The Ultimate Guide to Upholstery

When it comes to upholstery, money doesn't necessarily buy longevity. A precious silk lampas may be extremely fragile, while a pedestrian nylon is all but indestructible. Learn the differences among fabrics and important terms to make the best choice for your furnishing.


Brocade is a rather fancy fabric -- often floral -- that mimics embroidery. It must be tightly woven for upholstery applications, and even then is not suitable for constant use because of its tendency to abrade and snag.


Chenille features lofty clipped yarns that give this casual fabric a plush, inviting texture. Most commonly crafted of cotton or cotton blends, chenille can feature simple patterns woven of the fabric's pile. Chenille upholstery is sturdy, but it will stretch and sag if not backed.


Chintz is a glossy cotton fabric, solid or patterned, that originated in India. The British were mad for chintz, and it's closely associated with their exuberant floral patterns. Chintz is highly suitable for upholstery and slipcovers because of its sturdy resin finish.


Cotton can be woven into rustic homespun, tough denim, or silky chintz. Absorbent cotton accepts brilliant dye and resists sun damage. Comfortable, durable, cleanable, and economical, cotton is a great upholstery choice for furniture used daily.


Crewel is a wool yarn embroidery that is typically stitched on a coarse cotton or linen ground. Traditional motifs include flowers, vines, and birds. Although English in origin, centuries of Indian production have influenced designs. The large-scale patterns work best on flat applications.


Damask is a classic upholstery choice that features large traditional motifs in matte weaves against lustrous grounds. Because patterns are woven, damasks are reversible. Originally of silk, today's more durable damasks are often crafted of rayon, cotton, or blends.

Flame Stitch

Flame stitch is a bargello embroidery of long vertical stitches that create a zigzag pattern. Traditionally crafted of wool yarn on canvas, the motif may also be woven or printed. Flame stitch veers from traditional to modern with changes in color and scale.


Gingham is a cotton or cotton-blend plain-woven fabric with a checkerboard pattern, most commonly in blue, red, or yellow on a light ground. Casual gingham looks at home in country-style rooms and mixes well with floral prints.

Indoor/Outdoor Fabric

Indoor/outdoor fabric has evolved beyond stiff awning stripes -- even into sumptuous chenille and velvet weaves. Acrylic all-environment fabrics resist stains and fading, and stand up to bleach. No wonder these tough textiles have migrated from patio to family room.


Linen is elegant but not pretentious. The oldest known fabric, it is made from flax. Although linen bath-dyes beautifully, the dense fibers print unevenly, so patterns are often artfully distressed. It is durable but weakens in the sun. Synthetic blends lessen wrinkling.


Matelasse is a double-woven fabric that features a puckered surface and the appearance of quilting where the two layers are interwoven. Popular for bedding, it also makes striking upholstery and slipcovers.


Microsuede is a synthetic nonwoven fabric formed from miniscule fibers. While it mimics supple suede, microsuede is highly colorfast and resistant to stains and odors. Durable and affordable microsuede is a family-friendly upholstery choice.


Mohair is a wool velvet woven from the hair of the angora goat. It's lustrous tooth is distinctive and rich. A wool fiber, pricey mohair is durable. But like other velvets, it will develop a crushed patina that some consider beautiful but others find shabby.


Moire fabric has a subtle wavelike pattern, similar to wood grain, that is created by pressing the fabric though heated rollers. Moire is usually made of ribbed silk or satin, but it can also be a printed motif. This dressy fabric is usually reserved for formal rooms.


Silk is synonymous with luxury. It can be crafted into textiles as different as burlap, brocade, and velvet. Silk doesn't stand up to abrasion, ultraviolet light, or moisture, so it's best used for furniture used only occasionally. Synthetic silks are better choices for pieces used daily.


Toile features vignettes of rural life, pastoral scenes, or historical events, usually printed in one or two colors on plain-woven cotton or sometimes silk or linen. Toile's popularity has surged because of its relaxed yet sophisticated romantic appeal.


Velvet is known for its indulgent hand, created by clipping the surface of looped, densely packed woven fibers. It is made of silk, cotton, rayon, linen, or wool. Silk velvet is luxurious but fragile, while cotton is less formal but sturdier. Velvet's nap will crush under heavy use.


Wool is perhaps the most versatile natural fiber, and its personality varies with texture and pattern. Wool's naturally curly fibers create loft and resiliency. Cleanable and resistant to abrasions, wool upholstery retains its beauty for many years.

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