Upholstery Fabrics – Looking Deeper Than Colours And Patterns


With today’s technology upholstery fabrics have come a long way in providing us with more durable fabrics to stand up to the wear and tear of everyday life. Whether you have a house full of kids, pets or neither choosing the right upholstery fabric can ensure you get the most life out of your furniture.

Fabric Content 

This is not an all inclusive list of contents found in upholstery fabrics, these are the basics. Knowing the pros and cons of each will help you select the fabric that’s right for you.

Natural Fibers 

Natural fibers generally feature flat weaves that are ideal for prints. They are softer, and tailor well for upholstered furniture. However, being a natural product they can fade in direct sunlight, and may be susceptible to pilling.

  • Cotton – Made from the cotton plant, this is soft, absorbent and fades easily. Surface treatments and blending with other fibers often atone for these weaknesses.
  • Linen – Made from the flax plant, linens tend to have a lot of hard plant fibers and slubs. Best suited for formal living rooms or adult areas because it soils and wrinkles easily and doesn’t withstand heavy wear. Linen does resist pilling and fading.
  • Wool – Made from animal hair, wool is warm and to some may cause allergic reactions. 100% wool doesn’t pill.
  • Silk – Made from the cocoons of silk worms, silk has strong fibers and a natural sheen, but can be damaged by sunlight. Best used in formal rooms or light use applications.
  • Rayon – Also known as viscose, rayon is made from wood pulp and designed to be shiny like silk. It’s typically blended with other fibers such as cotton, linen or wool. It adds a level of durability and softness. Advantage of rayon is that it is mildew resistant however, it’s not an ideal fabric for sofas that need to stand up to daily wear and tear as rayon is more fragile than other fibers.
  • Leather – This tough material can be gently vacuumed, damp wiped as needed, and cleaned with leather conditioner or saddle soap. If you have animals then go with a distressed leather as scratches won’t show easily. Don’t be fooled with bonded and bicast leather furniture as it will crack and peel as the surface is a plastic coating with the recycled leather (bonded) or split hide (bicast) underneath. If choosing leather then always go with top grain.



Synthetic Fibers 

These fibers are made by extruding chemicals into fiber strands. They are more durable and (in general) more resistant to staining and fading than natural fibers. Synthetic fibers are just as likely to be susceptible to pilling.

  • Acrylic – Very durable and often has a texture similar to wool. It is often blended with other fibers such as linen or wool to keep the fabric cost down. It is incredibly durable, resists wrinkles, stains and fading.
  • Polyester – Very durable and cleanable. Polyester takes vibrant colours well. It is strong and cleanable and stands up well under direct sunlight. Flame and abrasion resistant, it is often blended with natural fibers to soften its feel.
  • Nylon – The most stain resistant and durable fiber. Often used in commercial applications where it will take a beating. Until recently, nylon typically had a high luster but now it is often available with a delustered wool look and feel. Its only drawback is its sensitivity to sunlight.
  • Olefin – Durable, but can be susceptible to pilling if used in high amounts. Olefin is a bulky fiber with a coarse “hand” that does not hold up well to direct sunlight. It is often used to create heavy textured casual fabrics. When loosely woven it requires a latex backing for added strength.
  • Polypropylene – Related to polyester.



Fabric Durability 

As with anything that gets a lot of use, your upholstery fabric will often be the first thing to show signs of wear and age. Most likely, the quality and longevity of the fabric is just as important to you as the construction of the furniture itself. Fortunately there are a number of industry standard tests that are used to provide you with information on whether a fabric will hold up to your requirements.

  • The Wyzenbeek Test – This test rubs either a screen or a piece of cotton against a fabric in a “double rub” motion. The more double rubs the fabric can withstand without yarns breaking, the more durable it is. 25,000 is a good start for light use residential upholstery and 40,000 and up for everyday use.
  • The Pilling Test – This test rubs a fabric in a circular motion, mimicking normal wear. It is then given a rating based on the amount of pilling or fuzzing that appears after the test is complete.
  • Fade Resistance – This is rated on a scale of 1-5, with 1 equaling a high level of fading and 5 equal to little or no fadings. Outdoor fabrics like Sunbrella® are now bringing the outdoors indoors with lots of great patterns and colours available.
  • Thread Count – The number of threads per square inch of fabric. A thread count of 150 is average and up to a thread count of 400 for upholstery fabric will help with the longevity of your furniture.

All in all it comes down to finding the best fabric suited to the area of your home that it will be used in. Now that you’re armed with a bit more knowledge you’ll be able to choose your fabrics wisely!

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