10 Fun Upholstery Facts and Fabrics
October 25, 2019
Posted by D. A. Burns
Lauren called from Capitol Hill and asked for advice about cleaning up a spill on her living room sofa. Since upholstery fabric can be made from a large variety of fibers and use varied construction methods, we asked if she happened to have any information about the fabric. She said, “The tag says polyester.” That’s a common enough response; the content label does say polyester, but the content label doesn’t describe the fabric. Questions about the various labels under the furniture cushions come up often enough to be worth a few words of explanation.
First, that content label. It indicates what materials are used between the frame and the fabric. This information is required by a federal law enacted at a time when the padding inside a piece of furniture could be anything from corn husks to horsehair. Since polyester fiber works well for use in furniture and is not expensive, today most content tags will say polyester.
Cleaning Code Label
A tag that might be helpful in the event of a spill is a cleaning code tag. These tags don’t tell you what fibers are used or how to clean the upholstery fabric. They show if the dyes used are colorfast to spotting and cleaning agents.
- W: Dyes are not affected by water-based spotters/cleaners.
- S: Dyes are not affected by dry solvent-based spotters/cleaners.
- WS: Dyes are not affected by either water or dry solvent-based spotters/cleaners.
- X: Dyes are not stable. Do not use either water or dry solvent-based spotters/cleaners.
A sofa with an "S" code might show some dye movement from a water-based spill. A chair with a W/S will likely be a little easier to care for.
Cleaning code tags are only required in some states, so you’re in the majority if your furniture doesn’t have one. If you need cleaning recommendations the first stop is the manufacturer. Information contained in purchase paperwork will either contain cleaning tips or enable you to get that information from the retailer or the factory. If you received a fabric swatch with your furniture it will list the fiber(s) used and percentages of those fibers. With that information we would be able to help as well.
What’s the best upholstery fabric?
When there’s a spill and fabric is damaged by the spill, we’re often asked, “What’s the best fabric to get next time?”
Best for easy clean-up might be a nylon, acrylic or polyester synthetic. These synthetics are a little harder to stain and can be cleaned with water-based cleaning solutions. There will be a more limited number of styles and colors available though, so you may have to compromise on the look in exchange for easier spill cleanup. If your budget has a little more room, wool may be worth consideration. Wool upholstery fabric cleans up well and is wear resistant, so wool would be another good choice for active lifestyle homes. It comes in lots of styles beyond Scandinavian Nubby.
How about a cotton upholstery fabric?
“I’m going to reupholster some furniture in a room that is used a few times a month when we have guests over. The fabric I like is 100% cotton, will this work or should I look for something else?"
It isn’t surprising that you’ve found the look you want in a cotton upholstery fabric. Cotton holds a large share of the upholstery market due to the many colors and styles available. It can easily be printed with the latest colors and patterns and comes at a price lower than woven patterns. It will work as long as you’re aware that it is not resistant to staining from spills. We can treat the fabric with Scotchgard Protector if it hasn’t been treated at the mill.
The fabric I like is 57% rayon, 31% cotton, and 12% polyester. Why did they use these fibers?
A lot of upholstery fabric is blended, as the makers are trying to pick complementary aspects of each fiber. In this case, the rayon may have been chosen as a low-cost replacement for the look and feel of silk. Since rayon is a very weak fiber, the cotton is likely used to help it hold shape, and the polyester gives it an ability to stretch a little without sagging. Any fabric that has high rayon content like this one is designed to look good more than be durable, so we would recommend this furniture stay in a low-use area, and would recommend a Scotchgard Protector treatment as well.
Are there fabrics I should avoid?
Absolutely Yes! Definitely No!
On the avoid side, we’d suggest staying away from high rayon content or ‘dry-solvent cleaning only’ fabrics if you need family-practical furniture. We would also recommend avoiding one of the latest trends, a printed coating applied to make a polyester fabric look like linen. The polyester is fine, but the coating is easily damaged by wear and spot cleaning.
On the anything goes side, you just have to remember that a fabric with an X cleaning code will be the diva of your room. Although being a real eye-catcher with some flair, this fun diva fabric will need to be kept away from chocolate covered fingers.
(Photo courtesy Glitz)
Here are some examples of upholstery fabric that can be striking, elegant and fun.
As a high strength-to-weight fiber, even fairly thin silk fabrics can be made strong enough for use on furniture. It doesn’t have to be shiny; raw silk made into fabric often has “slubs” or bumpy areas for a completely different appearance. Silk is expensive to produce so silk fabrics are correspondingly more expensive.
Today the sheen and feel of silk can be emulated by other fibers. That can be good if you know what you’re buying, as these fabrics should be considerably less expensive. Unfortunately, some retailers are willing to mislead buyers representing rayon or cotton as art silk, bamboo, banana silk, agave silk…or under a variety of brand names.
Chintz (Polished / Glazed Cotton)
To get cotton to shine like silk, manufacturers in the 1700’s started applying a wax or food starch to finished fabric and would then buff it to a shine. Some of the most exclusive European fabric mills still use this method, although today they prefer to use the term ‘polished cotton’ rather than chintz.
U.S. fabric makers are using a thin polymer coating to provide a more durable shine. We see this called "glazed cotton" although we often hear all three terms used interchangeably.
Crewel-work is the craft of embroidering wool through a premade cotton fabric. This needlework has been used as upholstery fabric for hundreds of years and became a bit of a sensation in the 1920’s and again in the 1980’s.
(Traditional Moire vs Woven Moire)
This style of fabric was originally made using silk but today can be made from a variety of base fibers. The "real" – or antique method – is to send woven fabric through rollers that combine heat and pressure to create the random wavy pattern. Moiré made this way is sensitive to scuffs, and water will remove the pattern. Today there are moiré-look fabrics that have the wavy pattern woven in. Not quite as striking but more practical.
Link to one minute video of traditional Moiré production: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=GgGbRimMfXs
Rugs As Upholstery
Rugs, or pieces of rugs, have often been sewn into pillows, and some flat-woven rugs can easily be used as both light-weight rug and heavy-duty upholstery fabric.
More types of rugs are being used to upholster furniture today, and upholstery fabric makers have noticed.
We’re seeing more fabric, made to look like a rug, for use as upholstery fabric.
Custom Printed Fabric
A solid pigment can be added to an existing fabric using a screen, roller, or block printing method. Many times a fabric is used that has a normal dye print, and then the applied pigment is added to get a prominent and striking color, or to add a metallic highlight.
The example shown was originally machine-printed in brown and gray. All of the brighter colors were added in ink using a block-print method.
Hand Painted Fabric
(Photo Courtesy Barn to be Wild and Chair Whimsy)
Hand painted fabric was formerly the domain of affluent people that wanted something very specific from their furniture and could afford to pay an artist to make it happen. Today we see a lot of craftspeople using paint to make an old piece of furniture their artistic canvas.
These fabrics may not be practical for everyone, and many earn a “difficult to clean” label, but they may be just the thing for shaking up a room and making your guests smile.