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THE CONSUMER'S GUIDE TO SOFAS AND SECTIONALS

JOIN THE SEATING SAVVY

It's the end of a long, hard day. In you walk, more likely than not, into the living room or den, plunking yourself down into the most welcoming piece of furniture you own: your sofa.

Sofas have been around since the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who lounged on them as they dined. "Sofa" with its Arabic derivation suffah bespeaks the popularity it gained in the 16th-17th century Orient. From there it made its way via Turkey to Western Europe. Hence the word "couch", originating in the French coucher, to lie down, as it was once used for reclining rather than sitting. For the past few hundred years, sofas in their modern form have been providing comfortable upright seating, though it wasn't until the 19th century that they moved out of the bedroom and into the parlor or living room.

Catnapper Park Avenue 6 Piece Reclining Sectional
Catnapper Park Avenue 6 Piece Reclining Sectional

Sofas come in a variety of forms as numerous as the appellations used to describe them. There are sectionals comprised of anywhere from 2 to 5 sections which can be moved around in various configurations. There are small-to-medium sized settees with arms and back seating 2-3 people; modest love seats for 2; back-less, armless, long, low divans; large-sized upholstered davenports which often convert into a bed; and daybeds which serve as a couch by day and a bed by night. Let's not forget to mention the chaise longue (or chaise lounge), which is sort of a cross between an upholstered chair and a couch.

Sofas range from the few-hundred dollar no-fuss no-muss models , to high-end stunning works of craftsmanship for a good few thousand. The purpose for which your couch is intended will affect the style, fabric, and construction you choose. Will the sofa be the seating focus of social gatherings? If so, will these be food-rich affairs heavy on the stain potential? Or will your sofa be designated strictly for formal meetings and lectures with refreshments kept at a minimum? Perhaps it's going straight into the family den, to be watched, played, eaten, slept, and climbed upon by everyone from babies to children and adults to pets. That cream satin brocade settee may be the throne of your dreams, but that dream will quickly dissipate if your family dog treads its muddy paw prints all over!

COUCHING IT IN SPECIFICS: STYLE & FABRIC

For most, the purchase of a sofa is an investment. Whether you seek a large fashion-statement sectional for the focal point of your living room, or a homey durable sleep sofa to accommodate your guests, the finer points of style and fabric will come in to play well before your selection has been made. Furnishing yourself with knowledge will make your choice that much wiser.

Style

Ever hear the terms "transitional" and "contemporary" being tossed around and wondered what on earth everyone was talking about? You need wonder no more! You, too, can be savvy in the realm of furniture and home decor.

Traditional describes furniture pieces which are classic in their features and symmetric designs. Graceful curves and carved dark woods create formal pieces rich in color and style.

Contemporary is characterized by bold vibrant colors or color combinations, simple sharp lines, geometric designs, and polished surfaces in a sleek look. Metal and glass are often used. Also referred to as modern, though some hold "modern" to be bolder in color and starker in its lines than "contemporary". Some would label those with particularly minimalist patterns urban.

Transitional combines the simplicity of contemporary style with the graceful style of traditional.

Casual breathes the breath of easy living. Maple, ash, oak and pinewood with matte finish, carefree fabric covers, and generously stuffed pillows create a warm and friendly setting with a lived-in look.

Rustic features plentiful natural-looking wood for a rugged look. It is characterized by simple lines and minimal accessories.

Country represents the best of American style from a century or two ago. Ruffled skirts; floral and striped prints; ginghams and plaids; lighter shades of pinewood and oak, painted and distressed woods; rounded edges and soft cushions are all reminiscent of countrified Americana.

Eclectic refers to unique, out-of-the-ordinary pieces from all around the world. Eclectic furniture pieces may be ethnic in style, carefully crafted, with textured fabrics at times vibrant in color. They are often French, Scandinavian, or Tuscan, and are sometimes referred to as exotic in style when from the Orient or the Tropics.

Fabric

If you are like most people, you probably classify sofas into 2 categories: (1) leather, and (2) everything else. The variations on a theme among sectionals, settees, love seats and sofa beds seem to pale by comparison in the minds of most. It is the leather versus upholstery fabric selection which attracts the most attention.


Leather

Many are those who adore leather furniture. Leather sofas lend a room a classy look Since the sofa is typically the hub of any living room or den, it dresses up the entire room. Add to that leather's natural easy-to-clean durability and there you have it: a fabric with irresistible universal appeal.

There are various grades of leather on the market, and just as many price tags to accompany them. Full Grain, Top Grain, and Split Grain are the 3 basic categories which most indicate the quality of leather used in a given piece of furniture.

Full Grain leather is the highest quality of all. It is the strongest, most durable, most breathable, and develops a patina or natural luster over time. This superior grade of leather is available in either aniline or semi-aniline finish.

Top Grain leather is the next highest grade, also of excellent quality. It is so called because it refers to the outermost (or top) layer of the animal hide which has been split into two. Top Grain leather is strong, durable, soft, and natural looking. It is thinner and more pliable than Full Grain, usually with a finish added to impart even more stain resistant properties than it naturally has. Nubuck is an example of a Top Grain leather with a soft, velvety texture.

Split Grain leather or Split Leather refers to the innermost (or bottom) layer of the split hide.Though not as durable and soft as Top Grain, its more modest price affords an economically viable option for anyone on a budget. It often comes dyed to make it look more like Top Grain, though without the natural color variations and patterns which are the hallmark of top and full grain leather. Suede is a popular example of split grain leather with a very soft, velvety feel to the touch.

Various processes, finishes and treatments are employed to enhance the leather's natural properties.

Natural Finish leather undergoes the least amount of processing. It is generally quite smooth and easy to care for, with only a damp cloth required for cleaning.

Aniline, sometimes referred to as Pure Aniline or Sauvage, employs a single-dye process which brings out the natural beauty of Top Grain leather. No pigments or protective sealants are applied. This finish allows the leather to develop a rich patina but does not protect it from fading if placed in direct sunlight for a prolonged period of time. As the leather is naturally porous, it is less liquid-resistant, more "breathable" and provides cooler seating.

Protected Aniline leather has pigment added to the process to ensure color consistency. An added finish increases its resistance to soiling, general wear, and fading from light, producing an easy-care product. Some natural imperfections of the hide (color variations, wrinkles, healed scars, etc.) are less visible.

Semi Aniline employs a process similar to that used with Pure Aniline. The colors used in the dying process penetrate the leather, achieving a range of attractive color options in this leather category. The coating creates a stiffer product with greater protection from wear and staining.

Pull-Up leather is an aniline leather - either pure aniline or Nubuck - with an additional oil or wax application which is pulled or stretched to give it a lighter, worn appearance. This coating offers some protection against liquids but is not fade or heat resistant.

Sealed leather, also referred to as Corrected Grain, is the most common type of leather used in upholstered furniture. The top surface is colored and over it a clear, protective sealant is sprayed. The result is an attractive product which is largely water-repellent.

Antiqued or Distressed leather has been dyed, usually with a darker shade over a lighter, in such a way as to create an aged appearance. Sometimes it is rubbed in some areas in order to reveal patches of the lighter shade underneath; afterward a protective sealant may be sprayed over it to create a shiny surface.

Bicast leather, also known as Bycast or PU leather, is a split leather manufactured from a thin layer of the most inferior portion of split leather and as such is not considered an actual leather product in some countries. Similar to patent leather in the shoe industry, it is coated with a layer of shiny plastic-type polyurethane coating which is then embossed. It was actually created for use in the shoe industry but was later gained popularity in the production of furniture. It must be kept away from a strong heat source but is very easy to maintain, cleaning easily with a damp cloth. With wear and tear the polyurethane layer may crack and come free of its backing.

Bonded leather, also known as reconstituted leather, is a material made of leather pieces or scraps which have been joined together and then covered with polyurethane. Similar to bycast leather, it also does not fall in the category of genuine leather. It is available at a fraction of the cost of genuine leather and makes use of leather scraps which would otherwise go to waste in the leather making process.

Faux leather, leatherette, vegan leather, pleather (word blend comprised of plastic and leather), and synthetic leather are all forms of artificial leather. They are valued for their leather-like appearance and feel, greater ease of maintenance and lower prices.

Leather Match refers to a product of which the main parts are upholstered in leather while the side, back, and other less visible portions are covered in cheaper synthetic materials such as vinyl.

Keeping Your Leather Spic & Span

Contrary to the claims of many non-leather sofa owners, caring for leather upholstery is neither arduous nor onerous. With a number of do's and don'ts at your side, you can arm yourself with tricks of the trade to keep your leather soft and beautiful.

Commercially prepared leather wipes, cleaners, and conditioners serve to prevent, preserve, and treat leather upholstery. Special dyes are obtainable for coloring in cracks and creases. In addition, a number of homegrown "recipes" can be prepared with ease.

Note that leather can be susceptible to natural body and hair oils, perspiration, dye/color transfer from clothing, and both artificial and body heat. Protected leather is coated with an extra protective finish. As such it is especially practical; all the more so, for children and pets.

DO'S

A word of caution. Always test-try first on an inconspicuous area of the material for cleaning by any of these methods. Check for color fastness and reliability. Some leathers are more sensitive and could lose color or finish as a result.

For general cleaning, dry-cloth dusting and gentle soft-brush vacuuming are sufficient. To keep your leather at its best, wipe twice a week with a damp cloth, apply a leather cleaner every month, and use a conditioner every few months. Heating in winter requires more frequent conditioning.

To make your own home leather cleaner, mix a few drops of soap (Dove is an excellent moisturizing soap) with 1 quart of distilled water. Wet cleaning cloth, wring out thoroughly, and wipe the leather surface clean. Wipe off any soap residue with another wet, wrung-out rag. Wipe dry, and buff leather surface to shine.

Prepare leather conditioner by mixing white vinegar with twice as much linseed oil, shake well to mix, and apply to leather surface with a soft cloth. Rub with a circular motion, leave on for 10 minutes, then buff with a cloth to shine.

For minor spills, wipe promptly with damp sponge or cloth without soap.

For grease or oil stains, wipe with a clean dry cloth. Do not clean with water. If necessary, seek professional cleaning assistance.

For ink stains, rub on a commercially prepared ink stick as soon as possible. (Note that aniline and semi-aniline leathers will not respond to this treatment.) Alternatively, wet a cotton swab with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol and rub over ink stain. Dry with a blow dryer on low heat. If the stain persists, spread on a liberal quantity of non-gel, non-oily cuticle remover and leave on to dry overnight. Wipe with a damp cloth.

For dark stains such as food, blood, etc, mix equal amounts of lemon juice with cream of tartar, rub on stain, and leave for 10 minutes. Rub on a second application, then wipe off with damp sponge or damp soapy sponge. Buff dry.

For minor scratches, moisten lightly with distilled water and buff gently with a cloth or with your fingers.

DON'TS

Avoid placement in direct sunlight to prevent fading, drying and cracking. Do not place within 2 feet of any heat source or air conditioner.

Do not use excessive amounts of water or soap when cleaning. Use only minimal water or soapy water. Tap water can cause damage because of chlorine and other components; thus only distilled water should be used.

Do not use any abrasive cleaners, cleaning solvents, oils, furniture polish, ammonia-based cleaners, detergent soaps, varnish, bleach, saddle soap, or products containing silicone or wax.

Avoid excessively powerful vacuuming; it may leave marks on leather.

Don't ignore or procrastinate cleaning up spillage on leather, which is a porous material. Wipe promptly.


Non-Leather Upholstery Fabrics

Many find sofa shopping a pleasurable experience. It provides an opportunity to complement the colors they already have in their living room, family room, or office, or to introduce the color of their choice when creating a new decor. The precise color application, color fastness, and finish determines how well the piece will wear. Quality fabric with a tight weave - tightness being measured by the number of threads to the inch - will prevent shrinkage and sagging with use. Fabrics do have varying degrees of sunlight resistance, though it is preferable not to place upholstered furniture in direct sunlight. Should this prove necessary, one can purchase draperies or blinds with special sunlight filtering properties. Dark colors, blues, and silk-type delicate fabrics are particularly sunlight-sensitive and are most likely to fade easily.

Fabric selection requires care and consideration. Is the sofa you are selecting suitable for your lifestyle? Will children or pets be nearby or on the furniture? Snacking toddlers, babies with bottles, and adults partaking of refreshments can do damage to light-colored, single-toned loosely weaved materials. Silks, rayons, and embroidered designs may look stunning when new, but they will not prove durable in the long run if subjected to lively users. Dark colors, patterned materials, and tight weaves are recommended in houses with children or pets.Natural materials such as cotton and wool, synthetics in the way of polyester, nylon, and olefin ; tightly weaved twill and damask are all known for their durability and strength. Wool, nylon, and olefin are not sunlight resistant, and cotton wrinkles easily but is less sunlight sensitive. Acrylic, cotton, and nylon are easy care fabrics, while wool requires dry cleaning. Good abrasion resistance you will find in nylon, polyester, and olefin. Olefin is strong, colorfast, highly water and stain resistant, and relatively inexpensive.

Blends such as cotton-polyesters offer the richness in color of natural fibers coupled with the durability of synthetics. Synthetic materials are being continually improved upon to achieve beautiful long-wearing upholstery, even without any natural fibers added. Finishes such as Scotchguard, Teflon, and Zepel provide water and stain resistance and may even be covered by warranty.

Fabrics vary in their textures, as well. Flat weaves such as cotton, jacquard, and damask are more durable, while highly textured materials may pull loose. Velvet, velour, suede, and corduroy are examples of fabrics with a napped finish. The same fabric can seem to vary in color when viewed from different angles, and an impression is left where someone just sat down upon them.

Care & Cleaning Of Your Fabric Sofa

If your sofa comes Scotchguarded or treated with Teflon or Zepel finish, you will be ahead of the game in terms of soil resistance. No finish lasts forever, however. Eventually the finish will dissipate and you will find yourself ordering an upholstery cleaning service in any event. Various Scotchguard do-it-yourself fabric cleaners and protectors are available on the market.

It is interesting to note that while natural materials soil more easily than synthetics, they clean better. If a soil-resistant fabric does absorb a stain or become soiled, removal may prove more difficult.

A cleaning code system will indicate required maintenance of your sofa as follows:

W indicates that a water-based cleaner must be used. This may take the form of a mild detergent or upholstery shampoo.

S stands for solvent-based cleaning agent such as Afta.

S-W allows for use of either of the above.

X or XS means vacuum or clean with light brushing only.