The beauty of local manufacturing is the opportunity for so much customisation. Fabric padding is a great way to make your furniture more comfortable and add your own flair, whether it be on a dining chair, headboard, barstool or bench seat. Upholstery fabrics are pretty versatile from soft and delicate to tough and knitted. They do need to be an upholstery grade though as most pieces are likely to get a fair amount of use unless they are put in rooms that aren’t occupied often.
To help you decide whether the fabric you want is durable enough for your desired use, you can take a look at their “rub” test score. All fabrics undergo a test for durability which can be either the Martindale test or the Wyzenbeek test, although Martindale is the international industry standard and predominantly used in New Zealand. This test applies friction to the fabric in a controlled way, and measures how long it takes before the fabric starts to show wear. The higher the rubs or cycles, the more suitable the fabric is for heavy usage.
- Light domestic: 10,000 – 15,000 double rubs/cycles – cushions, accents, occasional and decorative use
- General domestic: 15,000 – 20,000 double rubs/cycles – light general daily use furniture
- Heavy duty: 20,000 – 30,000 double rubs/cycles – main furniture subjected to everyday use – heavy duty domestic use
- Heavy Commercial: 30,000+ heavy duty commercial use
So, what is it that makes fabrics look, feel and behave differently? In the main, fabric is created by weaving threads together. How tightly the threads are woven changes the feel and durability; tighter weaving equals more durability and different weaving methods as well as materials can create different looks and feels. Upholstery fabrics can be made from natural or synthetic fibres or a blend.
Fabrics created from plant or animal products have a luxurious feel and the material is generally very soft and breathable.
Cotton- A popular upholstery fabric often blended with other fibres. It’s relatively inexpensive when compared to other natural fabrics and very versatile, able to be easily dyed in a range of colours. It is also durable, hypoallergenic and can withstand wear, pilling and fading, but can be susceptible to staining and wrinkling.
Linen- Smooth, soft and comfortable, linen is one of the strongest fabrics (approximately 30% stronger than cotton). It is cool, hypoallergenic and washable but due to its looser weave, it is not ideal for sharp pet’s claws and can crease and stain easily making it more suited to low-traffic environments. Because of the laborious process to manufacture linen, it can be quite an expensive fabric.
Wool- This material is soft and warm, highly durable and resistant to stains, wrinkling, fading and pilling. If soiled it is difficult to clean, and dry-cleaning is usually recommended. It can have a scratchy feel and is generally quite expensive.
Silk- A silkworm by-product, silk is limited in availability and costly to produce resulting in a very expensive fabric. It is very soft and cool, making your furniture feel very luxurious but its delicate and fragile, meaning it won’t hold up well with a lot of wear. It also fades and needs professional cleaning if dirtied. Because of this, it’s generally only used in high-end, decorative upholstery that will receive little use.
Leather- Unlike other fabrics leather is not woven threads but instead made from animal hides and is one of the most durable upholstery fabrics. It is able to withstand everyday wear and tear and is resistant to liquid and stains, though it can be prone to scratches. It’s very easy to clean and hypoallergenic, lasts long and develops character and softness as it ages. It’s cold to the touch but absorbs heat and can become sticky and sweaty. Natural leather is expensive and comes in limited colours.
Man-made fabrics mostly have superior durability and stain-resistance to natural fabrics, but are less breathable and soft. Their lower production cost generally makes these fabrics cheaper.
Polyester- With the ability to be made to replicate any texture, polyester can have a range of different feels. It does not absorb moisture and is non-allergenic, durable and strong but can be subject to pilling (forming small balls of fluff on its surface.) Microfiber is a type of polyester made from tightly-woven, ultra-thin fibres, which is the most durable of all upholstery fabrics and is soft, warm, comfortable and reasonably-priced. Polyester fabrics are great for children and pets because of it’s stain-resistance and ease of cleaning.
Acrylic – An imitation of wool, acrylic has good warmth and insulation but without the same breathability as wool. It is resistant to wear, wrinkling, soiling and fading. Acrylic is sun-safe and mostly popular for outdoor furniture upholstery. Sunbrella is a well-known brand of acrylic based performance fabrics, widely used in outdoor furniture.
Faux leather- Vinyl (PVC) or polyurethane (PU) are both significantly cheaper alternatives to leather, which are made from chemicals rather than animal products. While durable, faux leather can crack and peel over time especially from sunlight exposure and won’t last as long as genuine leather. PU is more breathable than PVC and is closer to the look of real leather, but PVC is more versatile.
Rayon- Made to imitate silk, cotton and linen, rayon is a lightweight, breathable material, often known as viscose. While it is soft and holds dye well, it’s not usually used for upholstery on its own as it is not as durable as other synthetic fabrics. It is susceptible to wrinkling, fading, moisture and scratches.
Olefin- A tough material, resistant to stains and easy to clean, generally used in combination with other materials for upholstery and excellent for outdoor furniture.
Nylon- Another durable synthetic material, rarely used alone but often present in natural/synthetic blends. Nylon doesn’t soil or wrinkle but can fade and pill.
Fabrics that are made with a pile or a nap, consist of threads that stand upright, causing a raised fuzzy surface. These can be made using natural or synthetic fibres but their fabric construction makes them quite different. Pile fabrics are named because of the way they’re made not after the material.
Velvet- The unique weave of velvet fabric creates a soft, plush texture. It takes to dye really well so there is a wide colour variety with velvet and it does not pill. Depending on the fibres used, velvet generally has a tight weave meaning it is highly durable and more expensive than other fabrics. On the downside, it does tend to picks up pet hair and is difficult to clean. Velvet made from natural fibres is softer than velvet made from synthetic fibres.
Chenille- Similar to velvet, with a pill or nap, chenille is a yarn often made from cotton, olefin and rayon. It’s very durable, easy to clean, soft and tightly woven. Its more versatile than velvet as it can have a smooth or textured surface (often ropey) but it’s not quite as plush. As we’ve mentioned, some fabrics are more often used in combination with other fabrics than by themselves. A lot of upholstery fabrics are blends of both natural and synthetic fibres so they combine the softness and breathability of natural fabrics with the durability and affordability of synthetic.
When deciding on a fabric for upholstering, the visual aspect is important because all fabric types have quite distinct looks which may or may not fit in with your particular style, but don’t forget the practical side. Consider things such as, how much use the furniture will get, your lifestyle, pets, kids and allergies. This will affect what you’ll want in terms of durability, cleaning ability, colour, style and pattern and the summaries of the different materials above, should give you a good idea of what is best. In a lot of cases, a blend can give you just what you need, but fabrics like polyester or leather work great on their own too. As far as colours and patterns go, your options are pretty much endless. Keep in mind that a material like leather will be available in less colour variety than something like velvet. If you have pets, a good idea is to choose a fabric colour that is similar to your animals’ hair and patterned fabrics which can help hide pet hair.
Are you ready to choose a fabric for your Coastwood product? Find out the options we offer with our Coastwood Furniture Fabric Guide.