Fabric choice plays a huge role in the overall look of a piece of furniture. Upholstery fabric is quite particular, and can sometimes be mistaken with other furnishing fabrics. Generally, fabrics for upholstery should be robust and fairly heavyweight. Most upholstery fabrics are woven, a popular non-woven option is felted wool. Fabrics come in a myriad of finishes, and can be plain, patterned in the weave, printed or embroidered.
Aesthetically there is such a wide range of options to choose from, with digital printing allowing complex and intricate images to be printed on fabric. If you prefer a handcrafted print, some luxury fabric houses supply small batch screen printed fabric, and others produce hand printed woodblock patterns for that really special piece. Embroidered fabrics can be very interesting, and there is a huge range of machine and hand embroidered patterns out there. One thing to keep in mind with embroidery is that if the threads are quite long or loosely stitched they could get caught on clothing, so it may not always be the most practical choice.
The colour and pattern of your fabric should always depend on the space the furniture will be sitting in, and remember you can always recover your special sofa if you want to try a slightly more daring fabric option, or move your furniture to a room with a different design scheme at a later date.
The perfect upholstery fabric has a small amount of stretch, to allow the fabric to shape smoothly around the curves of arms, and corners of backs. At the same time however, it is very important that fabric is dimensionally stable and has good shape retention so it will stand up to years of use. When looking for a good quality weave, it would not be too stiff or too open a weave, but somewhere in between. The main types of fabric used in upholstery are linen, hemp, cotton, viscose, polyester and wool. We’ll go into a bit more detail about each of these below.
Linen and Hemp
Linen and Hemp have very comparable qualities when used for upholstery fabrics. Hemp fabric is often slightly heavier, and like linen requires very little water to grow. Hemp is actually one of the oldest fibres used for textiles and it’s excellent for the environment. Both linen and hemp fabrics are woven and are perfect for upholstery. Inherently robust, these plant based fibres tend to have a nice amount of stretch and a tiny ecological footprint.
Cotton or cotton mix weaves are also a great choice for upholstery. Cotton fabrics tend to be very strong and durable, it is for this reason cotton is the primary fibre used in sewing thread. However, cotton does tend to be quite energy heavy in the production process, and the current supply chain is tainted by human rights abuses, so it’s best to check that you’re getting fair trade cotton if cotton is your fibre of choice.
Viscose is a man-made fibre, created from the cellulose of wood-pulp. Viscose drapes very well and is soft and silky, making it popular to mix with natural fibres for upholstery fabrics. Viscose is made from a natural material, but has a fair footprint from the chemical heavy production process. Viscose blends are a great fabric option, and are often more affordable than pure natural fibres.
Polyester is a proper synthetic fibre, made from oil. Most frequently we see fabrics that are polyester blends, the polyester adds strength, and is very helpful with crease resistance. We would not recommend a pure polyester fabric due to the negative environmental implications, and it is very flammable which means it needs to be chemically treated to be used for upholstery. Recycled polyester fabrics are becoming more common, and are a good choice for commercial upholstery, where incredibly durable fabric is needed.
Wool is very versatile, and may be traditionally woven, or woven into a twill, which is a slightly different weaving pattern resulting in the characteristic twill diagonal patterning. Felted woollen fabrics are common too, these are more technically known as stitch-bonded wool. These fabrics don’t have a weave and are lovely to work with because they are easy to fit around all the curves and shapes of any furniture design. Wool is excellent for upholstery, naturally fire resistant, and overall fairly sustainable. Look for wools from New Zealand or Australia to ensure good animal welfare (these can be woven in the UK though).
Pile fabrics are also common to use for upholstery, such as velvet or plush fabrics. One thing to keep in mind if you’re interested in velvet, is that cotton velvet, while absolutely beautiful and soft, marks very easily and the pile can become flattened if mistreated. A velvet with a viscose mix is lower maintenance, and will spring back much more easily.
Leather and suede can also be used for any kind of upholstered furniture and is very sturdy and resilient. Leather was one of the first materials to be used for upholstery and continues to be popular due to its quality and versatility. If a by-product of the meat industry, leather isn’t too bad, but it can’t really be considered the most ethical choice. Leather will however last for years and is a natural product. If you can get your hands on some good quality vintage leather, that would be the ideal natural hide option for upholstery.
The Martindale Rub Test
A good measure to find out how durable an upholstery fabric is, is the Martindale Rub Test. This is an abrasion resistance test which simulates the natural wear of a seat covering. For domestic use, an absolute minimum of 10,000 is needed, fabrics under 10,000 are only really appropriate for scatter cushions or curtains, and won’t last long on an upholstered seat. For general use in the home, we would recommend between 15,000 – 25,000. If you need a particularly robust fabric for children to play on, or to withstand some furry friends it would be worthwhile thinking about something between 25,000 – 30,000. Anything more durable than 30,000 is classified as commercial grade, the sort of thing you would find in restaurants and hotels, and should last for a very long time.
Fabrics sold as upholstery fabric will generally meet the fire resistant requirements for domestic furniture. There are two paths to compliant furniture coverings, the first is to use a match resistant covering fabric, and the second is to use a fabric that is made of 75%natural fibres with a FR interliner under the covering. We always use a wool interliner that is naturally fire resistant, this means that no extra chemicals need to go into our furniture and most fabrics can be used without any extra treatment. Some synthetic fabrics will be treated with FR chemicals to make them match resistant, and FR treatment is a good option to meet the requirements for commercial furniture, but is not needed for domestic pieces.
If you are looking for a simple sustainable fabric, we have recently released a collection of vintage cloth to cover our furniture in. We believe this is the most sustainable fabric option available, it is robust and full of interesting moments; dye marks and traces of its past life. Our vintage cloth is salvaged linen and hemp cloth, which is then naturally hand dyed in small batches. It is produced just minutes from our Cotswold workshop, and is the perfect choice for tasteful, eco-friendly furniture.
Favourite fabrics from the workshop
If you’re a bit stuck and don’t know where to start, we’ve rounded up our upholsterers’ favourite fabrics. The most interesting of which is a dog or dinosaur print. Other options were a leopard print, kilim print linen, a simple striped linen, a woollen tweed check, a brightly coloured herringbone wool twill, a deep blue corduroy, a plain coloured felted wool, or a geometric patterned woven tapestry.
We hope you’ve learnt a lot about upholstery fabrics, and this can help you choose the perfect fabric for your next piece of furniture.