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The masters at work

We take a look inside the sofa maker Poltrona Frau's factory.

From Poltrona Frau's sleek showroom on Abu Dhabi Corniche to its factory in the sleepy Italian town of Tolentino, it's a long way. Not only in kilometres but also in style. But by making that journey I was truly able to grasp the skill and passion that goes into making some of the world's finest furniture, and why their Chester two-seat sofa costs about Dh49,000. Inside the factory I'm eager to see the production floor but my hosts guide me towards the "leather lab" and a fast-track education in the difference between very good leather and exceptional leather, from the company's head of research.

Research? It quickly emerges that not only is Poltrona Frau picky about its leather (it buys skins only from European cattle - South America's famous hides having thicker sub-layers and more surface irregularities, it seems) it is never satisfied that good is good enough. The research team is constantly extending the hides' ability to absorb colour, withstand scratching and remain impermeable to moisture and stains - all the while re-examining the tanning and dyeing processes in search of greater softness, more character and greater elasticity.

This pernickety attention to detail means that before a skin even gets into the same room as a furniture frame it will have gone through 21 production processes (the norm for good quality leather is about 10). My head swimming with 101 things I never knew about leather, we head to the vast production area. On one side is the car interiors workshop, with bits of Ferrari dashboard in varying stages of completion and, amongst them, the prototypes of the seats Poltrona Frau makes for Etihad's First Class cabins.

Elsewhere, skins are pulled from their storage rails for another exam: stretching them over a frame, workers inspect them by hand and eye, spotting minute flaws and circling them with an orange marker to ensure that the pattern-cutters avoid them. There's a reassuringly old-fashioned cutting table, where the more specialised skins are cut by hand and, next to it, a laser-cutter. On the sofa-building line a series of classic Chester buttoned sofas is in the works. Jute webbing is attached to the seasoned beechwood frames and interwoven to form the base for the springs. Eight-way steel springs are attached one by one and hand-tightened with jute cord, the tension varying according to the positioning. There's no measuring; it's all done by hand and eye - a skill that takes years to perfect.

Next the seat springs are covered with a cloth of rubberised horsehair for rigidity, and the whole structure is padded with vegetable horsehair. The cut leather, which by now has been stitched together (mainly by hand), is stretched over the padded sofa and the highly precise capitonné (buttoning) work begins, the buttons hand-sewn in, and the leather folded in perfectly symmetrical pleats into the depressions they make. Again, no measuring. Even more impressive is the pleating of the leather on the front of the armrests - hundreds of tiny knife-edged pleats, every one of them millimetre-perfect.

I'm in awe at the craftsman's precision; he seems almost nonchalant, his years of practice making the job look impossibly easy.

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