Non-toxic Home Furnishings and Me

May 05, 2020

Non-toxic Home Furnishings and Me

 

I have worked in the textile industry my entire adult  life. I have been enamored with textiles seemingly forever. I learned to sew at a young age and made quite few pieces of  clothing and soft home furnishings through the decades. My  school age jobs involved textiles. As an adult, I worked for conventional textile companies in apparel, home and hospitality textiles for over twenty years . I wasn’t aware of any textiles that weren’t processed without a plethora of chemicals. I, frankly, hadn’t considered which chemicals were used when I commissioned mills to spin yarns, weave, dye, print or finish textiles on my companies' behalf. I didn't ask and they didn't disclose. I didn’t consider their environmental or health impacts other than adherence to EPA limits for a short list of chemicals.

I recall striking off a printed pattern fabric at a mill in Fall River Massachusetts in 1990 and I was advised to show up at midnight. While there, I asked why we 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 of the mills down South were thriving – because THE EPA didn’t bother them. I didn’t know at that time that the textile industry was and is the 2nd highest polluting and toxic industry behind  the oil industry.

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 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 showroom 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 organic home furnishings began. I was fascinated.  Furnature began producing custom sofas with all natural and organic ingredients back in the early 1990’s. Very simple inputs: 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 fabric. Textile industry veteran Chris Hancock  had recently designed the first collection of organic cotton upholstery fabrics with Fox-Rich Textiles that were distributed by the now defunct The Rug Barn company. No dyes, just natural organic cotton. These were the only fabrics that we offered customers at the time.

Furnature was, also, a U.S. distributor for Sleeptek (now known as Obasan) non-toxic mattresses and bedding accessories. The mattresses contained three simple ingredients: organic latex rubber, organic 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 named the GreenSleep Hevea (later renamed Vimala). Sleeptek later sold the GreenSleep brand but continues to make superior quality mattresses and bedding accessories in Quebec province.

I learned the tiny and slowly evolving  organic home textiles markets during my four years with Furnature. I sourced suppliers for the natural and non-toxic ingredients and worked with textile manufacturers who were interested in producing organic cotton upholstery fabrics, helping them to develop collections. )They all bombed and were discontinued. Too expensive, low demand and sales reps didn't know how to market them to manufacturers.) I grew to understand the values of the consumers who wanted these products back in the early 2000’s. I became one of them. Once one has the knowledge, it is difficult to ignore it. 

I used to speak with Leigh Anne Van Deusen, one of the  two sisters who cofounded Oecotextiles, in 2005, before they launched their line of eco-luxurious home furnishings fabrics. Leigh Anne contacted me during the couple years of research that she 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 thoughtfulness and research that they conducted before developing their pioneering line of eco luxurious home furnishings fabrics. Prior to their debut, we were working with a line of color grown organic cottons that had been developed 10 years earlier, were basics and were still on the market due to lack of demand along. The only other available option was a dyed canvas  hemp that was offered in natural, beige, navy, olive, chocolate and black. Consumers wanted color and sophistication. However, they settled for what was non-toxic and available.

I co-founded EKLA HOME, maker of non-toxic upholstered furniture, in late 2008 with Emily Kroll, the owner. Emily had a 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 in early 2008. She wanted to change her business model from conventional to organic based on her own value system and lifestyle. She came to Furnature in 2006 to propose that we collaborate and that her factory produce pieces for Furnature on the West Coast. We worked with her and her 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 upholstery designs were fresh and contemporary, unlike Furnature’s. She already understood the consumer because she was one of them. I knew that we would work well together. So, I left Furnature to work with EKA HOME.

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 preferred upholstery fabric supplier. Customers loved 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 met customers just off the 5 when we were making Nor Cal deliveries.  Most customers took the leap of faith to buy sight unseen in other parts of the country.

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 natural fiber fabric to do so without any chemical additives. By early 2015, 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 then 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 performance fabrics, 100% made by human hands, we didn’t offer EKLA HOME PRIME, own our own fleet of trucks and we  offered no financing. Successes: all of the awards and recognition from highly respected organizations focusing on sustainability and wellness, positive customer feedback, high quality inputs and superior finished products. 

We became disheartened by all of the out of pocket expenses that EKLA HOME incurred with in-transit damages whereby we had to pay out of pocket to rectify the damages 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 financials , trying to multiply the loaves. It was a continuous stressor.

Emily decided to close the company in February 2017 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. Throughout my 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 continue to produce the pieces at the same factories in North Carolina and Los Angeles  with the same non-toxic ingredients through The Organic Mattress,Inc. We did create the brand ‘Pure Upholstery’ for the upholstery division in 2018 to distinguish it from the bedding.  I continue to produce completely custom pieces either local to me (so that I can better monitor the production) or in Los Angeles if the customers are west of Texas. One can never charge enough for completely custom upholstery. Building a prototype that will never be made again while guessing the labor hours to perfect it is tricky. But, we have to price it prior to going through the exercise.

Many people are frustrated with the high cost of non-toxic upholstered furniture and the lead times to produce. The ingredients are far 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. The frame is the spine of the sofa and these are solid hardwood, not plywood or particle board. They are investment pieces. Natural latex rubber will not break down as  synthetic foam does, despite odd rumors that circulate on the internet 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 three times those of conventional bench made  custom 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. They cost more money than conventional manmade fiber textiles. Conventional fabrics are toxic. 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 do a delivery. They don’t scan  bar codes on the packaging 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. They are on a truck that is driving between terminals and have an estimated arrival at a terminal that can be delayed due to weather and natural disasters. 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 if it is in the heartland.

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 $1500 to ship an organic sofa. However, for $550, 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, legs get scratched or the upholstery fabric gets soiled on a rare occasion.  The pieces are stacked sideways on the trucks to fit more freight in the bed. This isn’t a huge issue with conventional sofas and their lightweight ingredients. However, an eco-friendly sofa with natural latex rubber and over-constructed frames weighs about 300 lbs and the rubber will shift downward, contorting the upholstery fabric along the way. So, sometimes when the sofas arrive, the fabric needs to be physically manipulated back into position. Some customers, understandably, are aghast and think that the sofa left our facility looking disheveled.  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.

In summary, I want to share that I continue the mad mission of producing eco-friendly and high quality non-toxic  upholstered furniture through The Organic Mattress , Inc.in Sudbury, MA.  under the brand ‘Pure Upholstery’. (www.pureupholstery.com )  The showroom has over 5,000 square feet of showroom space (making it the largest retailer of organic mattresses in the states) in Sudbury MA .  The showroom 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, Lincoln 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!!!  We, also, have sofas in our recently opened Boston Luxury Beds  showroom at 244 Newbury St in Boston. Newbury Street has long been Boston's premiere street on which to shop, eat and pamper oneself.

Thank you for reading this lengthy rant and rave!

Be well.

Donna Halloran

 

The Organic Mattress street entrance




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