How to Pick the Best Upholstery Fabric for Furniture
When choosing upholstery, you should be aware of its durability, cleanability, and resistance to soil and fading. Use our guide to upholstery fabrics to find the right material for your project.
Upholstered furniture receives varying degrees of use depending on the type of piece and where it's located. No matter how upholstery is used in your home, it's important that the fabric stands up well to its usual level of use. For example, sofas, chairs, and ottomans receiving only moderate amounts of wear, such as those in bedrooms or more formal spaces, will do fine with a less durable fabric. However, pieces subjected to daily heavy wear, like the family room sofa, need to be covered in tough, durable, tightly woven fabrics to protect against stains and damage.
When purchasing upholstery fabric or upholstered furniture, be aware that the higher the thread count, the more tightly woven the fabric is and the better it will wear. Thread count refers to the number of threads per square inch of fabric. Use this guide to natural and synthetic materials to help you find the best upholstery fabric for your next furniture project.
Natural Upholstery Fabric Types
Natural upholstery fabrics refer to those woven from materials found in nature. This includes plant fibers and materials derived from animal products. Here are some of the most common natural fabrics used on upholstered furniture.
Cotton: This natural fiber provides good resistance to wear, fading, and pilling. It is less resistant to soil, wrinkling, and fire. Surface treatments and blending with other fibers often atone for these weaknesses. Durability and use depend on the weave and finish. Damask weaves are formal; canvas (duck and sailcloth) is more casual and more durable.
Cotton Blend: Depending on the weave, cotton blends can be sturdy, family-friendly fabrics. A stain-resistant finish, such as Scotchgard Fabric and Upholstery Protector ($10, The Home Depot) should be applied for everyday use.
Leather: This tough material can be gently vacuumed, damp-wiped as needed, and cleaned with leather conditioner or saddle soap.
Linen: Linen is best suited for formal living rooms or adult areas because it soils and wrinkles easily. It also won't withstand heavy wear. However, linen does resist pilling and fading. Soiled linen upholstery should be professionally cleaned to avoid shrinkage.
Silk: This delicate fabric is only suitable for adult areas, such as formal living rooms. It must be professionally cleaned if soiled.
Vinyl: Easy-care and less expensive than leather, vinyl fabrics are ideal for busy living and dining rooms. Durability depends on quality.
Wool: Sturdy and durable, wool and wool blends offer good resistance to pilling, fading, wrinkling, and soil. Generally, wool is blended with a synthetic fiber to make it easier to clean and to reduce the possibility of felting the fibers (causing them to bond together until they resemble felt). Blends can be spot-cleaned when necessary.
Synthetic Upholstery Fabric Types
Synthetic fabrics are man-made materials designed using chemical processes. They are typically more durable and less expensive than natural upholstery fabrics.
Acetate: Developed as imitation silk, acetate can withstand mildew, pilling, and shrinking. However, it offers only fair resistance to soil and tends to wear, wrinkle, and fade in the sun. It's not a good choice for furniture that will get tough everyday use.
Acrylic: This synthetic fiber was developed as imitation wool. It resists wear, wrinkling, soiling, and fading. Low-quality acrylic may pill excessively in areas that receive high degrees of abrasion. High-quality acrylics are manufactured to pill significantly less.
Microfiber: Made from polyester, this popular upholstery fabric has a velvet-like texture but is much more durable. It resists water, stains, and fading, so it's great for high-use living areas.
Nylon: Rarely used alone, nylon is usually blended with other fibers to make it one of the strongest upholstery fabrics. Nylon is very resilient; in a blend, it helps eliminate the crushing of napped fabrics such as velvet. It doesn't readily soil or wrinkle, but it does tend to fade and pill.
Olefin: This is a good choice for furniture that will receive heavy wear. It's highly resistant to stains, mildew, abrasion, and sunlight, so it can be used both indoors and out.
Polyester: Rarely used alone in upholstery, polyester is blended with other fibers to add wrinkle resistance, eliminate crushing of napped fabrics, and reduce fading. When blended with wool, polyester aggravates pilling problems.
Rayon: Developed as an alternative to silk, linen, and cotton, rayon is durable but it does wrinkle. However, recent developments have made high-quality rayon very practical as a family-friendly upholstery fabric.
Recovering old furniture with new fabric can completely transform the look and functionality of the piece. While reupholstering an item yourself can save you hundreds of dollars, the process can be a little tricky. If you're considering DIY reupholstery, it might be helpful to familiarize yourself with some common upholstery terms first. You should also check that the piece's structure is in good shape before you begin. Be sure to choose a fabric that's easy to work with and appropriate for the piece's level of use. When you're ready to reupholster, remove the old fabric and use it as a guide for the size and shape of the new fabric pieces.