What is upholstery fabric?
With so many kinds of fabric available, it can be hard to navigate all the different names and types. In this post we'll tell you everything you need to know about upholstery fabric.
Upholstery fabric is the padded covering for a piece of furniture. The term 'upholstery' refers to the webbing, springs and stuffing used to make chairs, sofas and other cushioned pieces.
So, in short, upholstery fabric is the material used to cover an item of soft furniture. The fabric hides the stuffing and holds it all in place, as well as creating a decorative finish.
Soft furnishings versus upholstery fabric
It's not to be confused with 'soft furnishings', which in interior design speak usually refers to cushions and curtains. Upholstered furniture has featured in homes for centuries, and remains popular today.
The craft has been a respected skill since the Middle Ages and a good upholsterer can transform a piece of furniture. Upholstered furniture offers comfort and ease, as well as the chance to alter the look of your room.
Re-upholstering a chair or sofa can be an expensive business so it's essential to choose the right fabric.
In this guide to upholstery fabric, we'll show you the different types of material you can use to cover furniture, and things to consider when choosing between upholstery fabrics.
What's different about upholstery fabric?
The thing about upholstery fabric is that it needs to be tough. Think of the number of times someone will sit on that chair, or drape themselves across the sofa in front of the TV. Think of the small children clambering over the arms of your chairs and having pillow fights with the cushions. And think of the muddy dog who wants a cosy corner to curl up in after a long walk.
To withstand the rigours of daily life, upholstery fabric is heavyweight and uses a pile or flat weave. It usually has woven patterns rather than dyed-in patterns.
Thick upholstery fabrics aren't suitable for making clothing or bedding as they aren't supple or soft enough. You can tell the durability of a fabric by looking at the 'double rub' rating.
This measurement replicates the wear and tear of someone sitting on a piece of furniture by dragging a mechanical arm back and forth over the fabric surface. The number given indicates how many rubs the fabric withstood before getting marked or damaged. The higher the 'double rub' the more durable the material.
Re-vamping the upholstery fabric on an old but much-loved piece of furniture not only prolongs the item's life, it can also instantly refresh your space. On large pieces, like a sofa, the choice of furniture fabric can guide the rest of the room's decor.
Making a new set of loose covers or covering a chair or headboard is something most people who are experienced with sewing can manage. It can be a fun, satisfying project to take on.
Just make sure you get the fabric and measurements right from the start to avoid costly mistakes.
Sometimes a chair or sofa needs more drastic action. To make a piece of old furniture much more comfortable, try replacing the upholstery. Pointy springs and saggy stuffing will be turned into plump, inviting cushioning. If the furniture needs completely re-upholstering, including replacing the webbing and stuffing, you will probably need help from a professional.
Transform your living room chairs or sofa with just some great new fabric and a little know-how!
Once you've accurately measured the furniture and calculated how much upholstery fabric you'll need, the next thing to consider is what type of material you need.
Read on to find out more.
What are the types of upholstery fabric?
Tough and easy to clean, leather has long been a staple upholstery material for masculine armchairs and luxe sofas. If you choose good quality pigmented leather it will feel soft to the touch.
The downsides to leather upholstery fabric are that it can be hard to repair and uncomfortable in hot weather. Leather is also one of the more expensive options for covering furniture.
Plush, soft and welcoming, velvet makes a great upholstery fabric in the modern home. It tends to come in plain colours rather than patterns, and adds a splash of style to your living room or bedroom.
But some people are wary of velvet for upholstered fabric because it has a reputation for being hard to look after. In fact, it's pretty hardwearing - particularly if it's made from a combination of a natural material like cotton and synthetic fibres.
The pile of velvet fabric can get easily crushed, giving the surface a different texture and feel in places, but this often resolves as the fabric ages.
Velvet fabrics are often treated to make them stain resistant, and can be hoovered and spot cleaned. Specific cleaning tips for stains will depend on which fabrics the velvet has been made from.
If sustainability is important to you, choosing a natural upholstery fabric will be your priority. But you needn't compromise on durability and looks! Linen fabric looks beautiful on upholstered furniture and gives a natural charm to your living room. Good quality linen fabric is also tough and highly durable.
Linen can be machine washed and has an inherent stain resistance, making it a sensible choice for high traffic rooms. It also helps regulate your body temperature, which means you'll sit comfortably in all weathers.
Make sure you buy top quality pre-washed linen upholstery fabric to avoid additional shrinkage when washed.
Another natural fabric, cotton is widely used as an upholstery fabric. It's a reasonably priced material and comes in a huge range of prints and colours. Cotton feels soft and comfortable, but can be less durable than some other upholstery fabrics. It's easy to sew, and is a popular option for slipcovers.
Make sure you get heavyweight upholstery cotton rather than lighter fabric if you're looking for an upholstery fabric.
Cotton is not very stain resistant, however and can fade if exposed to strong sun light for extended periods.
Wool is durable, stain and dirt repellant and resistant to pilling. These qualities make it a good upholstery fabric, but it can feel itchy against the skin so may be better in areas without direct contact.
Felted wool is softer because the fibres have been flattened in the felting process.
There are several types of synthetic fabric used in furniture upholstery:
Made from the cellulose extracted from wood, acetate feels like silk but is more practical. Silk is sometimes as an upholstery fabric on low wear items, but acetate is stronger than pure silk. It has a flowy drape and luxurious sheen.
But it isn't very durable and so not a great choice as an upholstery fabric.
Olefin is a man made fiber that's used as an upholstery fabric because it has excellent abrasion resistance and repels mildew. It's useful in damp places, such as basements, and on furniture that gets a lot of wear or outdoor furniture. Olefin, or polypropylene as it's otherwise known, also resists stains and sunlight.
It does, however, get easily soiled and doesn't have a very long life. And if you're trying to avoid synthetic fibres in your home you'll want to avoid this fabric as it's made from tiny plastic pellets.
Commonly used in blends with cotton or other natural materials, polyester can stand up to hard wear. It can be prone to pilling and often doesn't look as classy as other types of material, which may mean it's not the best upholstery fabric.
Often used in outdoor furniture, acrylic is strong and cheap. But it can pill and doesn't always give the finish you might want.
What to look for when choosing upholstery fabric
For heavy use items, like the family sofa, you need a durable fabric that's also easy to clean. Machine washing is simpler and cheaper than dry cleaning, so if stains and dirt are likely to be an issue, take this into account when choosing upholstery fabrics.
Loose or fitted covers?
Fitted upholstered fabric looks sleek and elegant. There are no visible seams or zips, and it gives a polished feel to chairs and sofas.
But if you have young children or pets, loose cover upholstery fabric makes more practical sense. Loose covers can be removed and washed. This is great for dealing with stains and everyday dirt. It's important to check if the fabric has been pre-washed before cleaning as some upholstery material may shrink in the wash.
Upholstery fabric, wrapped up
How much care can you deal with?
To sum up, when choosing an upholstery fabric consider how much wear and tear your furniture has to withstand. Order samples of different materials so you can see how they feel to the touch as well as whether they work with your home decor. The quality will have a big effect on durability. This is easier to see when you can actually touch the fabric.
Decide whether you want natural or synthetic fabrics, and how important easy-care is with your lifestyle.
Do you need something durable and abrasion resistant? Or a fabric that's resistant to stains? Something not prone to fading? Or is the overall look more important?
Consider how your chosen fabric might look in five years' time. Knowing how a fabric ages is really important when using in upholstery where the furniture is a centrepiece in a space.
You need to also factor in how much cleaning and care you can manage. Can you afford to spend out on dry cleaning? If you won't be able to vacuum your sofa regularly or keep your upholstered headboard out of the glare of the sun, then this will impact your choice.
Happy fabric hunting! Hope you find the best fabric for your upholstered furniture project!