How to Choose the Right Upholstery Fabric
Find out how to pick the right type of fabric for your furniture and keep it looking great
Shape, size and style are all important things to consider when selecting a piece of upholstered furniture, but picking the right fabric might be the most important decision of all. Not only do you have to find a fabric that looks great, but you also need to consider how it feels, wears and cleans so that it matches your lifestyle. With so many options out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Let this guide to upholstery fabric help you narrow down your choices.
Types of Upholstery Fabrics
Upholstery fabric can be made from a variety of materials — natural, man-made or a combination of the two. Each material has its pros and cons, so it’s important to compare them to get the right fabric for your look and lifestyle.
Cotton. Cotton is soft and durable, but it’s also susceptible to wrinkling and can be easily soiled. It’s a common choice for slipcovers, since most cotton can be cleaned with soap and water. If exposed to direct sunlight, it may begin to fade.
Linen. Linen is made from the flax plant. It’s a good upholstery fabric for both casual and formal spaces. It naturally resists pilling and soiling, but it can wrinkle easily. Some linen slipcovers can be dry-cleaned or even washed.
Beth Bourque Design Studio, original photo on Houzz
Synthetics. Synthetic (or man-made) fibers such as polyester are more resistant to fading and staining than natural fibers. Many upholstery fabrics blend natural and synthetic fibers to offer the best of both worlds. For example, a cotton-polyester blend has the soft feel of cotton but with greater resistance to fading and wrinkling. One downside of blended fabrics is that they may pill. (The manufacturer should note if a fabric is more prone to pilling.) There are many different synthetic fibers, but the following three are the ones most commonly found in upholstery fabrics.
Acrylic is lightweight and soft. It also resists wear, wrinkling and fading. This is a great choice for furniture in bright sunlight or near a window. (Outdoor fabrics such as Sunbrella are typically acrylic.) Some acrylic fabrics are washable, while others require special cleaning.
MAS Design, original photo on Houzz
Nylon, one of the strongest fibers you can find, is incredibly durable. Manufacturers might combine a delicate fabric like velvet with nylon to help prevent the nap (the raised surface) from getting crushed. Its big downside is that it’s sensitive to light and usually needs to be cleaned with solvent-based cleaners.
Polyester is strong and durable and is commonly blended with other fibers to reduce fading (it stands up well to sunlight), provide wrinkle resistance and add resilience to napped fabrics. Some polyester fabrics can be washed with soap and water, while others may need a solvent-based cleaner.
Crypton, original photo on Houzz
Stain-resistant fabrics. There are many fabrics that are stain- resistant, either because they’re made from a fiber that inherently repels moisture and stains or because they have a treatment applied to them. Crypton and Sunbrella are common fabric brands that are resistant to stains.
Slipcovers can be made with either washable or dry-cleanable fabrics. They have a slightly more casual look, which some people might not want, but you should strongly consider going with a slipcover if you have young children or you’re choosing a white fabric. It’s just too hard to keep white clean, no matter how hard you try.
Axis Mundi, original photo on Houzz
Every time someone sits down on a piece of furniture, dirt gets rubbed into the fabric. To keep the fabric from wearing out, vacuum your upholstered furniture at least monthly. When you purchase a new piece, make sure to read the care instructions, including whether you can clean the fabric with water. If you need to use a solvent upholstery cleaner instead, pick some up so you’ll have it on hand when something spills. There are also companies that specialize in cleaning upholstery.
You’ll frequently see the term double rubs when researching upholstery fabric. This refers to a test of a fabric’s durability. The double-rub test is done with a back-and-forth motion, similar to the wear that occurs when someone sits down and gets up again. The number of double rubs before the fabric shows visible wear provides the rating. The higher the number of double rubs, the more durable the fabric.
Frequently used upholstered furniture should have fabric with a heavy-duty rating (more than 15,000 double rubs). Less frequently used pieces, like occasional chairs or a sofa in a formal room, should be fine with medium (9,000 to 15,000 double rubs) or light (3,000 to 9,000 double rubs) ratings.
Brad Ramsey Interiors, original photo on Houzz
Many fabrics may look great, be stain-resistant and have the durability you need but then fail on the most important test: texture. Nobody likes a piece of scratchy furniture. Your hands may not pick up on the roughness, so when you’re looking at fabrics, make sure to touch them to your face or arm. This is especially important for a piece you’re likely to lounge on, such as a sofa in front of a television.