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Wedding Registry: Couches 101

You need comfy, great-looking seating for your home together. Learn our tips for choosing a couch.

Photo: Kristen Alexander

Thinking that futon frame from your college days looks pretty sad? Welcome to the world of grown-ups -- it's time to buy a couch. Sofa shopping may seem like a no-brainer, but arm yourself with these basic terms and tips before starting your spree. (Tip #1: Buy a couch from a reputable dealer and always get a manufacturer guarantee.)

Cost

Your price range determines how much choice you'll have. You can buy a couch for as little as $500 or as much as $5,000. Certain features are only found in the $2,000 and up range: An all-hardwood, kiln-dried frame that will last forever; comfy down seat cushions; and down pillows -- one of life's true luxuries. Likewise, if you spend more, you'll have more upholstery choices, and you'll be able to select higher quality fabrics.

Styles

Couches range from loveseats (made for two) to multi-section, room-sized monstrosities. Decide what style you're looking for before you leave the house. Want a shabby but stylish look? Go for an overstuffed, cozy, floral-patterned sofa. Looking for chic functionality? Get a black leather Eames-style daybed. Decide whether you value comfort or looks more. Remember that you'll have to sit on this couch for years.

Fabrics

Couches can be covered in a variety of fabrics, including chenille, chintz, cotton, leather, linen, silk, synthetic suede, and velvet. Your fabric choice will largely be determined by your expectations of future wear and tear.

  • Slipcover couches are a good idea -- covers can be removed and washed, replaced if seriously damaged, even changed periodically for a new look. Make sure slipcovers are machine-washable before you buy.
  • Synthetic suedes are highly stain resistant, so you can wipe up a spill quickly and easily.
  • Leather is a pretty good choice, too -- it ages nicely and is as durable as your shoes! One caveat: Be careful if you find an incredible bargain when buying leather -- it might be too good to be true. Good leather is expensive; if a seemingly quality leather couch is selling for a good price, make sure the manufacturer isn't using a cheap frame. Also, make sure the opposite isn't true: A strong frame covered in cheap leather won't last as long as it should.
  • Velvets may look nice in the showroom, but they're very difficult to clean, and the fabric can start pilling after a certain amount of use. The same goes for chenille.

Construction

  • Frames: The best frames on the market are constructed from kiln-dried hardwood. This wood repels moisture and won't split, bend, or lose shape, even if placed near a heat source. Thus, hardwood will last longer than softwoods such as pine.
  • Springs: The highest-quality couches have steel springs with metal reinforcements. There are two spring systems:
  • Eight-way tied construction refers to the use of a series of conical springs, each held in place with eight hand-tied strings. A couch constructed in this manner, with a frame of kiln-dried hardwood, is your best bet for longevity.
  • Six-way tied flat "s" coils: S-shaped coils within a good, hardwood frame.

Beware: Webbing or strapping stretched across a wooden frame is commonly used in lieu of springs in less expensive couches. The lack of springs makes the couch more susceptible to damage but might be the right choice if you need to stick to a budget. Be careful: If you stand on your couch, you might fall through to the floor. You'll likely replace this type of couch with a better one eventually.

Cushions and Padding

Padding determines comfort and longevity. Your first priority should be preventing upholstery from rubbing against your couch's wooden frame. If you can feel the frame through the fabric, the fabric will begin to wear quite quickly. There are three types of cushions and padding, from luxurious down to utilitarian foam:
  • The most expensive couches have back and side pillows stuffed with a combination of down and feathers, wrapped around a foam core. Down cushions offer ultimate softness, but you'll have to re-fluff your cushions periodically to help them keep their shape.
  • Some cushions and padding consist of springs wrapped around foam and down. Springs give the cushions a zippy "bounce," and down gives the seats a cushioned feel. This is a cheaper alternative to the all-down version.
  • All-foam cushions contain high-density polyurethane foam wrapped in Dacron. This is the least expensive padding, and couches with foam padding are often very affordable -- but they will likely last only eight to ten years. Foam will rip or dry out with wear and tear, and is not the most comfortable thing to collapse onto at the end of a long day.

Sofa Beds

Sofa beds are a great choice if you find yourself flooded with overnight guests. Of course, if you want to discourage roaming travelers, keep that old lumpy thing. Sofa beds are a bit more expensive than regular sofas. Here are some things to keep in mind:
  • If the mattress has inner springs (usually the case with pricier sofa beds), it will be very comfortable. If the couch has metal construction instead of springs, it won't feel as soft when you sit down -- you might even feel the metal bars through the cushions. Test the couch before you buy.
  • Frame construction is especially important: Sofa beds weigh a great deal more than most couches, and therefore need very strong frames. Ask to see specifics from the manufacturer.
  • Try to open and close the sofa bed by yourself. If you need two people to do it, this may not be the sofa for you. If the sofa bed has a good opening and closing mechanism, you can expect it to last a long time.
  • If the mattress has inner springs (usually the case with pricier sofa beds), it will be very comfortable. If the couch has metal construction instead of springs, it won't feel as soft when you sit down -- you might even feel the metal bars through the cushions. Test the couch before you buy.
  • Frame construction is especially important: Sofa beds weigh a great deal more than most couches, and therefore need very strong frames. Ask to see specifics from the manufacturer.
  • Try to open and close the sofa bed by yourself. If you need two people to do it, this may not be the sofa for you. If the sofa bed has a good opening and closing mechanism, you can expect it to last a long time.
  • The most expensive couches have back and side pillows stuffed with a combination of down and feathers, wrapped around a foam core. Down cushions offer ultimate softness, but you'll have to re-fluff your cushions periodically to help them keep their shape.
  • Some cushions and padding consist of springs wrapped around foam and down. Springs give the cushions a zippy "bounce," and down gives the seats a cushioned feel. This is a cheaper alternative to the all-down version.
  • All-foam cushions contain high-density polyurethane foam wrapped in Dacron. This is the least expensive padding, and couches with foam padding are often very affordable -- but they will likely last only eight to ten years. Foam will rip or dry out with wear and tear, and is not the most comfortable thing to collapse onto at the end of a long day.

-- Elise Proulx

See More: Registering for Wedding Gifts