Sofa shopping is confusing, to say the least. There are a thousand different choices to make in the quest for the perfect sofa. Among the considerations: Modern or classic? High or low back? Fixed or loose cushions? All important questions, in terms of style and look. But, as a designer, the question I’m asked most often is, “Should I buy leather or fabric?”
As you might expect, there is no single right answer, as both fabric and leather sofas have their positive and negative characteristics. And rather than following personal opinions, recommendations, or experiences, it's best to look at the benefits of each material to help you decide which sofa finish is right for you, your family, and your home. The most important considerations are durability, care requirements, appearance, comfort, and cost.
Chances are, you will use your sofa every day for many years, so take your time with this decision. Assess your family’s needs and habits, then allow yourself a little time to find just the right piece. You’ll thank yourself later.
The Benefits of Fabric Sofas
Keep in mind that the category of "fabric" is much broader than the category of "leather" because there are so many different types of fabric.
The feel of fabric sofas varies widely depending on the fabric itself and the support system of the sofa (i.e. the cushions and frame). However, fabric sofas, on the whole, tend to be much more comfortable than leather sofas for several reasons. First, fabric tends to be an overall softer, warmer material than leather; just like your leather car seats, leather sofas can feel hot and sticky in the summer and cold in the winter, and leather sofas tend to feel firmer than fabric sofas. Second, because fabric is generally softer than leather, a fabric couch comes to you already “broken in.” Of course, be careful with this: you want a fabric that’s soft enough but not too soft—the fabric should keep its shape and not wrinkle or sag when you get up.
The wear and tear of fabric sofas most often depends upon the grade of fabric. As you’d expect, high-quality fabrics (just like high-quality leathers) will withstand wear better. Most fabric sofas are treated with a stain-resistant finish, so when spills do happen, they’re easily cleaned with specialty products or a handheld steam cleaner. Also, fabric doesn’t get scratched like leather does, so it tends to handle pets' claws and kids' homework binders better than leather.
Color and pattern options
Although leather can come in a variety of colors, fabrics are virtually unlimited in pattern, texture, and color, so fabric offers a much better chance of matching existing decor and getting the look you want. This is a great opportunity to express your family’s style: choose a sofa with a fun, bright fabric to grab attention or, alternatively, choose one in a calming neutral to anchor a room filled with art or decorative pieces.
You can usually get more bang for your buck if you go with a fabric sofa. Quality fabric and framing are expensive, but the same sofa in leather will always cost more.
The Benefits of Leather Sofas
If you're leaning toward a leather sofa, you're probably drawn to the look, feel, durability, and perhaps the cleanliness of authentic leather. Faux leather shares some of the same characteristics, but not all (particularly durability and natural aging).
Allergy sufferers often do better with leather sofas because leather doesn’t harbor dust mites, pet dander, and other allergens as easily as fabric does.
A leather sofa can lend a certain elegance to a room that is hard to duplicate in a fabric. Leather Chesterfield-style sofas are very traditional, but as a rule, leather sofas are typically more trendy than their fabric counterparts. If you like a contemporary or modern look, leather sofas tend to appear sleeker and more high-end than most fabric sofas.
Care requirements are an advantage of both leather and fabric sofas because the care necessary for either depends on your household. Leather is very easy to clean—usually requiring a light dusting or rubdown a couple of times a year—whereas fabric needs to be vacuumed and cleaned regularly. Leather is durable and can last for decades if cared for properly. However, while leather doesn’t require constant attention, it should be conditioned consistently to prevent cracks and splits.