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The Sofa – Where It All Began

The humble sofa has been around almost 400 years now. HomeDIYTips investigates its early origins in the Middle East.


The word ‘sofa’, all-embracing and comfortable-sounding, has been in the English language almost forever, but it had to come from somewhere.
The concept itself, a seat for two or more people, was first documented in Turkey in 1625, when it was described as a ‘raised section of a floor, covered with carpets and cushions’. Later, in 1717, it was given the name ‘suffah’, which has Arabic origins, and which  soon became abbreviated to ‘sofa’. The Arabic definition of  ‘suffah’ was ‘a long stuffed seat for reclining’.
Taking all these facts  into consideration, it would seem that the sofa itself began its journey when people, used only to reclining on the floor on animal skins before they became skilled at weaving and creating textiles, found that they would be warmer if they were off the ground. A raised platform would have been the first idea; it would have been simple to construct and out of the firing line of drafts. The next step would have been to create something that did the same job but was higher and, therefore,  more comfortable to sit on, with the added bonus that it could be moved around.
Once these early people had experimented with the idea, they realised that they could make their new seating to any specification – small for compact areas, and much larger for bigger rooms. They could have backs to lean on, and arm rests for extra versatility. Covering them with rugs, tapestries, and cushions  not only provided comfort, but also the chance to decorate and enhance the surroundings. Tapestries themselves were originally designed to keep homes warm; they would be hung on damp stone walls to improve insulation, and placed over doorways and windows to keep drafts out.  As skills improved, they progressed from plain pieces to those that incorporated designs depicting contemporary life, or, in the case of the wealthy, historical scenes that became works of art. It was not long before these tapestries were being used to cover seating to improve warmth and comfort, as a forerunner to upholstery.
Upholstery has progressed rapidly, and now does not need to consist of pieces of fabric draped onto a structure; hardwearing material can be cut to fit perfectly, and applied with techniques that create a neat tailored finish. The sofa has come from a roughly-constructed frame covered with loose textiles, to something that looks smart, is easy to maintain and keep clean, and built to last.
From humble beginnings, the sofas available today would be almost impossible for the people of yesteryear to comprehend. The level of comfort which we take for granted, along with the vast choice in styles, designs, and materials, let alone colours and patterns, would defy imagination.
The sofa has many alternative names, in various languages. It can be known as a settee, a squab, a settle,  a divan, a couch, a chaise longue, an ottoman, and even a loveseat but, to most of us, it is known simply as a sofa, a name that suits it and easily conjures up the comfort it offers at the end of the day.
To most people, the sofa is probably the most important piece of furniture they own, and the family home just would not be same without it.


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