have restructured existing natural and man-made fibers to create new products, e.g. micro fibers. They have also created finishes for better end-use performance as stain-retardants, water-proofing solutions, etc.Most of these processes are applied by the textile manufacturer or contracted out to specialists.
Changes in temperature and humidity contract and expand wood;
furniture joinery can loosen and wood finishes can be destroyed.
Has the vintage wood furniture been kept in a cellar or attic? How trustworthy is the seller?
Examine furniture with the professionalism of a home inspector.
The best way to gain leverage for price negotiation is to describe inadequacies using specific terminology that explain why the price is too high for the quality.
Compromise becomes a treasure hunt when we apply timeless principles of quality to products we like. We always win, especially when we find a less expensive product superior to one we can’t afford.
How old is the furniture? Besides the condition of the furniture and how the wood was finished, AGE MATTERS. By the end of the 1940’s, engineered particleboard began to be used as an economical substrate for both wood and man-made veneers.
As discussed in previous posts, I do not recommend furniture made with a fiberboard substrate. Man-made substrates arouse my suspicion about all production methods, especially joinery techniques.
By the 1990’s, mergers and leveraged buyouts among branded furniture manufacturers enforced goals of volume and profit. For many, quality was negatively affected.
Did you get an honest answer about the age of the furniture? Depending upon the seller, you may or may not learn who owned the furniture and the year it was purchased. Look beneath wood furniture to see if the manufacturer’s name or logo is embossed. You may be able to learn more about a manufacturer’s reputation for quality on the Internet.
How long does a wood chair —or any wood furniture—last?” If well-made and well-maintained, wood furniture has no expiration date. International museums include chairs made by early Greeks and Romans.
Hand-crafted furniture and chairs from the 17th Century are the pride of the American Wing in the Metropolitan Museum and 20th Century furniture at the Modern Museum of Art is a product of modern technology and may last for centuries.
All of the above are in excellent condition although some may have been restored. Even if the vintage furniture does not have antique value, you’re justified in asking: “How old is this —chair—table—bench— desk– – bookcase?”
What is the wood species? This is tricky. If a seller says the wood is cherry, is it solid cherry wood? cherry veneer? or cherry stain ?—on pine or other wood? And if stain deliberately obscures the wood grain, the quality of the wood is probably less than furniture grade.
If you don’t get reliable answers to your questions, PASS—or bring a friend who’s a wood expert!
Where was the furniture made? Imported furniture must have a country of origin label in order to pass customs into the United States. However, previous owners may have removed these labels.
If the quality of the craftsmanship is good, more important than country of origin is the condition of the wood and joinery. A lot of wood furniture made in the U.S. is embossed with the brand name somewhere beneath the visible surface.
Since the 1970’s, domestic and imported knocked-down furniture is becoming popular. Much of it is less-than-good—-even if you assemble it.
‘Vintage’—has many connotations. I use the term to describe ‘old’–but not yet old enough to have value as an ‘antique’. But regardless of age, if furniture is used —and if you suspect the quality may not be good, give it a ‘rugged’ test.
What joinery is used? If furniture has a dovetailed drawer, all of the joinery is probably good. Ifdrawers are not dovetailed, all joinery becomes suspect —and one has to guess what joinery has been used. If the furniture seems sturdy? okay. If it wobbles?pass.
If furniture has legs, there should be corner blocks. Look beneath all furniture with legs to see of it has corner blocks where each leg meets the frame. Corner blocks are necessary for stability.
Don’t be afraid to be rough as you examine furniture to judge stability. If furniture seems sturdy but has a loose spindle, simply use good wood glue and clamp the joined pieces until thoroughly dry. But if many components are loose?—pass.
Hardware quality? If wood furniture has hardware, learn the name of the metal—and whether it is solid or plated.Plated drawer pulls or hinges are a wake-up call that shortcuts have been taken.Ifthe quality of the wood and joinery are both good, hardware can be easily replaced.