Looking to use organic or natural, non-toxic materials in your furniture?
Are you seeking to use healthier, more sustainable materials inside your furniture? We have a guide that will help you choose chemical-free materials and learn how to use them – whether you’re a maker, a designer specifying natural materials for a client, a professional upholsterer or are having some upholstery work done for you. Download the FREE ‘Buying Guide to Natural Upholstery Materials‘.
Alternative natural and organic upholstery materials are becoming more accessible for individuals who are chemically sensitive or who simply seek to create a healthy, non-toxic living environment.
Natural latex foam for upholstery.
Natural Latex Rubber, processed without any harmful chemicals or petroleum products, is tapped from Para Rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) trees, today grown mainly in southeast Asia. Latex is a natural repellant to dust mites & other allergens, and is also resistant to mold and mildew. It is used as a healthy, eco-friendly replacement for polyurethane foam in cushions & padding for upholstery. Biodegradable 100% natural latex is created from the latex of trees – formed into a foam using minimal chemicals, heated and then thoroughly washed to remove traces of chemicals, leaving you with just the latex foam.
Other natural materials used in modern re-upholstery.
Organic cotton batting is used as a foundation padding layer in upholstery.
Wool batting forms a naturally flame retardant barrier between latex foam and the outer fabric. Wool is also mold, mildew and dust mite resistant. It is used to ‘soften the edges’ in the top layer of upholstery.
Organic cotton twill or a tight-weave muslin is used as a ticking layer between the wool batting and the outer fabric to prevent wool fibers from migrating through the cover fabric and ‘pilling’ on the surface.
Traditional re-upholstery materials
In the very early days of upholstery, there were no synthetics or foams. Aside from the materials mentioned above, any discussion of natural upholstery would not be complete without including traditional materials.
You’ll find some of these materials used in antique furniture, as well as in fine modern pieces using traditional re-upholstery techniques:
- Coconut fiber – the rough fibers of the coconut husk forms a ‘crunchy’ layer in traditional applications. If you buy a fresh coconut, you’ll find some of these fibers on the outside of the hard inner shell.
- Spanish moss – often mistaken for horsehair with its long fibers, but a closer look reveals a plant material.
- Hog hair or horse hair – yes, this is the wiry hair from a real animal, often found as a tightly packed dense layers in old chairs.
Ready to ‘Go Natural’ with your furniture?
Enter your name & email in the form below and we’ll send you our FREE ‘Buying Guide to Natural Upholstery Materials’ to help you get started.
Thank you for this wonderfully informative web page. I so wish I did live near you in Montana, because I’d have you reupholster a slew of sofas that contain fire-retardant foams–or take classes from you to learn to do it myself! I live in Washington, D.C., and I have been unable to find any upholsterers who are presently, or are interested in, using organic or even traditional upholstery materials. Their resistance is due at least partly to their using suppliers who do not deal in these materials and on top of that, misrepresent the virtues and availability of 100 percent natural latex.
It’s so nice to know this has been helpful for you! You can learn more about alternative, natural and organic upholstery materials in my BLOG. There are also videos and instructions there to help you learn how to use them. These are handy resources you can take to your local upholstery shop to help them learn more about using natural upholstery materials in your project. (updated Mar, 2022)
Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!
That’s great news. Do you have an ETA for the availability of that information? It seems upholsterers’ suppliers pose an obstacle to the dissemination of reliable information about alternatives, as well as the alternatives themselves.
Here’s a link to a resource list.
I hope it helps!
Sorry to take up so much comment space, but I wondered what your considered opinion is of using feathers and/or down in upholstery. They never seem to be included in lists of alternative materials, altho they are certainly traditional and predate chemical/manufactured elements by centuries! I won’t try to guess why, although several ideas come to mind.
No problem Andrea. I’ve been thinking about why I didn’t include feathers/down as an option, and realized that many of the people I have worked with have not wanted to use down because it’s an animal product and they were either concerned about the treatment of the birds or they were allergic to down. That said, I am not necessarily averse to listing it as an option, since it is, as you say, a traditional material.
An upholsterer way back East in Pittsburgh who is willing to undertake a green reupholstery job for me (I live in D.C., so have to ship him my sofa) said he could obtain feathers/down, but wondered if and how same were treated . . . . Yes, I too wonder about whether the birds are treated humanely and would hope that they are not slaughtered for their feathers, but rather their feathers were harvested if they were being used for food anyway. I feel bloodthirsty just typing this, actually.
:) Cushions with down are usually formed as a down envelope into which you insert the appropriate size of foam. Latex foam can replace conventional foam with no adjustment to size. However, the firmness rating is different. Latex is commonly sold in 3 different firmnesses (some sources have 5 or 6). In general I use the firmest for seat cushions and the softest for back cushions.
Thank you so much for this information. I am chemically sensitive and I am in the process of having all of my furniture reupholstered. I am going to pass your website info to my upholsterer since he has become quite interested in “natural” upholstery. For anyone who wants to attempt to do their own upholstery, I took a correspondence course through Foley-Belsaw back in the early 1980’s. It was inexpensive, self paced, easy and fun. I used an old treadle sewing machine to do my upholstery sewing. The Viking Emerald is a very good machine for this type of work also if you want to buy a good home sewing machine that can take the heavy duty fabrics and threads.
Thanks Nancy, for the great tip on the Viking machine. I would love to talk with your upholsterer or any upholsterer interested in ‘natural’ upholstery – to add them to my resource list. There are some great online upholstery courses available now. I offer a boxed cushion eCourse which includes detailed instructions on how to use alternative materials to make upholstery cushions – check out UPHOLSTERY CLASSES in the menu for more info. If you download the free ‘Buying Guide to Natural Upholstery Materials’ on this page, you’ll be signed up to receive updates on upcoming classes as well as valuable tips, guides, design ideas and stories to help you get started with the right upholstery materials for your project.
I live in California and am chemically sensitive – since a formaldehyde exposure in building materials 3 years ago. I am excited about your workshops and hope to join one some day. If you do webinars or virtual classes, I would love to be involved!
I am trying to figure out how to make my own bed and livingroom furniture, those are my next two projects for my home. I am thinking of making two day beds (twin sized or similar with pillows made into an L shape) for my living room, as we like lounging on the couch. I also want to make a natural king size bed. Any information or guidance to do so would be greatly appreciated
Google ‘DIY Natural Bedding’, whom I highly recommend – Deborah is very helpful with questions about bedding materials. If you’d like to learn how to make a boxed and corded upholstery cushion using natural/organic & flame retardant-free materials, check out my ‘Bodacious Box Cushions’ eCourse. If you sign up for the free download on this page you’ll be on the mailing list to get all the details about upcoming virtual classes and free DIY upholstery videos.
Andrea Rosen, I would love it if you could share with me the name of your upholsterer in Pittsburgh. I have a sofa in Pittsburgh that was my grandma’s. I was planning on having it brought to Philly where I live and having it reupholstered. But, I am having a hard time finding someone here who works with natural products and seems any good. It would be great if I could just have it done in Pgh and then have the sofa brought here. I’d love the name of the upholsterer you mentioned!
I’m happy to refer you to Mike at Blanax Upholstery, Pittsburgh, PA [(412) 826- 9080]. He was exceedingly patient and helpful to me while I tried to figure out what to do about reupholstering. A couple of life traumas interrupted my projects (specifically brainstorming a reasonable way to ship two sofas from DC to Pittsburgh), but I still intend to get back to him when everything calms down. Please tell him I sent you!
Fantastic Andrea. I will give them a call. Ironically, my dad’s office used to be right down the street from here. You don’t know how grateful I am for this info. It is really challenging to find upholsterers who know about this stuff and don’t look at me like I am crazy.
On the task of getting two sofas from DC to Pgh., I read on apartmenttherapy.com about a company called uShip http://www.uship.com/ You list what you want to have moved and people bid on the job. The bids come from a range of movers from guys with a van, to small movers who haul antiques across the country, to actual moving companies. I tried it once and was totally overwhelmed by the number of replies I got. But, it might be worth a shot.
Thanks for the info about the upholsterer in Pittsburgh. I have done some more research and am not sure yet that I want to use them. I thought I would share my brainstorm with you in case it would save you figuring out how to ship your sofas to Pittsburgh.
I have read a lot about latex and learned that the term 100% natural latex is pretty vague. It can mean any number of things including a mix of natural and synthetic latex. It is entirely confusing because it says 100% natural, but from what I read, it can be a misnomer because there of course are no regulations for labeling. For more information check out this blog, which is authored by the owners of Oecotextiles. (Oecotextiles also happens to be one of the fabric manufacturers that the Blawnox upholsterers use.) Their posts have a lot of scientific research and citations, which I appreciate: http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/01/20/foam-for-upholstery-cushions/
The comment section of the post is extremely useful too. They recommend using foam that is certified by Global Organic Latex Standards (GOLS). From what I can tell, that certification is the only certification out there that will make sure the latex you are using is actually all natural and not a combination of synthetic and natural.
When I spoke with Mike, who was very nice and helpful, he told me he has thus far only made sofas with a latex that is a combo of natural and synthetic. He gave me the name of his supplier, whom I called to ask about their 100% natural latex, and it is not certified, so there is no way of knowing what its contents really are.
I suspect the way I will go is to try to find a supplier that carries GOLS 100% organic certified latex, and have them ship it to whatever upholsterer I use, be it Blawnox or somewhere in Philadelphia, where I live. The only place I have found so far that sells it retail is in San Francisco. The woman was so nice and encouraged me to try to find it for sale on the East Coast as she said shipping from her would cost a fortune.
So, long story short, I wonder if you can find GOLS foam and get it sent to an upholsterer in DC. It will be a lot more expensive of a material than the stuff that Blawnox is using but you will know what it is actually made of and will at least save the hassle and expense of shipping. As for finding organic fabrics, that seems to be a much easier find.
I’m so glad you’re finding this information useful! Let me know if you run into any questions during your class. I’m always excited to talk with other instructors about using these materials.
PS. I would love to share where you’re taking your class on my ‘Where to Learn Upholstery’ Pinterest board. You’re welcome to contact me through Pinterest or post a link here.
Carla, I found you on Pinterest, I was so excited to find all this info available. I will be starting a Upholstery Class here in Mississippi next month and feel that the info you have available will really give me a boost. Thanks so very much for sharing with all of us.
If you are looking for alternative Organic GOTS certified material, please contact us :
our website : http://only-organic-fabric-shop.com
This is a great resource, thank you. I have an upholster willing to make cushions for us using natural latex and GOTS certified fabric that we purchased. However, we don’t know what kind of glue can be used. The upholsterer has only used a conventional (probably toxic) spray glue, so I offered to do some research. What suggestions for glues do you have? Thank you!
Andrea, I am in DC, too, found an upholster in town who is new to these materials, but very willing to work with us. We are getting fabrics from Oekotextiles for chair cushions and shades, and next week, we are getting a sofa from Ekla that was made with Oekotextiles fabric. Cannot say enough about what a positive experience we have had, so far, with both companies. Happy to share information on the upholster, if you are still looking for someone.
Yes, Please! Do share your upholsterer’s name & contact info, and website if they have one. I am compiling a list of upholsterers who are willing to work with non-toxic materials, so I can share it here as a resource for people like you who are looking for alternatives. It’s great to hear of your positive experience with Oecotextiles. Thanks!
I assume your upholsterer is using wool batting? If so, the wool will stick naturally to the foam – you don’t need to glue it to the foam, but you do need to wrap it to hold the wool in place as you stuff it into the cushion cover. Our Premium Wool Batting comes with a thin spun backing, which is perfect for this purpose – I hand stitch it around the wool-wrapped latex at the edges. I have also used a 4mm silk gauze available from Dharma Trading. If you need more info about this, I cover building a cushion using latex & wool in more detail in my online class Bodacious Box Cushions (www.bodaciousboxcushions.com), and have several supporting videos on my blog. Just sign up for the mailing list to be in the loop for classes (automatic if you’ve downloaded the Buying Guide for Alternative Upholstery Materials).
When you do need to glue upholstery layers, I have had success using Aleene’s Tacky Glue, a non-toxic water based glue with similar consistency to Elmers Glue (which btw, might work just as well). I dilute it with enough water to make it spreadable with a brush. It takes longer to dry than the ‘toxic’ upholstery spray glues, but it does work!
I use Simalfa water-based non-toxic glue in my shop. Unfortunately they don’t sell the product in smaller than 5 gallon quantities.
Thanks for the great question!
Oct, 2019 update: Since we are no longer handling sales of materials, here are two sources for GOLS organic latex foam: DIY Natural Bedding and Foam Order.
The ‘certified’ latex has no chemicals other than those necessary for the vulcanization, foaming & curing process that are a part of both organic and non-organic latex foam production..
Thanks for this very important question!
I’ve looked high and low for many of the organic materials you have listed here. I love that as a society we are looking towards greener and friendly options. I’m struggling to find this material to use in my projects. Where can I purchase organic 100% chemical free latex foam? Thank you!
Well, turns out that my lead here in DC isn’t working out. He uses a really toxic glue (Camie’s), and though he was willing to work with the materials we have, I don’t think he’s going to flex on the glue. If anyone here has suggestions for an upholsterer who could help us, please share. Long story short, we bought a latex mattress from Savvy Rest, and there was a problem with the top layer of the mattress. They replaced the top layer, and are allowing us to keep it for our own use. We need to have chair cushions made, and since 100% natural latex is very expensive, we want to use this piece that we already have. Now we just need someone who is willing/able to make it who does not have cats. (We are so allergic that we’re worried about cross contamination.) The latex is very heavy, so we could ship it, but it would be a pain and expensive. Any leads in near/DC???
Btw, Carla, he might be open to using the other glue, but I’m worried that he would get too frustrated having to learn and quit on us. Yikes.
Oct, 2019 update: Since we are no longer handling sales of materials, here are two sources for GOLS organic latex foam: DIY Natural Bedding and Foam Order.
This is such a great resource – thank you so much! I am also in the DC area – attention upholsterers interested in using natural materials: apparently you are in high demand here! Someone come open a shop!
I have a large couch that has been in my family for 3 generations, but I don’t want to get it reupholstered unless it can be done with non-toxic, natural materials. How did the experience go in Pittsburgh? I might be willing to rent a van and drive it out there myself if this person comes recommended.
I’d love to think this site could connect you with the right person to get your sofa reupholstered to be healthy & home-friendly. We have a Resource page coming soon, so (everybody!) submit your recommendations, talents and connections here, to be included for others to find.
Thanks so much for your comments and suggestions!
Would love a referral to a “natural upholsterer” in the Ft. Lauderdale, FL area, or to someone who will custom make a sofa using organic and/or non-toxic matetials.
I’ve been in touch with Genova upholstery in Boca Raton. Luis seems to have the experience and willingness to work with natural materials. I’d love to hear if you end up working with him, so I can pass it on.
Thanks for a great question!
Can you recommend an upholsterer in the San Francisco / Oakland Bay Area who is using natural materials?
I’m sorry I don’t have a list of natural upholsterers posted on the website yet, and what I have collected is far from complete (I don’t have any current listings in the SF area). That said, I have found that many upholsterers are open to working with natural materials, so I always recommend making inquiries in your local area. If they have questions, you can give them this link to find resources that will help clarify how the materials are used.
Thank you for a great question! I hope this helps.
I have chemical sensitivities and would like to start a home-based, all- natural, upholstery business. Can you give me some pointers on how to get started?!! Initial start up costs??
I have a big mouth and since undergoing brain surgery, I’ve been telling everyone about how dangerous all chemicals are in our environment. I used to be an interior design, but had to leave industry due to chemicals. Constant exposure to chemicals and mouthful of amalgams is, what I believe, gave me the brain tumor. Husband of 35 years left me because he wouldn’t give up his personal use of chemicals and so I was wondering if you know of anyone I could apprentice with on the east coast who could help me get started. I am in Quakertown, PA.
I have to reupholster all my furniture anyway, since it was exposed to mold in a house I moved into after divorce. I want to strip it down to bare frame. Could you give me an estimate on how much a regular size sofa would cost to go all natural? Start to finish.
.With what I already know working in design, I’ve always wanted to direct clients to safer, healthier furniture and home environments…especially for the babies and children.
Thanks for all your help…I really appreciate it!
Thank you for sharing your life challenges as well as your goals for helping your clients find healthy furniture. I totally agree that we need to build opportunities for easier access to ‘honest’ resources. I recently talked with Cynthia Bleskachek at The Funky Little Chair in Minnesota – she has written extensively on her blog about upholstery education which might give you some perspective on apprentice opportunities as well as the challenges involved with starting an upholstery business. I also recommend Shelly Leer’s courses in Indianapolis – some business related.
You didn’t mention whether you’ve done upholstery in the past – if not, I would recommend starting with something smaller than a sofa. Since there are so many different styles and configurations in sofas, and cost of fabric varies so widely (see our fabric resource page for links) it’s difficult to pin down the cost without mapping out the parts and doing some serious number-crunching. You can find a few specific examples in my post ‘How Much Does it Cost?’.
I hope this helps, and wish you the best of luck in your endeavors!
As a severe natural Latex allergy patient it scares the crap out of me to now worry that I have to worry about cushions in friends homes. I am interested in natural but this would kill me.
Thank you for bringing the very real issue of latex allergy to this conversation. It must be a very difficult and challenging illness. I have spoken with many people who are afflicted with severe allergies, albiet mostly involving the chemicals in the urethane foam or fabrics in their furniture. This is the main reason we offer the latex foam – as an alternative for those individuals. Here is some information I found regarding latex allergies:
With all of this said, I realize that every individual is unique in sensitivities and needs. I am not an expert on the subject and am always open to any and all perspectives on the subject.
Again, I appreciate hearing your perspective and I sincerely hope that your worry about latex cushions in friends’ homes does not prove to be a real issue for you.
After discovering, by an allergy specialist, via patch testing, I found that my extremely itchy, bumpy, oozing, skin, was caused from foam, formaldehyde, and other chemicals, that I came in contact with. This is a huge problem for me. I am not able to sit on my furniture, any longer. Nor can I sit in a car seat, for much more than an hour, if that. My skin begins to burn up. I had to give away my very comfortable bed! Replacing it with a natural, organic mattress. I had to take bleach baths, go on antibiotic’s, wear only cotton or silk (white). This is the most ridiculous allergy, that I have ever heard of. All because of chemicals. I assume, that I have a weak immune system. No idea what to do about it. Really, this allergy ruins my life. I cannot travel any distance, visit anybody, as all seats seem to be filled with foam cushions, no matter where I go. I’ve been told to place a white sheet, or towel on seating. That doesn’t work….as I do have a pile of white towels, on every seat, there is. My skin still burns and blisters. This foam nonsense is very, very bad!! I sure do wish somebody would ban it! If anybody has suggestions, please do, let me know. Thank you, in advance!
Thank you for sharing your experience. What a challenge to have to adjust to such extreme health reactions to everyday things we all take for granted! I have a couple of resources that might help you, or at least connect you with others in similar circumstances. One is Zero Toxics, administered by Lisa Powers. The other is Lifely, Debra Lynn Dadd’s new site. Best of luck with your progress! Carla
I am wondering if you know how to get around using a chemical based glue to knit back upholstery fabric, or if you know of a fabric finishing company in Texas or anywhere that is more natural. The company I have been using for this is not giving us the information my client needs.
Only one option comes to mind that I recently encountered: DIY Natural Bedding sells a laminated jersey fabric that is laminated using a GOTS certified glue. This is of great interest to me, as I would love to be able to list it as a resource on this website. I haven’t yet gotten around to researching or asking about the glue, but if you contact Deborah at DIY Natural Bedding she may be able to tell you more, or at least point you in the right direction.
I hope this helps in some way. I wish there were more resources for healthy, non-toxic glue!
Hi Carla ,
Thank you for this information. we need our sofa reupholstered , could you recommend someone in nyc that can work with natural materials ?
The National Upholstery Association has a ‘Find an upholsterer in your area’ section. I would start there, and use the information on ‘Resources for hiring an upholstery professional’ to help you communicate what you need. Any modern upholsterer already has the tools and skills to work with natural materials. Some may be hesitant to work with unfamiliar materials, and just need the right information to get started.
I hope this helps,