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Oh, horsefeathers!

I had a call from a potential customer recently who had a new question for me; new to me. She asked if we could build her a sofa with cushions that are free from any flame retardant chemicals. In other words, cushions that don’t use standard upholstery foam.

Pause. Ponder. Ask.

As I delved further into her query, I learned that she is in the process of removing flame retardant chemicals from her home as much as possible: in her furniture, in the carpeting, in clothing, everywhere she can. She has small children, she explained, and these chemicals are so harmful, especially to kids who spend so much time playing on the floor, on the furniture, etc.

After we hung up, and after I gave myself a day to let this sink in, thinking to myself, “Oh no, something else in my home I should be worried about? Aren’t food chemicals and plastics enough?” I began to do a little research. I read articles about PBDE’s and Deca and TDCPP and California’s TB-117. I read about this study and that study, this legal battle and that one. I won’t list them all – they’re easy enough to find. Thank you Google.

I got the gist pretty fast. The very vast majority of upholstery foam used in the US, and the world, is loaded with flame retardant chemicals. Makes sense in a 70’s sort of way. If you fall asleep on your sofa with your lit cigarette, or drop your burning incense on your Barcalounger, you don’t want to go up in flames. But, these chemicals are not good for us. Studies show they are linked to all kinds of bad things; things like neurological deficits, impaired fertility and developmental problems. More people are harmed from these chemicals, by far, than those harmed from burning furniture.

So, I began to look into alternatives. Of course, there are many: fiber foam, cotton batting, good ol’ horse hair, carded wool, soy based foam, feathers. The question is, which is best for the cushions on our sofas? which ones will hold up over years of use? which are comfortable? which are not as expensive as sending a man to the moon?

While we don’t do our own upholstery work on our sofas (we’re woodworkers, not upholsterers – though we do our own dining seats), we can certainly decide which materials we’d like to use, or not use. I had a discussion with our upholsterer. He explained that he’d had vendors approach him several times with “green” foams, etc, but he’d never had the need so he never tried them out. He, like us, had never had a customer ask for special foam.

I have found there are some products on the market that are advertised as “green” or “natural” foam, that claim to have no flame retardant chemicals added, and are safe. But do they hold up over time? do they perform well? feel comfortable? One that I read about, if left out in the rain, will disintegrate, like those “green” shipping peanuts we all like so much. How does that material hold up in a cushion? Will it bio-degrade if, say, the baby pees on the couch?

Our upholsterer said he’d just “go with feathers”. Feathers, he says, are time tested, they last for decades, have been used for hundreds of years, they’re soft. And, he says, if a cushion is built properly with feathers, it can be firm or soft or somewhere in between.

So, I guess it might be sample time. Time to order a sample of “natural” foam; time to have our upholsterer whip up a feather cushion for us. I’m tempted to try out a horse hair cushion too, just for old-time’s sake. I haven’t told Bill this yet, but I think it might be time to make a permanent change; a change to a new material (or an old one), a healthier material, a material we can talk about proudly. One more notch on our “green” card.

If you have thoughts on this, or experience with new materials in upholstery, we’d love to hear from you. Shoot us an email. We’re listening.