Upholstery Fabric; picking the right material

by Steve Whitt

Picking the right fabric for your chair can be a daunting prospect, given the vast choice available nowadays. For that reason we always recommend that you work with an experienced designer who will give you impartial advice and help you avoid expensive mistakes.

Good things come in threes

The three main considerations are:

1 Brand & reputation
There are numerous manufacturers of upholstery fabric. Some are household names but many will be mostly unknown except to those working in the trade. Much as you might covet a top name brand don’t close your eyes to other options especially if durability and value for money are important.

2 Style and appearance
Remember that any fabric should complement the style of your chair and add to its character. You will also want to be aware of the room size as you don't want to choose an overwhelming pattern for a small space. Make sure the fabric fits the mood of the room too, and coordinates with other soft furnishing. Remember to consider, colour, sheen, and pattern as well as texture to the hand. Work from real fabric samples , not photographs, brochures or screen images.

3 Technical performance
Sometimes this gets overlooked in the domestic environment but it is central to choices for contract work such as hotel and restaurant seating.
Fundamentally you should consider:
  • Durability – wear resistance (ask about the Martindale rub test) and colour fastness
  • Maintenance – cleaning or protection against stains and dirt
  • Fire safety – some materials cannot meet UK fire safety rules whilst others need special treatment or construction.

Materials you might consider

  1. Consider leather, because - although expensive - it can be a wonderfully rugged choice. It also is inherently fire safe. very forgiving, easy to clean.This tough material develops more character and softness with age.
  2. Think long and hard before going with vinyl. It's usually tough and easy to wipe off, but may not feel good against skin - it will feel cold in cool rooms and stick to skin in warm rooms. Cheap vinyl can split. If you can afford leather avoid synthetic substitutes.
  3. Nylon: Choose for its resilient, long-lasting properties, and because any stains usually can be removed. For formal rooms, nylon velvet is a surprisingly durable option. Nylon is usually blended with other fibres to make it one of the toughest upholstery fabrics. Nylon is very resilient; in a blend, it helps eliminate the crushing of napped fabrics such as velvet. It does tend to fade and pill.
  4. Cotton is a good choice: It is absorbent, so feels cool in warm climates and it's just as comfortable in colder climates. Heavier-weight cottons such as canvas and denim wear well. It is durable, easy to clean. This natural material provides good resistance to wear, fading and pilling, but is less resistant to soiling and wrinkling.
  5. Linen: This tough fabric wrinkles easily and tends to feel stiff. It's costly and needs care when cleaned to keep its shape and colour. This fabric is best suited for formal living rooms or adult areas because it soils and wrinkles easily. While it won't withstand heavy wear, linen does resist pilling and fading.
  6. Wool is warm in the summer and cool in the winter. Wool and wool blends offer good resistance to pilling, fading, wrinkling, and soil. Wool also needs no fire protection treatment. But it can be a target for moths. Depending on tightness of weave it will repel liquid spills.
  7. Acrylic blends are washable and resilient minimising shrinkage. Acrylic can create a woolly appearance without the moth problems; however, pure acrylics tend to pill.
  8. Polyester is strong, resistant to wrinkles and it neither stretches nor shrinks. It can pill, but. Is much better used in blends with other fibres.
  9. Cotton blends: Polyester-cotton blends combine the advantages of both of these fabrics These are sturdy, family-friendly materials. For everyday use, it’s a good idea to apply a stain-resistant finish.
  10. Silk: This fabric is only suitable for formal areas with light usage – looks great though!. Must be professionally cleaned if soiled. Don’t sit on it!
  11. Microfibres. This synthetic material comes in various forms and can look like suede. It is not cheap but claims impressive “stay-clean” properties that avoid the use of chemical cleaners.
  12. Acetates: Often sold as imitation silk, acetate resists mildew, pilling and shrinking. On the other hand, it offers only fair resistance to soil and wrinkle and fade in the sun. Not a good choice for furniture you will use everyday
  13. Acrylic: Originally developed to imitate wool, acrylic resists wrinkling, soiling and fading. Low-quality acrylic may tend to pill excessively in high-wear situations. Better-quality acrylics are now available.

Many fabrics use a clever combination of fibres to achieve the best combination of aesthetic appeal, performance and economy. The trick is to read the details on the fabric card attached to the swatch and to make your decision accordingly.

If in doubt visit the Occasional Chair Gallery and talk to us for expert advice.