Shopping for Upholstery Fabric

When choosing an upholstery fabric, color, pattern, and fabric finish selection can be as important as fabric quality and type. Here are some important points to consider during your purchase.


Point #1: Keep it neutral. Neutral colors and patterns will stay in style longer than trendy prints. You'll be less likely to tire of something that doesn't catch your eye the moment you walk into a room. Neutrals also take the backseat and let your accessories shine. If you do want bold pattern in your upholstered pieces, keep it on the smaller ones.

Point #2: Line up the pattern. Patterned fabric should line up throughout the piece. This is especially important on large pieces such as sofas, where the pattern should be unbroken from top to floor and from side to side. Even though the furniture is made of separate pieces, from a distance it should look as though one piece of fabric drapes the entire piece.

Point #3: Get a swatch. Stores that sell quality upholstered pieces normally allow swatches to be checked out. Whenever possible, keep the swatch for several days so you can live with it and see how it looks in different kinds of light. Some stores may ask for a deposit on the swatch, but they should refund it when you return the fabric. Other stores may allow you to order a memo sample -- a larger swatch that also must be returned.

Point #4: Picture it. Reputable stores show you how a custom-ordered piece will look. If you are shopping at a store where you pick the frame and fabric separately and have the piece custom-made, ask to see a computer image of what the finished piece will look like. The stripe or floral that looks demure on a little swatch may be overpowering on a five-foot-long sofa. If the store cannot show you a picture or computer image, go elsewhere.

Point #5: Quality vs. cost. Fabric cost and grade do not necessarily reflect quality. A lower-cost and lower-grade canvas may be more durable than a more expensive and higher-grade damask because the canvas is cheaper and less complex to produce. The manufacturer may produce more yards of the canvas than the damask, further holding down the cost.

Point #6: Heavyweight vs. lightweight. Heavy fabrics, such as tapestry, canvas (duck and sailcloth), woven wool, and leather, are generally more durable than lightweight fabrics, such as satin, taffeta, chintz, and linen.

Point #7: Thread count. Generally, the higher the thread count (threads per square inch), the more tightly woven the fabric. The exception is when the threads are especially thick. A heavy wool thread cannot be packed as tightly as a fine cotton thread. When comparing thread counts, compare similar fabrics. The fabric with the higher thread count will wear better, and it is more likely to resist dirt and stains. Open weaves allow both dirt and liquids to penetrate into the fibers and through to the cushion below. Tightly woven fabrics can also help keep liquid spills on the surface and make cleanup easier.

Chemical finishes are commonly applied to fabrics and fibers to enhance their durability.

Ask at which point during the manufacturing process the finish is applied, what it repels, and whether the finish is guaranteed (and for what). In addition, find out whether the finish can be reapplied later and whether it affects the cleaning of the fabrics. Make sure you understand how a fabric finish will perform in your home before you buy.

New fabrics, such as microfibers and all-weather fabrics like Sunbrella, are being made for interior environments as well. These fabrics are highly resistant to stains and fading, and may be a good choice for busy families.

See the list on the following page of typical fabric finishes.

  • Antibacterial: Resists bacterial growth, including mold and mildew. This is used mainly on bathroom and outdoor fabrics. Mildew-resistant is a related term.
  • Fireproofing: Makes the fabric less likely to burn.
  • Fire-retardant: Helps the fabric resist igniting and slows burning.
  • Flame-resistant: Aids in resisting ignition. This is worth consideration in homes where people smoke or small children may play with matches.
  • Glazing: Gives a high-gloss finish to fabrics such as chintz.
  • Merceration: Improves the strength and luster of cotton.
  • Sanforized: Limits shrinkage to one percent or less -- important for furniture with slipcovers.
  • Stain-resistant or soil-release: Keeps stains and soil from penetrating the surface. Products each have their own process; check the guarantee, life span, and cleaning instructions of these finishes before applying them to upholstery fabrics.
  • Soil-repellent: Coats the fibers to make it easier to remove dirt.
  • Water-repellent: Helps water bead up on the surface so it will not quickly soak in.
  • Waterproof: Water will not penetrate the surface.

More Information: Buying Upholstered Furniture

More Information: Upholstery Care

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