Jamestown Sofa in Palouse Charcoal

I have worked in the textile industry my entire life. Certainly my adult life, but I was consumed by it seemingly forever. I learned to sew at a young age and made lots of my own clothing and soft home furnishings. My high school and college years jobs were in textiles. I worked with conventional textiles for twenty years of my adult life. I wasn’t aware of any textiles that weren’t processed without a plethora of chemicals. I, frankly, didn’t consider which chemicals were used when I commissioned mills to spin, weave, dye or print finished fabrics for me. I didn’t think at all about their environmental impact other than adherence to EPA limits for very few chemicals. I remember striking off a printed fabric at  a mill in New England in 1990 and I was advised to show up at midnight. While there, I asked why were starting so late and the colorist advised me that the EPA didn’t want them using a certain red dye that they wanted to use , so they had to use it at night when nobody was checking the water. He went on to say that this is why all the mills down South were thriving – because nobody bothered them.

I started working with FURNATURE, the only producer of truly non-toxic upholstered furniture in the world at that time, in February 2004.  The alliance was serendipitous. I set up a meeting with the company’s founder, Fred Shapiro, to discuss with him his inventorying and shipping fabric for my on-line fabric business named Fabricadabra. While meeting with him in his huge warehouse that was home to his home textiles retail store named Freddy Farkel’s Fabrics, I saw two back rooms with upholstered furniture, mattresses and bedding accessories. I inquired about the contents of the rooms and this is when my education in organics began. I was fascinated.  Furnature began producing these all natural ingredient sofas back in the early 1990’s. Very simple ingredients: solid hardwood frames, natural latex rubber with no additives or harmful flame retardants, untreated wool batting, certified organic cotton muslin, no-VOC leg stains and undyed organic cotton upholstery.

Furnature, was, also, a U.S. distributor of Sleeptek organic mattresses and bedding accessories. The mattresses contained three simple ingredients: natural latex rubber, untreated wool and organic cotton. The bedding accessories shared the same ingredients. Sleeptek was the first manufacturer of organic mattresses in North America. Every  organic mattress company since has tried to copy the look and feel of their then premier mattress that was renamed the GreenSleep Vimala in 2006. (Sleeptek later sold the GreenSleep brand.)

So, I learned  the rather small and evolving  organic mattress, bedding accessories, textiles and non-toxic upholstery markets during my four years with  Furnature. I sourced suppliers for the natural and non-toxic ingredients, got to work with textile manufacturers who were interested in producing organic cotton upholstery fabrics as well as really grew to understand the value systems of the consumers who wanted these products back in the early 2000’s. I became one of them. Once you have knowledge, it is difficult to ignore it.

I used to speak with Leigh Anne, one of the  two sisters who founded Oecotextiles, in 2006 before they launched their line. Leigh Anne would phone during the couple years of research that they conducted to ask many questions about what our customers wanted in less toxic natural fiber home textiles fabrics, if any dyes were acceptable at all,…etc. I truly admired all of the thought and research that they put into developing their pioneering line of eco luxurious fabrics. Prior to their debut, we were working with a line of color grown organic cottons that had been developed 10 years earlier and  were still on the market due to lack of demand and a  canvas dyed  hemp that was offered in natural,beige, navy, olive, chocolate and black.

I co-founded EKLA HOME, maker of non-toxic upholstered furniture, in 2008 with Emily Kroll, the owner. Emily had the background in furniture design and I in the non-toxic ingredients, construction, textiles and sourcing. She had written a thorough business plan and was looking for funding. She wanted to change her business model from conventional to organic based on her own value system and lifestyle. She came to Furnature in 2007 to propose that we collaborate and that her factory produce pieces for Furnature on the West Coast. We worked with her and factory for a short period of time until it became apparent that there just wasn’t enough margin and volume to make it feasible. Her designs were fresh and progressive. She already understood the consumer because she was one of them. I knew that we would work well together. So, I left Furnature.

It was a nine year labor of myriad emotions. The launch couldn’t have been at a worse time in the economy other than just before the Great Depression. However, we were lean and optimistic.  We immediately embraced Oecotextiles as our upholstery fabric supplier. Customers love the fabrics, weave options, variety of colors and the independent non-toxic certifications. We worked from our homes, had no showroom, held sofa viewings in Skippy’s Coconut Ice Cream’s parking lot  a couple Saturdays each month or just off the 5 when we were making Nor Cal deliveries.  Most customers took the leap of faith to buy sight unseen.

There was lots of confusion  after Cal Tech Bulletin 117 changed  in January 2013 from an open flame test on the entire sofa to a smoldering cigarette test on the fabric. The change meant that the sofas didn’t not have to use toxic flame retardants in the state of California any longer as long as the upholstery fabric could pass the smoldering cigarette test, which was relatively easy for a tightly woven fabric to do so. By early 2105, many conventional upholstered furniture manufacturers had switched to non-FR foam and were clearly labeling their pieces as having no flame retardants. It became apparent that many consumers were satisfied with this option and didn’t have the knowledge to be concerned about all of the other nasty chemicals in upholstered furniture. It makes sense because there wasn’t much being written and in the media about the other components. (Read Oecotextile’s blog posts if you want to be enlightened.)

We encountered many hurdles and many successes. Hurdles: high cost of ingredients, production delays, in-transit damages, expectations that non-toxic fabrics perform like Crypton and Sunbrella, 100% made by human hands and we didn’t offer EKLA HOME PRIME, no financing. Successes: all of the awards and recognition from fearless advocates of sustainability and wellness, positive customer feedback. We worked long days and needed to be available on weekends, week nights, vacations and when showering for customers due to deliveries and time zones. We became disheartened by all of the out of pocket expenses that we incurred with in transit damages that we had to pay to rectify because the shippers wouldn’t honor claims if customers didn’t note the damages on the bills of lading. We had serious labor issues in the factory. Each employee specialized in one aspect of the construction process. If the frame builder had to go back to Central America due to a family event or the cushion maker got sick, production just stopped. Nothing was mechanized. Emily and I were masochists. When I felt frustrated, she would jump in and keep things going and vice versa. We laughed, we cried, it became a part of us. As the owner of the company, Emily was tasked with handling all of the receivables and payables , trying to multiply the loaves. It was a continuous stressor.

Emily decided to close the company in February to pursue textile waste upcycling. As co-founder of the company and the person who had all of the sourcing and construction knowledge, Emily gave me the rights to continue to produce the  EKLA HOME  collection. During the years with EKLA HOME, I continued to run Fabricadabra as well as work two days a week at The Organic Mattress in Sudbury  MA. (www.theorganicmattress.com)  I will continue to produce the pieces at the same factory in North Carolina with the same non-toxic ingredients through The Organic Mattress. I will, also, produce custom pieces local to me so that I can better monitor the production. I plan to be very selective about the custom projects that I take on. One can never charge enough for completely custom. It is  building a prototype that will never be made again and guessing the labor hours to perfect it. But, you have to price it prior to going through the exercise.

A little about the custom upholstery business and then let’s add the non-toxic components factor. I have read about a number of start-up companies that are offering custom upholstered furniture at highly competitive prices with fast turnarounds and generous return policies. Some want to mirror the fast fashion industry. I detest fast fashion. I am sickened by the speed at which new collections come out, the poor quality of the pieces, the problems with the pieces ending up in landfills, the pollution that the factories that emit  and the goal of encouraging people to buy cheap , buy synthetic and buy often. This is anathema to my values. Ditto for Emily.

The trend of delivering everything quickly  concerns me. Casper can offer same day mattress delivery in certain cities. Kudos. However, unless your cat has urinated on your mattress, don’t you know further in advance if you will be needing a mattress? Casper’s success has spawned many on-line mattress etailers to offer mattresses in a box with quick deliveries, generous satisfaction guarantees with 100 day return if not satisfied policies and a race to the bottom in pricing. I’m seeing this in custom upholstery. The business model seems unsustainable to me. Use Greycork as an example. Their goal was to make high quality furniture that assembles in under four minutes at reasonable prices and with a  generous return policy if not satisfied. They didn’t expect the returns that they did actually received and they couldn’t maintain the price points that they set as a result.

Many people want mattresses and furniture that can be left curbside when they move because they aren’t investment pieces and they cost more to move than to leave behind. This saddens me because the pieces usually end up in landfills. All of the synthetic ingredients continue to be problematic when incinerated.

People are sometimes frustrated with the high cost of non-toxic upholstered furniture and the lead time to produce. The ingredients are 10 times more expensive than their synthetic counterparts. Natural latex rubber and needle punched wool do cost lots of money. The pieces are not mass produced. They are 100%  human made. The pieces are built to last. They are investment pieces. Natural latex rubber will not break down as  synthetic foam does, despite odd rumors that circulate that natural rubber breaks down faster. Some consumers assume that the makers of non-toxic upholstery are greedy. This is not accurate. We work on much lower margins than those selling conventional pieces. The ingredients with which we work are very difficult to manipulate, so the labor hours to make are doubled those of conventional sofas . Many furniture craftspeople do not want to make organic sofas because they are very challenging. The fabrics, too, are more difficult to use because they don’t have the resin stabilizers that conventional fabrics do. None of us is making tons of money. If we are fortunate, we are able to pay our bills and take a modest salary.

Shipping large, heavy pieces of furniture all over the country is a shit show.  The process is complex and time consuming. It is not similar to UPS or FedEx or having a local furniture retailer schedule a delivery. They don’t scan the bar codes every few hours. Often, the sofas are just in-transit and the shippers cannot tell customers exactly where their sofas are because they don’t even know. Consumers cannot schedule deliveries for when it is convenient for them. They must take delivery when the shipper is in that geographical region and based on the shipper’s schedule. The shipper might not be back to that region for another month.

I shy away from using the term “white glove delivery” because that implies an extremely high level of service. One can have that if one is willing to pay $1100 to ship an organic sofa. However, for $450, the shipper will offer two delivery people who plunk it down in the room of choice and ask you to sign a legal, binding document entitled a “bill of lading” without explaining that it means that you have signed for your organic sofa as being completely free of damages. Most of the time, it is free of in-transit damages. But, sometimes legs get nicked or the upholstery fabric gets soiled.  The pieces are stacked sideways on the trucks to fit more freight in the bed. This isn’t a huge issue with conventional sofas. However, an eco-friendly sofa with natural latex rubber and overconstructed frames weighs about 300 lbs and the rubber will shift downward, contorting the upholstery fabric along the way. So, sometimes when the sofas arrive, they need to be manhandled back into form. Some customers, understandably, are aghast and think that the sofa left our facility looking like this.  The organic sofas are so heavy that, on a rare occasion, a shipper will choose to drag the sideways sofa rather than lift it. Maybe he has a hangover or is planning to give his notice. Who knows what  possesses one to drag a sofa on the ground sideways. What we do know, however, is that the plastic covering will break open and the upholstery fabric will abrade. Sometimes in-room set up shippers will catch this and advise us of the damage so that it can be repaired before delivery. Sometimes, they actually just try to deliver the sofas with the side panels damaged. So, we are left with a sofa in Podunk North Dakota and a bill of lading that has been signed for as “clean” or without notation of damage and we absorb the expenses to hire an upholstery company to pick up the piece, repair and return it , despite our buying insurance to cover replacement.

One area in which Amazon has never been able to excel is signing on  furniture manufacturers to sell on their website because the logistics of shipping large pieces of furniture long distances is a nightmare. Two day PRIME delivery is another impossibility. But, again, I have to ask why one needs a sectional sofa in such a hurry unless the puppy ripped their existing sectional to shreds. And, I hope this never happens because the upholstery fabric and foam are likely toxic. I wouldn’t want my puppy chewing conventional components of upholstered furniture.

In summary, I want to share that I am going to continue the mad mission of producing eco-friendly upholstered furniture through The Organic Mattress in Sudbury, MA. They have over 5,000 square feet of showroom space (making them the largest retailer of organic mattresses in the states). We  actually have sofas in the showrooms. The store itself is beautiful. The building is the oldest building in the town of Sudbury, dating back to the 1700’s. Sudbury neighbors the towns of Lexington and Concord MA, all three of which are quintessential New England hamlets in the suburbs of Boston. Sudbury’s zip code is 01776.  Yes, 1776!!!  If a potential customer is visiting Boston, John and Diane (the owners) will gladly coordinate picking them up in Boston to bring them to our showrooms.

The Organic Mattress will deliver all of its own mattresses and upholstered furniture from Portland Maine to New York City, using its own delivery truck and reliable delivery guys who have been doing the deliveries since 2007.  They wear gloves, remove their shoes, do not wear cologne and they will take away your old mattress or sofa. They then donate them to Household Goods. (https://householdgoods.org/) I will physically be in the showrooms on Tuesdays and Thursdays and am available at any time to wax eco-friendly sofas, organic mattresses and bedding accessories. It’s not my first Summer out, as you might have gleaned by now.

 

Advertisements