yellow upholstery fabric sofa

How To Select The Best Upholstery Fabric For Any Room

Selecting the best upholstery fabric for any room can be a challenge but it’s just as important as a full understanding of what constitutes fine quality upholstery construction and all the options in-between. You may have great taste but choosing either upholstery fabric or leather (which I’ll cover in a separate post) without educating your personal preferences can lead you astray. It’s very easy to choose a great color fabric that has all the durability of a paper bag! You want characteristics not only of durability but also easy-care, good looks AND what looks good in your room design. Read on and find everything you need to know to make inspired choices when shopping for upholstered furniture fabric.

floral pattern upholstery covering on chair
What colors and patterns say “HOME” to you?

What Fabric should your Upholstered furniture wear?

This often produces total Consumer Paralysis due to confusion and indecision. Even if you do manage to make a decision, some unerring instinct will probably cause you to gravitate to the most beautiful, most expensive option at hand BUT…Will it look great and last long enough to justify the high end cost?

You may want to re-think using a pale silk for the family room sofa where three small children, their friends, two dogs and a cat will be playing.

Fortunately, there are perfect and perfectly beautiful upholstery fabric solutions for every budget. 

Speaking of your “real Life” and “real life needs”

Unless you really like shopping for upholstered furniture over and over, because your last purchase didn’t wear well at all, then you will definately want to know the basics of what type of upholstery materials works best for each room and every situation in your home.

*Just in case: head over here if you would like to brush up on the top characteristics of fine upholstery.

READ >> The Ultimate Guide To Selecting High Quality Upholstered Furniture

girl napping on sofa with fabric upholstery covering
Comfort, durability and easy-cleaning are key characteristics for a Lived-On sofa

What are the ways you live on your furniture?

This could be you, but more importantly who shares the upholstered furniture with you?

  • Are you lounging with children and pets?
  • Do you love large parties and entertain frequently?
  • Do you lead a very busy life and have little time for high maintenance anything.
formal living room brocade fabric upholstery coverings and harp
Classic formal style and luxuary

Your home is your castle and your style and preferences lean towards a showcase of curated design and luxury interiors.

By all means, investigate and enjoy sumptuous and/or delicate fabrics without particular regard for longevity as you will undoubtedly take the greatest care with your prized possessions.

In either case, knowledge of various fiber types, blends and weaves and will help guide you toward the solutions that suit the outcome you’re looking for.

brown gold folded upholstery covering fabric
A smart shopper is an informed shopper

what you need to know about Upholstery fabric options

What defines “upholstery Fabric”?

Good upholstery fabric has a tight weave and is thicker and a heavier weight that other textiles that might be used for drapery or pillows.

The main feature to check is durability

  • It should have tensile strength against tearing when pulled or stretched
  • AND resistance to UV rays
  • AND resistance to abrasion and/or pilling.

is there a standard test to measure durability and resistance to abrasion For Upholstery fabric?

Yes. One of the most frequently used tests to check the abrasion of materials is the Martindale double rub test. The fabric to be tested is inserted between cloth or sandpaper discs and rubbed under constant pressure, back and forth, for several hours or even days.

When in doubt, inquire about the rub cycle number:

  • Light duty = 3,000 to 9,000 double rubs. Best for furniture only used occasionally.
  • Medium duty = 9,000 to 15,000 double rubs. Good durability score for versatile though not especially heavy daily use.
  • Heavy duty = 15,000+ double rubs. This count and higher is what you want for the furniture you live on, like the all-occasion-family sofa.

In the no doubt/no fail category:

  • Very high durability and strength = 50,000+. Extra security for especially rambunctious pets, children or “frequent flyer” type parties.
  • Maximum durability and strength = over 100,000 double rub cycles. Recommended for professional use in public spaces.
Linen color waterfall upholstery covering fabric
Linen fabric for upholstery

What types of fibers are used for upholstery Covers?

We all prefer to wear natural fibers like cotton, linen, wool or silk. What your furniture should wear for suitability and durability is a different matter.

With this consideration in mind, here is a brief run-down of natural fiber characteristics to consider for upholstery fabric use. It’s assumed that these fibers would be woven to create a thicker weight than one would want to wear as clothing.

  • Cotton – A natural fiber, said to resist wear, fading, and pilling, but is not resistant to stains and wrinkles. The durability and suitability of cotton depend on its weave and finishing; for instance damask weaves suit formal settings, while canvas, including duck and sailcloth, offers more casual yet more robust options.
  • Linen – While elegant, is more appropriate for formal living rooms or adult spaces due to its tendency to soil and wrinkle easily as well as its poor resistance to heavy wear. It does however, resist pilling and fading. Professional cleaning is recommended for soiled linen to prevent shrinkage.
  • Silk – A delicate option, silk  is suited primarily to adult areas and formal settings. Very suseptable to fading from UV rays. Professional cleaning is necessary in case of soiling.
  • Wool – Known for sturdiness and durability, these fabrics resist pilling, fading, wrinkling, and soil well, but tend to “felt”.
It’s a safe bet that public spaces like hotels will take advantage of the high durability and easy-clean qualities of synthetic blend upholstery fabric

What’s so great about modern synthetic fibers For Upholstery Covers?

Synthetic fibers are manufactured materials designed using various processes. They are typically more durable AND less expensive than natural fibers. Weaving fabric of both synthetic and natural fibers earns the High Performance Label.

Here is a short list of modern synthetic fibers that might be blended with natural fibers or with each other. They are rarely used by themselves for upholstery fabric.

  • Rayon – Developed as an alternative to silk, linen, and cotton. It’s durable, practical and family friendly. 
  • Nylon – Super strong, very resilient and doesn’t soil or wrinkle readily. It helps eliminate the crushing of napped fabrics such as velvet.
  • Acrylic – Developed as imitation wool and as, such blends well with wool fibers. It resists wear, wrinkling, stains and fading.
  • Polyester – Wrinkle resistance, eliminates napped fabric crushing and reduces fading.
  • Microfiber – Made from Polyester and has a velvet-like texture but is much more durable. It resists water, stains, and fading. Great for high-use furniture.
  • Olefin / Polypropylene – Best choice for furniture that will receive HEAVY wear and is used most often for outdoor furnishings. It’s highly resistant to stains, mildew, abrasion and sunlight. It’s eco-conscious as it’s made an up-cycled material. Some polypropylene are also cleanable with bleach.
Rich cut damask upholstery covering and drapery
Classic damask weave on cut velvet fabric for formal luxury

What textures are available for woven Upholstery fabric?

You are, of course, familiar with flat weave fabric but there are also wonderful textures to consider adding to your “Big-Picture” mix of interesting textures.

As discussed above, understanding fiber composition of any fabric is important to gauge it’s suitability for your purposes. For more luxurious fabrics, generally it’s the fiber, not the weave itself, that will be a factor in the cost of the finished material.

The following is a short list of exquisite weaves and textures. While you might dismiss these weaves as too Old School for your home design preferences, it’s good to remember that if you learn how to mix the Lux with the Lowly, you’ll look like a genius.

  • Damasks and Brocades – These are flat patterns in a satin weave on a plain-woven ground, using a Jacquard mechanism. Most often they are made from linen, cotton, silk or rayon. and are largely associated with elegantly classic furnishings.
  • Velvet – One of the most loved luxury textures is made on a special velvet loom. It constructs two separate fabrics in tight loops interweaving and facing each other. When the loops are razor cut horizontally, voilá two pieces velvet fabric are born.
  • Chenille – a very durable, damage-resistant and easy-care material. It is soft and thick. Its texture resembles a fine fat corduroy, but fuzzier. Chenille originated in 1780’s France, where artisans developed a technique for weaving a “leno” or cross-weave fabric and then cutting it into strips. Chenille is French for caterpillar, which it resembles .

No surprise: fancier fabrics are more expensive than “everyday” fabric choices

A good example of the “cost amortized over time” equation is Mohair Velvet. The yarn used in weaving the fabric comes from the silky fleece of the Angora goat. The fibers of the Angora goat are proven by government tests to be two and one-half times stronger than wool.

small dog on back of upholstered fabric furniture
High Performance fabric in a neutral texture is both beautiful AND easy-care

high performance fabrics Are available for everyday use and often in luxury weaves too

Synthetic fabrics have improved so much you can’t tell they are made from manufactured materials. They have higher stain resistance than natural fibers and can usually be spot cleaned. This makes them virtually kid/pet proof. As noted above, many are blends of synthetic fibers with natural fibers that are inherently easy to clean too.  The average price per yard is lower than with an all-natural fiber fabric in most cases. You get the easy cleaning properties of synthetics, along with the beauty and better “feel” of a natural fiber.

Forget what you remember about ScotchGard.
It wasn’t that great, wasn’t effective for very long AND proved to be CARCINOGENIC.

the Crypton brand fabrics are in a class by themselves

The new High Performance fabrics are nothing short of miraculous. With some high performance fabrics, the stain resistance is inherent in the fibers themselves, making them very easy to clean.

If you spill a liquid on them, it will just “roll off” and never be absorbed in the first place.

From the Crypton website:

the crypton patented process includes an immersion bath followed by a heat process that seals the technology onto each fiber. crypton stain and moisture protection lasts for the life of the fabric.

Crypton.Com – How Crypton fabrics are made
teal velvet upholstered sofa
With Crypton velvet you can have your cake and eat it with abandon on your luscious sofa

short checklist for upholstery fabric suitability options

  • Consider the suitability of fabric weight (thickness), weave and texture for the intended use. A fabric with texture, versus a smooth finish, is less likely to show dirt, wear and spots. Medium to dark colors are good for the same reason. Lean towards interesting, textured neutrals for your most used furniture. You’ll be able to use colorful rugs, artwork, etc more easily.
  • Durability: understand the natural life of some fibers. Silk for example is very fragile and fades at the mere hint of sunlight. Fabric companies submit their textiles to rigorous testing, including a run through equipment that “double rubs” the fabric thousands of times to rate durability. A rating for home use is roughly 15,000 double rubs while a heavy duty rating would be 20,000+ double rubs.
  • Fabric cost vs. service longevity. Upholstery fabric can range in price from under $50 per yard (some canvases for example), to several hundred dollars for various reasons of fiber content, intricacy of weave, foreign manufacture, etc. As described above, silk fabric is very beautiful, expensive and has very limited longevity. Other fabrics, though expensive, are not only beautiful, but also wear so well, that the initial high cost amortizes to a very good deal over many long years of use.

Shopping for home decor Shopping anything is a lot more fun when you know what to look for

Keeping a firm grasp on clarity is a great start. The adult details like budget, suitability, durability as important as your great taste preferences….buzz kill but true.

You might want to head over here for great tips to set you up for a successful Home Decor Shopping Anything trip before you leave home.

When you are an educated consumer, you can be confident your upholstered furniture selections will be attractive AND durable for years.


Over To You

I’d love to know what you think...

Was there a tip that was especially helpful? Hopefully, you found a little inspiration and maybe even resolved a long standing quandary brilliantly!

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Setting out to create the best version of beautiful home design, tailored especially for you, has a lot of potential questions built in. Please let me know. I’m here to help.

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about the author

Cindy Bergersen is a professional design consultant turned full time writer about home design: what is it, how it works and how to make it work for anyone. Decades of experience as a design consultant to private clients, retail clients for well known, high end furniture retailers has proved to be invaluable training. She is both passionate and committed to sharing her experience and knowledge to help anyone, to help themselves to a beautiful, comfortable home, without feeling confusion or overwhelm about where to start and how to proceed. She lives in New York with Olivia, the cat. When not writing posts, she can be found cycling through city parks, watching a lot of film, or curled up on the sofa with a good book.