Choosing the Right Fabric for Your Project

Upholstery fabric samples

Selecting fabric is one of the most fun aspects of upholstery, allowing you to express your creativity and create a piece that will look great in your home or business. However, there’s more to this process than just picking whatever catches your eye. To choose the right fabric for your upholstery project, keep the following information in mind.

Fabric Contents

Understanding the benefits and drawbacks of different fabric contents will make it easier to choose the right fabric for your project.

Natural Fibers

Natural fibers tend to have flat weaves, which work well for prints and are softer than synthetic alternatives. They are also ideal for tailoring upholstered furniture. One drawback is that, as natural products, they may be prone to fabric pilling and fading in direct sunlight.

Natural fibers include:

  • Linen: Linen comes from the flax plant. It generally features many hard plant fibers and slubs, or natural irregularities.
  • Cotton: Cotton comes from the cotton plant and is soft, absorptive, and highly susceptible to fading.
  • Wool: Wool is made from animal hair and known for the warmth it provides. Upholsterers do not often use wool.
  • Silk: Silk fibers are strong and naturally shiny, but too much sun exposure can damage them. Silk is created using silk worm cocoons.
  • Rayon: Rayon has the shininess of silk, but is made from wood pulp. You may also know rayon as viscose.

Synthetic Fibers

Man-made using an extrusion process that turns chemicals into fiber strands, synthetic fibers tend to be more stain-resistant, fade-resistant, and durable than natural fibers. However, fabric pilling is still a danger with synthetic fiber.

Synthetic fibers include:

  • Polyester: Polyester is highly durable and easy to clean.
  • Nyon: Nylon is stain-resistant and durable.
  • Acrylic: The texture of acrylic is similar to that of wool. Acrylic is highly durable.
  • Olefin: Olefin is durable but shouldn’t be used in large amounts, as that increases chances of pilling.
  • Polypropylene: Polypropylene is similar to polyester.

Upholstery fabric samples

Fabric Types

Fabric type is determined by how the yarn is turned into fabric. Options include:

  • Knit: Think of a sweater. Knit fabrics aren’t generally used in upholstery, although fabric may be attached to a knit backing to stabilize it.
  • Woven: Looms are used to weave fabric together, and can make both complex and simple designs.
  • Nonwoven: Nonwoven fibers may appear to be woven, but are actually tangled together in an irregular pattern (think of felt), after which they may be attached to a knit backing for added stability.
  • Velvet: Weaving two swaths of fabric face-to-face on a loom and then cutting the fabrics apart creates velvet’s characteristic softness.

Considerations for Fabric Content and Type

Keep the following considerations in mind when choosing the right fabric content and type for your project:

  • Allergies: If someone in your family is allergic to certain fibers, make sure the fabric you choose does not contain them. You may also want to choose microfiber or a similar fabric for certain allergies, as it doesn’t attract lint or dust.
  • Fade resistance: If your upholstered furniture will be located in a room that gets a lot of sunlight, be sure to choose a fade-resistant fabric.
  • Mildew resistance: Anyone who lives in a very humid climate should choose mildew-resistant fabric.
  • Pets: Families with pets should avoid using silk and other delicate options, as well as highly textured fabric. Instead, look for pet-friendly fabrics.
  • Durability: For furniture that will see heavy use, choose tightly woven, durable fabrics. Printed fabrics do not hold up as well as fabrics that have woven designs.
  • Environmental friendliness: To choose an eco-friendly fabric, consider whether your fabric is sustainable (the resources used to make the fibers are rapidly renewable), organic (fibers are grown without any pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or chemical fertilizers), or recycled (fibers are made from waste and waste byproducts).
Fabric samples with different patterns

Pattern Types

Choosing a pattern can be one of the most exciting parts of fabric selection. You have a vast array of patterns to choose from, but popular choices include the following:

  • Body cloths are solid colors or textures and tend to work well for larger pieces of furniture.
  • Florals are patterns that include flowers and, sometimes, leaves.
  • Paisleys are ornate designs that have an oriental teardrop motif.
  • Geometrics incorporate geometric shapes, such as squares, circles, triangles, and ovals.
  • Stripes feature bands or lines that run vertically or horizontally across the fabric.
  • Plaids consist of stripes that run both horizontally and vertically, so that they intersect each other.
  • Animal patterns mimic the skin patterns of different animals, such as zebras, snakes, crocodiles, and leopards.
  • Ethnic patterns integrate ethnic cultural motifs, including Oriental, Native American, Indian, and African designs.
  • Prints are designs that are printed onto woven fabric, meaning that color and pattern options are limitless.

Scale

Before choosing a pattern for your fabric, you need to consider the size of the furniture you are upholstering. A general best practice is to use body cloths for couches and sectionals and large-scale patterns for chairs and pillows. Stripes and smaller-scale patterns work well for secondary pieces. Keep in mind that small pieces won’t have enough surface area to showcase large patterns, and that small, intricate patterns may look overwhelming on large pieces of furniture.

Style

Be sure to match the style of the fabric with the style of the furniture. For example, you wouldn’t pair a very modern fabric with a very traditional chair. You’ll also want to make sure that the style of the upholstery goes with the rest of the room.

Buttons and Curves

If the furniture you are upholstering has buttons, channels, tufts, or curves, they may distort the fabric pattern. Curves can be particularly difficult for the straight lines in plaid and striped patterns. Although most distortions are subtle and won’t compromise the appearance of your furniture, it’s best to discuss any challenges that the frame might pose with your upholsterer before choosing a fabric.

Chair with buttoned upholstery

Quality Testing

The fabric on some pieces may need to be more durable than others, depending on the type of furniture and frequency of use. In order to test fabric quality and ensure that your fabric will meet your needs, many upholsterers utilize the following tests:

  • The Wyzenbeek test: This test rubs cotton against the fabric in a back-and-forth, or “double rub,” motion until the fabric’s yarns break. The most durable fabrics can handle the most double rubs before reaching their breaking point.
  • The pilling test: The fabric being tested is rubbed against another, standard fabric in a circular motion. It is then rated based on how much pilling or fuzzing has developed after a set number of rubs.
  • Dynamic seam fatigue test: This test stresses the seam sewn between two pieces of fabric using a machine that creates a cyclic pressure. Fabrics pass the test if the seam opening is 3 millimeters or less; otherwise, the upholsterer will need to strengthen the seam during the upholstery process.