Motion, microfiber: Perfect together

Joan Gunin, Staff Staff, March 19, 2007

Motion upholstery has received a big boost with the rise in popularity of microfiber covers.

The long-wearing durability factor of tightly woven, synthetic suede, microdenier fibers has meshed nicely with the rough-and-tumble use that's typical of motion seating.

Although it continues to fight the stigma of being viewed as a promotional commodity, microfiber has overcome such bias by advancing its cleanability, stain resistance, accessibility, textural alternatives and plentiful color palette.

Greg Sicard, sales manager for Best Home Furnishings, said, "We don't see it as promotional; we sell it on everything."

Microfiber, which began with a simple woven backing, now is also available with a heavier padded foam backing for a denser, weightier hand, creating an offshoot known as padded suede.

Over the past few years, microfiber also has greatly expanded its style variety with an assortment of pleasing textures well-suited to motion frames.

Viewed with some skepticism early on, today such microfiber covers are considered a staple of the motion upholstery category, said Don Hunter, senior vice president of major accounts for Catnapper.

Motion manufacturers have easy access to microfiber covers because although much of it is produced in China, it can be reliably sourced through domestic mills or at the semi-annual Showtime fabric fair.

Mark Hedden, director of western regional sales for Flexsteel, said microfiber became more significant when its original woven backed covers were supplemented with padded suede, sporting a heavier foam backing.

"It grew in popularity with the heavier backing — plus a lot of colors — that made it look like suede," Hedden said.

Hedden lauds microfiber for its cleanability factor.

"Extremely good wear continues to be one of its characteristics," he said. "It wears well and it cleans up well."

Flexsteel has developed its microfiber line slowly, with about three cover choices, but it's doing well, he added.

Depending on the grade, microfiber is "very well priced," ranging from very affordable to moderate, Hedden said. While its pricing is not nearly as expensive as leather, a microdenier can be more expensive than conventional fabric.

Variety of textures

Microfiber also has benefited from new technologies that have seen its textural surface move to grainy looks, such as a wrinkled texture reminiscent of elephant skin. Flexsteel offers a terry-touch version, too.

Hedden said microfiber is easy to manage in dressing a frame but, as with leather, one of its style drawbacks prevents it from being used on skirted models. "It has its limitations," he said. "It does not tailor well on that type of frame."

Sicard of Best Home Furnishings said the padded microfiber cover is what made its Brinley design, a U-shaped sofa, a hit.

"The padded microfiber is what kicked in the sales on this piece." It has been in the line for 2½ years.

Drawing on European trends, Natuzzi and Palliser were among the first producers to bring textured or "wrinkled" microfibers to the U.S. market two years ago. And Natuzzi followed up with its own slim-ribbed version a year ago.

"It sells very well," John Phillips, executive vice president of sales, said of the four grades of microfiber carried in Palliser's line.

With microfiber, Phillips said, "You get the look of suede but none of the care issues — and at a very affordable price. We do not see it as promotional."

Motion upholstery supplier Catnapper is also a proponent of microfiber. The company introduced three such covers at January's Las Vegas Market, bringing its microdenier total to 10 types, including padded suedes, two flat suedes and faux leathers.

More than half of Catnapper's production features "some form of microdenier product," said Hunter, who likens padded suede to a "faux leather" cover.

Affordable and durable

At Catnapper, its "Easy Rider" entry remains "king of the padded foam-backed suedes," Hunter said. In the lineup for three years — among the earliest padded microfibers — the look remains popular on retail floors and is doing well.

Hunter attributes the Easy Rider's staying power to its affordable pricing and "more true dye lot" that doesn't vary from piece to piece. "And it lasts a long time," he said, addressing its wearability.

When plain and flat suedes first arrived, they were considered pricey, but as U.S. manufacturers started going direct, the alternative cover is now aggressively priced from Asia.

"There seems to be no bottom in price," said Gentry Long, vice president of reclining chairs and motion sofas for Lane Home Furnishings. "We are looking for options to differentiate our product from a style and a covering standpoint."

Long, who calls the padded suede cover "a commodity," said retailers are ready to buy some new types of covers — "something fresh and different from what they've seen over the last three or four markets."

"We still show some sueded products but we continue to have our best success with top-grain leathers in new colors," he said. "That category is still hot from a volume standpoint."

At Lane, leather represents 40% of its cover choices with fabrics and microfibers providing the bulk of its selections.

"From a cost standpoint, you have to be very active and smart in order to offset costs, and then you have to be very creative about how to do the upholstered frames," Long said.

Fred Starr, president of Natuzzi Americas, agreed microfiber and motion work well together.

"Motion furniture is very masculine to begin with, especially in leather," Starr said. "But microfiber softens the look and makes it 'feminine-friendly.' A man can sell his wife on motion because they can compromise in the selection of microfiber. It balances out."

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