Signs of quality to look for in a 'married' leather sofa?

crouchJanuary 18, 2008

I've been searching for a casual leather sofa with a deep seat to enable two people to lay side-by-side for tv viewing in my family room.

I wanted to buy Hancock and Moore b/c of all the raves on this site, but H&M's seats are not deep enough (with the exception of the Settlement sofa which I haven't been able to find for the "sit test" in NJ; also, it apparently isn't part of the Town and Country promotion and thus is out of my price league).

I've also looked at Flexsteel but they are not any deeper than the H&Ms.

Stickley has a nice one that I found for about $3000, which remains a contender.

Also, I've noticed that Bernhardt offers several leather models that have deep seats, including their Foster model. Raymour and Flanagan of all places has it on sale right now for $1888 (and there's probably at least some play in that price). However, the salesman called Bernhardt and confirmed that it was a married cover leather from China (frames are built in North Carolina).

I plan to go again this weekend and look at this sofa in more detail because I have concerns about the married cover from China issue. I know dcollie has mentioned finding some quality issues on married covers and I'm hoping for some pointers on what to look for.

Thanks in advance.

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"Married Cover" in the traditional sense in the leather furniture industry means the hide is sourced AND sewn overseas, typically in China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan or Indonesia. They are cut and sewn as ready-to-upholster 'kits' and shipped over here in bulk to the furniture maker. Most all the time, they are finished hides rather than aniline dyes as they are seeking to make a target price point.

The issue with Married Covers as defined above is quality control. Its a real crap shoot as to what you might get. I see some married cover that comes in that looks great - you cannot tell the difference in it from a 100 % USA product. I see others come in from the same maker, on the same frame and I cannot believe someone didn't stop it as a quality control fault. If you're buying off the floor, you can inspect the piece and all flaws are right there in the open where you can see them. When ordering, however, you get what they send.

Some of the things I look for in Married Cover:

Tailoring: Because these are all pattern-cut and meant to produce quickly, upholstery jobs on M/C tend to be lumpier as tolerances are greater than the USA Cut-To-Fit. This is not a durability issue, strictly cosmetic. Sections of the sofa may appear 'wavy' rather than straight and true.

Hides: Here you can find some rather odd things happening. I had a sofa that came in with the brand mark smack in the middle of the center seat cushion. It was clearly visible! As luck would have it, a customer came in and thought that was 'quaint' so they purchased it, but that was one in a million to have someone that actually wanted that. Barbed wires marks, insect bites, urine stains all are cut away in off-the-handle USA made products, but seen in Married Cover hides. You can see these however, so again if buying a floor model just look around the piece for flaws that would bother you. Lastly, neck and belly wrinkles are my personal pet peeve on M/C hides. In the USA, these are trimmed away, but in China they are not. Where seams come together you may see panels where these wrinkles hides are used near the seam lines, and its rather unattractive.

Panels: The more stitching in a panel (or subset of panels) the less desirability of the piece. I've seen some back cushions on sofas where each cushion has five panels sewn to it! The best hides and the best makers use a single panel per section.

The industry has difficulty controlling the quality on married cover, because it comes from foreign lands and there are language barriers that can't be readily overcome. For the most part, flaws are considered to be part of the price point.

One of the unknowns with these Far Eastern leathers is the possibility of carcinogens on the hides as well. There are some very nasty chemicals used in the tanning processes. Not that many years ago there was a product the industry called "China Cow" that everyone used. It was an inexpensive leather, always done married cover - and it was actually stamped that on the hides. There was a huge volume being done in China Cow and then it was discovered that active carcinogens were on virtually all the hides. It was immediately and quietly dropped by all USA vendors. There are international standard for tanning processes and China, India, and Pakistan do not adhere to these standards. Sitting on hides that use banned dyes means if you are sweating you can absorb these carcinogens into your blood stream. I think the lead-in-the-toy-paint issue that came up this summer demonstrates that there are unresolved questions on consumer products we use that are made cheaply and in the Pacific Rim.

Hancock and Moore felt they could no longer tolerate the quality control and other issues and discontinued offshore Married Cover product in Spring of 2006. Now they do everything in North Carolina 100 %, but they are the only company I am aware of that dropped the programs for their flagship label. It should be noted that they do offer it as a subsidiary product under another brand label, however.

So that's my take on it. I'm far from an expert on all of this, but its what I have learned in the leather furniture business.

Good Luck in your search,
Duane Collie

    Bookmark   January 18, 2008 at 11:52AM
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Duane, thanks very much for your detailed and quick response.

I'm sensing that you would never buy a married cover from China under any circumstance, is that correct?

I admit the issue about chemicals is a little scary. I would be able to check the floor samples for things like fit and finish and excessive marks, and I might be willing to live with the unknown of the actual item being a little worse than the floor samples, but the issue of laying down on a potentially-dangerous sofa every day brings the topic to a whole 'nother level.

You stated that insect bites, neck wrinkles, etc. are trimmed away by the American manufacturers, but I could have sworn that both the Hancock & Moore materials I've read and the Stickley materials I've read mention that such "natural markings" are common and add character to a piece. I'm also pretty sure the H&M sofas I've seen have some of those markings visible. I know the Stickley sofa I saw had both insect bites and neck and belly wrinkles in a few places. Are you saying those should never be visible (for example, in an H&M document leather)?

    Bookmark   January 18, 2008 at 12:09PM
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I have some limited married cover on the floor of my store because customers demand a $ 999 leather recliner and don't want to pay $ 1,699 for the fully USA-made one. I gladly explain the differences to any customer - and do so on a regular basis. 95% of my leather on the floor is not from China as far as I can determine, and is cut and sewn rather than M/C. I am considering a full phase out of all Married Cover from the Pacific Rim, however.

For my own personal use, I will no longer put M/C in my home. I am skeptical of the chemicals in anything from China and have already experienced having a Stage IV cancer once. I just won't expose my family to it to save a few dollars - why take the chance? The rash of bad things coming out of China in the past year really made me question what are in these married cover hides. Its not easy to determine the source of a particular hide, the makers do not disclose and can't even tell me if I call them without contacting the leather buyer. Until are guarantee stamps or tags on each hide (Such as a CE label or UL label, etc., that certify it as carcinogen-free)I will remain skeptical. The industry is not going in that direction because consumers want price point items and they're not about to disrupt that market segment without public pressure to do so. I prefer to buy my furniture for my home made of hides from countries that adhere to international tanning standards (that usually means a European, USA or South American hide) and those are going to mostly be anilines. My most recent personal purchase was a Leathercraft model 2670 sofa in Hampton Roan, a full-aniline German hide.

Again, I have to temper this with a comment that these are just my beliefs from talking to people in the leather industry, and I have no factual data to reference for you. When Hancock and Moore dropped the China-made leather married cover about 18 months ago, it really got me thinking on it all.

Yes, you are correct that all makers refer to 'natural markings' on hides, and I can probably find them on any single piece of leather in the store if we look hard enough. When they mark a hide at the factory, they 'chalk out' the bad sections and the trimmers then work around these spots, prior to sewing. Every cow hide has natural markings - just like our own skin does. You can't trim out every one or you'd have nothing left to work with. The standard is that the seating surfaces and upper arm panels should be as flawless as possible. Sides, backs less so. Undersides of cushions, trim under recliners and the like will typically show the most flaws.

There should never be any belly or neck wrinkles on a quality piece. There are fat wrinkles though, and a lot of those. They appear as 'waves' or streaks in the leather, but lay smooth.

Duane Collie

    Bookmark   January 18, 2008 at 12:53PM
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