I love fabric. I love the immense range of patterns, textures and colours, and getting to play with different combinations. Most people aren’t like this and instead find the number of options overwhelming and confusing. Knowing where to start and how to select the right one can be daunting, so we are going to bring some clarity and insight to this world.
Obviously, when you start looking at fabrics you know what they are going on, or sewn into; i.e. a sofa vs. drapes. Upholstery requires heavier-weight fabric compared to drapes and we will stick to explaining upholstery fabrics here. You also need to consider how much use the sofa or chair will get, and who will be using it. Kids are harder on furniture than adults generally. What sort of style you have will help narrow down your selections: a funky geometric print will not work in a formal, traditional space.
Fiber content is very important. Natural fibers, such as cotton, are durable, very absorbent (resist static), strong, resists pilling, and very versatile, but will stain, burn and wrinkle easily, and are not the best in sunlight. Synthetics, such as polyester, nylon, rayon, and acrylic, can vary. For strength and resiliency (return to original shape), nylon and polyester are great. They are stable and will resist wrinkling, but are poor at resisting static and will pill easily. Rayon can be made to imitate cotton, wool, silk, and linen, however it is not that strong, resilient, or wrinkle resistant. It is best blended with other fibers. Acrylic can look like wool and is soft and warm, but it is also better blended to help its low resistance to abrasion, pilling, and issue with static.
Blending these fibers create fabrics that have better properties than fabrics made with just one type of fabric. Each fiber has its pros and cons so blending them will take better advantage of each of the good properties of the fibers. A polyester and cotton blend is a very common one that creates a fabric that retains its shape, will resist stains and wrinkles, and the cotton will make it more comfortable and with less static. Basically, if you see that the fabric is a blend that usually means you are getting a good mix of all the good attributes of each fiber type.
Not all upholstery fabric samples will say what its resistance to abrasion is on the tag, but when you do see it, it helps you to know how durable the fabric is. There are a couple of different tests that measure it, but the gist of them is how many double-rubs (moving back and forth on a fabric) does it take before the fabric shows signs of wear. Medium duty starts at around 12 000 double rubs and commercial duty starts at 30 000.
How the fabric is made determines how it will wear, too. Look for tighter woven and thicker weaves as these will usually stand up better than a thin, lighter-feeling fabric will. Stretch the fabric on the diagonal to see how much it stretches. If it stretches quite a bit that will give a cushier feel, and depending on the type of fiber used it might not spring back to its original shape after long-term use. You do want some give and stretch to it, though, so compare a few different fabrics against the one you are considering.
Very popular micro-fibers are tightly woven so stains usually don’t get through them, which helps their clean-ability. Sometimes they are sold as being stain-proof, but that is not true-they are still a fabric and will stain if it is left to soak in. They are good as an alternate to leather. On some of them you see each mark from where you have touched or rubbed it (think of how suede is) and not everyone is fine with the mottled effect.
A texture or pattern to the fabric will hide wear well. We usually recommend a tone-on-tone pattern on large-scale pieces (like a sofa) as it is easier to work with later on, will not date as quickly, and you generally won’t get tired of it as soon as you would if it was a pattern with a few different colours. Keeping the colour neutral will also help make it easier to change your accent colours of accessories or your paint colours later on. You can add the punches of colour with your toss cushions or bring in a different pattern and colour on an armchair. If you want your furniture to be the focal point in your room, then go for bolder colours or patterns that will stand out more.
Remember to figure out your style, how much use the furniture will get, and your colour scheme before you start and that will make the process easier.