The story of a sofa

When someone hangs around for a long time and gets so familiar that we no longer notice them, we say they’ve become part of the furniture. So what do you say about your rumpty old sofa?

Words Sarah Heeringa. Photography Jane Ussher

I was about four months pregnant with our first child when my husband Vincent surprised me by coming home one day with a 1940s lounge suite – in faded, but original, floral velvet.

We’d happened, the previous weekend, to walk past the extravagantly proportioned suite sitting outside a second-hand shop and I’d remarked, “Now that’s a great sofa.” Considering our sparsely furnished house – decorated with random bits and pieces picked up during our university days – Vincent returned later to seize the moment and the suite.

Even back then, the sofa’s springs were starting to soften and sag and the brown and once-gold piping was coming loose. In one or two places, the scratchy coir fibre was starting to peek through. But it was fabulously rumpty – with chairs deep enough to sink into, armrests wide enough to comfortably balance a book or a mug of cocoa, and an elongated sofa frame long enough to let you stretch out and fall asleep.

The intention was always to have the whole suite recovered, but somehow we never quite had cash spare for the job. In the meantime, a whole lot of everyday living happened around the couch and two old chairs. Babies were fed and cuddled off to sleep, TV dinners were devoured and Saturday night rugby tests won and lost. When we had parties and chairs were in short supply, friends perched on the suite’s generous arms.

At times the sofa doubled as a pirate ship or – after a girl arrived in the house – a shop. Meanwhile a succession of small children helped bounce any springs into total surrender and fed toast and bits of Lego into the sofa’s mysterious depths.

Several house moves and a series of loose covers later, things were looking decidedly worse for wear. A five-year sojourn at a Northland bach didn’t help the state of affairs – and by the time the suite was lugged back into town, the intention to recover had become a choice of do or die. As we contemplated the various fabric, foam and piping options, the sofa sunk to its lowest point of all. Left to rest for a few months on our veranda it was promptly claimed by the family Labrador as a grand doggie bed.

After so many indignities, the moment for glorious reinvention had finally arrived.

Furniture recovery 101
Gather advice before embarking on your project. Here are some tips the experts passed on to me:

Look for pieces with a pleasing shape and timeless design, says Shan Hill of The Fabric Room in Parnell (www.fabricroom.co.nz). You can see this suite is a classic from the 1930s or 40s just by looking at the shape – the curve at the back, the piping inset and the width of the arms. The size of furniture can also be an indicator of quality – this one was clearly made for a large room in a big country or town house, not a tiny Ponsonby working man’s cottage.

If the piece is really quite dilapidated, it’s much easier to check out the internal frame – and doing so can help you make a better call about refurbishment, says Shan. Look for a sturdy, dowel-jointed frame. This suite has a solid frame, possibly made with birch or beech hardwoods.

Horsehair or coir (coconut fibre) padding are indicators of quality and also of a piece’s age. Foam filling is more modern but also has a limited life – if it feels lumpy or crumbly it will need replacing. Foam fillings range from firm to soft and come with varying guarantees of longevity. The trick is to combine them for best effect. Memory foam gives seat cushions softness when used on top of an elephant foam core, says upholsterer Graham Charlton of Instyle Upholstery, Pakuranga.

Coil springs are generally better than zigzag springs or elastic webbing, but if coil springs are starting to pop up, then the piece must be stripped to the frame. Squeaking springs are a sign that they’ll need to be replaced. The more you need to fix, the greater the cost, so factor in these considerations before you buy.

That said, don’t get rid of existing furniture just because you can’t afford to recover it right now, says Shan. If it’s good quality it’s good quality – a little bit of wear and tear just adds character.

Match the fabric with the purpose of the item, recommends Shan. A printed linen is perfect for curtains, cushions or loose covers, but for a fixed upholstery job you want the most hardwearing fabric possible, such as a polyester blend – especially for bits that get lots of wear, such as the seat and arms.

Consider how well the fabric will wear and clean. Be kind to yourself and choose a design that allows for natural wear and tear. For instance, florals or patterns (woven in, rather than printed on) will be more forgiving of stains than a plain fabric.

Even if you get a whole suite recovered, it’s not going to stay the same, says Shan; it’ll wear and fade at different rates depending on use and where the light falls. If you don’t have everything samey-samey but mix and match a little, it allows individual pieces to be repaired or replaced without having to replicate the colour or shade. Aim for a family of tones and styles, rather than perfectly matching colours.

If you’re feeling daunted by the options, start with a side chair.

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