How to Buy a Quality Sofa Part Three: Upholstery


Ever wonder how designers can tell the quality of a sofa simply by looking at it? Sure, this ability comes from years of design experience, but there are also a few simple upholstery techniques that tell us how well the sofa is made. Here are a few designer secrets to determine the quality of a sofa by sight.

How not to apply patterned fabric

The easiest way to tell the quality of a piece of furniture is to look at a sofa or chair upholstered in a patterned fabric. On the low end an upholsterer will attempt to use every inch of fabric to save money. What that means is they pay little attention to the way the fabric is applied to the piece or even in what direction the pattern is running.

The sofa pictured here is an excellent example. The ikat pattern runs from left to right on the top of the seat cushion, but on the front of the sofa the pattern runs top to bottom. The pattern does not flow from one portion of the sofa to the next.

While the lack of forethought in applying fabric to a sofa does not necessarily mean the sofa is lower quality, it does send up red flags. If a manufacturer took shortcuts on the upholstery (the most visible portion of the sofa), it makes you wonder what shortcuts they may have made on the inside.

Flow Matching

Striped sofa

Flow matching is most apparent with striped fabrics. Picture courtesy of

There are two preferred methods for applying patterned fabrics to upholstery. The first is flow matching the pattern, which means the pattern literally flows from the top of the piece down. Notice how the black stripe on this settee runs in a continuous line.

How much flow matching is done on a particular piece will tell you the quality. Medium-quality companies will flow match the seat back, the seat cushion and down the front of the sofa. Upper-middle-quality companies might continue the flow matching down the back of the sofa, while still ignoring the arms and sides of the piece. High-end companies will flow match every portion of the piece.

Why don’t all companies flow match every part of a sofa? Flow matching is expensive. An upholsterer has to waste a ton of fabric to get the patterns to match up, which means the manufacturer and ultimately you, the consumer, will end up paying for yards of fabric that end up on the cutting room floor.

WingBack Flow Match

This example of flow matching shows a skilled upholsterer can elevate a chair from a mere piece of furniture to a piece of art.

When done right, however, a flow matched piece of furniture can be a work of art. Take this wingback chair as an example. Not only did the upholsterer flow match down the front of the piece, but they continued to match the pattern even in the folds of the wings and the corner of the seat. This is an example of an upholsterer elevating their craft to an art form.


Book Matched Sofa

Bookmatched sofa. Picture from Christie’s Auction House.

Sometimes a pattern is simply too large or busy to flow-match. In this case an upholsterer might choose to bookmatch the pattern instead. Bookmatching is when an upholsterer chooses the same portion of a pattern, like the medallion on this sofa, and centers the medallion on every cushion.

Like flow-matching, the amount of bookmatching on a piece of furniture determines how expensive the piece will ultimately be. Medium-quality companies will bookmatch the seat and back cushions. High-end companies will bookmatch the front of the sofa and the arms as well.


Book Match Pillow Case

A centered pattern is the proper way to upholster a pillow. Medallion Patterned Pillow from the The Project Cottage.

Off center patterned pillow

The least expensive way to make a pillow. Notice how the pattern is not centered, nor do pillows match one another.









Last but not least, take a look at the throw pillows that come with the sofa. The upholsterer should center the pattern on the front and back of each pillow and if the pillows come in pairs, the pattern centered on each pillow should be identical. If the patterns are off-center or do not match from one side of the pillow to the other, this is another example of the upholsterer trying to conserve fabric and taking shortcuts.

A few additional tips

striped sectionalAvoid stripes on sectionals

Even if you are buying a sofa from a high-end company, no one can match a stripe on the corner of a sectional. The sectional will end up with the stripes running in two different directions in the corner.



Avoid cotton prints

While cotton prints provide the most vivid and detailed patterns available, they also fade the quickest. This is because the pattern is printed on a solid background instead of created by using threads that have been dyed all the way through. A cotton print will begin to fade in as little as 50 hours in direct sunlight.

Check out Part One of How to Buy a Quality Sofa for tips on what to look for in sofa construction or Part Two for information on how to choose the right sofa cushions.

Featured Photo Courtesy of Hickory White Furniture.


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