Sometimes called a couch or a davenport, a sofa is a long upholstered seat with both arms and a back. Today, it is a common luxury that indicates humans' progression away from the nomadic "pack and evacuate" lifestyle of our recent past.
Upholstery technically dates back to ancient Egypt, where pharoahs' tombs were furnished with comfortable appointments preserved to last a millennia. Ancient Egyptians and their Roman contemporaries reserved such items for royalty and other social elites. In the West, upholstery as we know it today developed slowly as building architecture improved. Prior to the 1500s, woven artifacts known as tapestries were the main source of insulation, protecting inhabitants from the damp and cold, that seeped in through their walls. Seating for two or more people was usually supplied by a hard bench.
Once the need for protection from the elements decreased, fabrics could be used for decoration and on individual pieces of furniture. Contributions to interior design were made from all major European centers. Germans introduced the use of horsehair padding, still a central feature of properly upholstered furniture. The English preferred dried sea moss. Italians introduced backrests and arms during the Renaissance. Upholstered chairs had been invented already, but were not popularized until this time. The sofa with a down cushion was an extension of the upholstered chair. Minor adjustments were made to stuffing methods, such as using buttons to secure padding rather than the practice of "tufting" (sewing raised loops or cut pile into the fabric).
The eighteenth century "upholder" was a combination designer and decorator who completed an architect's vision of a room. Cabinet makers like George Hepplewhite, Matthias Lock, Henry Copland, and the far more reknowned Thomas Chippendale extended their woodworking enterprises into this new and exciting field of upholstery. A rash of what were called "pattern books" by these and other practitioners, with such names as The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide, set the pace. They contained sofa designs as well as new ideas for other practical and decorative pieces.
During the nineteenth century, the advent of industrial technology had a major impact on modern methods of upholstery. In 1850, coil springs were invented. A modern sofa typically, though not always, contains springs to even out weight distribution. The sewing machine was also developed during this period, speeding up the upholstery process. New improvements such as modern welting would not be possible without the sewing machine.
The frame of a sofa is made most often wood, though newer options include steel, plastic, and laminated boards or a combination of the above. Kiln-dried maple wood deemed free of knots, bark, and compromising defects is used under the upholstery. The show wood of the legs, arms, and back can also be maple, but sometimes mahogany, walnut, or fruitwoods are used for carved legs or moldings.
Padding is primarily made from animal hair, particularly hog or horse. Other paddings used in mass production are foam and polyester fiberfill wrap. Some preprocessing may be necessary, as with the prematted rubberized hair, where animal hair is arranged and bonded into shape with glue.
Cushions are fashioned from polyurethane foam, polyester fiber, down, cotton, latex, or cotton-wrapped springs.
A sofa may be covered with any choice of synthetic, natural, or blended fabric. Wool and nylon are the best choices in their respective categories of natural and synthetic fibers, but cotton, acetate, rayon, and polyester have their own functional properties. Exterior fabric may be finished with a protective anti-stain coating.
When used, springs are made of tempered steel. A typical sofa calls for 15 yd (13.71m) of burlap and at least 10 yd (9.14 m) of muslin for the interior. All materials are fastened with approximately 1,000 or more tacks, over 200 yd (182.8 m) of twine, and hundreds of yards of machine sewing thread.
Sofas come in three major sizes. The full sofa is 84 in (2.13 m) wide. Smaller versions like the two-seater and love seat range between 60-80 in (1.52-2.03 m). Variations on the standard sofa include modular items and sofas with special uses such as daybeds or convertible sofa beds. Ornamental designs are not necessarily less durable, but they do not invite casual use. The design of a sofa can be adjusted to the use that will be made of it, and the average size of the people who will use it most. A deep seat, for instance, is good for taller people but does not easily accommodate shorter individuals. The style of a sofa is generally set by its arms, which double as artistic statements and rests. Some styles of seating furniture are known by the names of these arm designs. The overstuffed sofa is called that in the trade in order to indicate the use of more than one layer of muslin in the foundation.
A single sofa takes up 300 to 600 hours of skilled labor to make. Even small companies and individuals avail themselves of power saws and other motorized machinery, yet specialized hand tools are still applied to detail work. These include the regulator for stuffing, the "ripping tool," and a type of pliers called diagonal cutters.
After President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, purchased an expensive parlor suite for use in her new life as a widow. The suite included a sofa, table, two arm chairs, and several side chairs, and was probably manufactured by J & J.W. Meeks of New York.
Epitomizing the Victorian era, the sofa represents the ultimate in mid-nineteenth century comfort and decoration. The technology of the time allowed for the use of coil springs, giving the seat a cushion-like softness that returns to its taut shape as soon as pressure is removed. New technologies also gave way to the lavishly carved show wood on the back. Ordinarily, the almost three dimensional fruit and flowers design would split the wood, however thin layers of rosewood were cross-directionally glued together to form a stronger wood laminate able to withstand the carving. Once glued together, the entire lamination was steamed and forced to curve with the back of the sofa.
The bent plywood system would be utilized again (100 years later) by Charles Eames in order to create his famous chairs. They would be the stylistic antithesis of Mrs. Lincoln's ornate Victorian sofa, but just as chip and crack resistant.
The nitty-gritty of assembly is where the differences between traditional craft and
Quality control is more a matter of individual or company standards than government regulations. Manufacturers' warranties range from five to 10 years to a lifetime.
Sofas continue to be made by individual craftsmen and small workshops as well as factories. There are different ways to learn how to make sofas and other upholstered items. North Carolina State University offers an industrial engineering bachelor's degree that specializes in furniture manufacturing. In addition to courses in product engineering and facilities design, they sponsor field trips to local factories and workshops in industry-specific computer applications.
Beard, Geoffrey W. Upholsterers and Their Work in England: 1530-1840. Yale University Press, 1997.
Brumbaugh, James E. Upholstering. Audel Books, 1992.
Gheen, W. Lloyd. Upholstery Techniques Illustrated. Tab Books, 1994.
James, David. Upholstery: A Complete Course. Sterling Publishers, 1993.
Zimmerman, Fred W. Upholstering Methods. Goodheart-Willcox Co., 1992.
Colborn, Marge. "Is This A Good Sofa?" The Detroit News Homestyle Section, August 3, 1996.
UIU Journal/Upholsterers' Journal. Upholsterers' International Union of North America, 1922-present.
Upholstering Today/Furniture Today. Communications/Today Ltd., 1986-present.
Joines, Jeff. "FMMC Sponsored Field Trips." March 1996. http://www.fmmcenter.ncsu.edu/education/fumcomp.html (July 14, 1997).
Wright, Monte. "Heirloom Upholstery's Introduction to Upholstery Home Course" (video and companion booklet).
— Jennifer Swift Kramer