Imagine a black dress, then imagine the variety of accessories you can add for different looks — long strings of pearls, shimmering diamonds, piles of costume jewelry in bright lacquer. So it goes with throw pillows. The same tailored neutral room can go from plain to fabulous with the mere addition of carefully chosen cushions. But how do you pick the perfect specimens? We tell you all about picking throw pillows.
“A throw pillow should definitely be an eye-catching, decorative accent that strengthens the colour palette in the room, so choose one of your favourite colours from the furniture fabric. If the piece is a basic neutral, try a great pattern in a colour that complements the room’s scheme,” says Toronto interior designer Mimi Pineau. It’s invaluable advice for those of us not naturally bestowed with the gift of picking accent colours. “Creating a contrast using either colour or texture will make the cushion stand out,” she adds.
There are truly an endless variety of pillow shapes to consider — chubby bolsters, giant squares, long rectangles. So how do you best judge what shape will work where? “If the cushion has a practical use, consider how it will be used,” Mimi advises. Square works best for full back comfort, she says, whereas rectangular will support the lower back or neck, as will a foam bolster for leaning up against.
Aesthetics will come into play as well. “Also consider the scale of the furniture; bigger cushions look great on large-scaled furniture with ample seating room, but keep cushions smaller on more delicate pieces,” she recommends. Here’s a loose breakdown of the more common shapes on the market.
Bolsters are great for daybed ends or leather sofas (they don’t slip down as squares can)
Squares are the most common and versatile throw pillow shape, ideal for the back of a hard chair, to cosy up a sofa, on beds to add visual interest, or on the floor for kids or pets to enjoy.
Rectangles provide lumbar support on sofas or in armchairs. Long rectangles suit king-size beds.
Round pillows can soften up a severe sofa or chair. Flat versions are also comfortable to sit on for anything ranging from tulip-style chairs to Windsor chairs.
Nothing contributes to the look and feel of a throw pillow so much as its fabric, so it’s important to choose appropriately. “To make sure your throw pillows stay beautiful, select fabrics that are appropriate for their use — sturdier fabrics for family areas or around pets, or luxurious pure silks for a master bedroom,” Mimi suggests.
If you have white-fabric sofas, you may want to check potential pillows for colourfastness, as the dye may rub off on your couch with use. Throw cushion fabric choice has similarities with the formality and seasonality of the fashion world — like suits or dresses, for instance, cotton is usually less formal than silk, linen more summery than velvet.
Pillow fillings and inserts
Throw pillows fit one of two profiles. There’s the decorative pillow that’s stuffed and sewn up permanently, and there’s the pillow that is really a case that is zippered, tied or buttoned over an insert. Both do the same job, but the removable version is generally a better choice if it will need regular laundering. As for the filling, “a generous feather fill always lends a luxurious touch, even in a casual room,” says Mimi. In fact, while many synthetic fibre fillings get compressed with daily use eventually resulting in a flattish silhouette, down and feathers can be plumped up to their original volume. But for some allergy sufferers and those who object to feathers for ethical reasons, synthetics like polyester fill (also known as polyfill) are the only way to go. Luckily, they’re widely available and inexpensive.
Finishes and trims
Before you are carried away on a buying spree by the beautiful cushions you spy in a shop, consider not only the fabric, but also whether the trimmings, if any, fit the style you’re after. Silky tassels are quite formal; will that suit your sofa? Contrast piping can read as crisp, while buttons with visible buttonholes are casual.
Finding a way to repurpose or recover the cushions you already have is the most eco-friendly option, of course, as is using hand-me-down cushions. Stunning fabric sources can come from unlikely places if you are open to them. Vintage Pucci scarves, fabric remnants, even old drapes and mohair coats have been turned into throw pillows. And if you’re opting for brand new, you’ll often find organic fabrics don’t always cost considerably more than conventional options. These fabrics have moved away from drab browns, coming in knockout patterns and colours.
If you can’t find what you like on store shelves, designing your own throw pillows is the best solution. If you’re at all handy with a sewing machine you’ll be able to manage simple squares and rectangles. If not, or if you want details like piping or tassels, check with an upholsterer or seamstress specializing in decor. “I design most of my throw cushions and have them custom-made,” Mimi says. “That way, I can choose exactly the quality, fabric, fill and special detailing like piping that I want. It makes the cushions truly unique, and you can always tell the difference.”