The Ultimate Guide to Upholstery

a-beautiful-pink-fabric-upholstered-chair

Upholstery 101

 
 

Today we’re diving into everything upholstery, beginning with the definition of upholstery and ending with the differences between commercial and residential fabrics.

We’ll be looking at what the difference is between different upholstery fabrics, how upholstery fabrics are tested by textile engineers and upholstery fabrics especially used for commercial and contract use, in spaces like hotels and restaurants.

Let’s get started!


PART ONE: Types of upholstery fabrics

Define ‘upholstery’

Upholstery is an umbrella term for the work of creating padding, springs, webbing, fabric/leather covering for furniture.

Upholstery is an age-old process that has gained both in popularity and sophistication over the centuries. Nowadays, the choice of upholstery fabric types can be overwhelming.  

Check out these links for some bite-sized info. You need to weigh up the pros and cons of each type of fabric in order to make an informed choice, which can in, itself, seem more complicated than it really is.

  1. Embroidered fabrics

  2. Flat weave fabrics

  3. Jacquard fabrics

  4. Printed fabrics

  5. Sheer fabrics

  6. Textured fabrics

You might be wondering why you don’t see velvet upholstery in this list: that’s because we thought we’d give it its own section.

A quick word about velvet and chenille upholstery

As velvet can be made either from synthetic or natural fibres, we thought we’d give it its own section. With a short, dense pile and a distinctive touch, velvet is a type of woven, tufted fabric in which the cut threads are spread evenly throughout the piece. 

good to know: ‘tufting’ fabric is an ancient type of textile weaving that’s been used for centuries to create warmer fabric for clothing and upholstery.

The main difference between chenille and velvet is that Chenille is a type of yarn, and Velvet is way of using yarn to make a fabric. This is even more confusing because the fabric made from chenille yarn is also called chenille.


PART TWO: Natural fibres in upholstery fabric

What is the difference between natural and synthetic fibres?

Upholstery fabrics are broadly divided into two categories: natural and synthetic. This is due to the fibres that the fabrics are derived from.

Fibres that are derived from plants or animals are considered to be natural (like cotton, silk or wool), whereas fibres that are man-made (like nylon, acrylic, etc.) are synthetic. 

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The demand for synthetic fabrics has increased dramatically in the last 30 years. Polyester is now being the most-used fabric in the world, having overtaken cotton.

Synthetic fabrics tend to be more durable than natural ones, and while they are often more affordable than natural fabrics, that doesn’t mean a reduction in quality. 

Common natural fabrics (and where to use them as upholstery)

We’ve heard people often say that natural fibres are better than synthetic ones, but we would argue that it really comes down to what you’re planning on doing with the fabric itself. 

Linen

Linen as an upholstery fabric is best used in formal settings, as it wrinkles and soils easily, and, because it’s of a natural composition, doesn’t wear particularly well.

Linen holds up against pilling and fading though, so that’s a tradeoff you’re going to have to consider when using linen as an upholstery fabric.

The use of a more practical ‘linen look’ upholstery fabric is up there as an option if you really need that particular linen feel and visual effect.

Cotton

Pure cotton fabric on its own is also best used only in formal settings, for much the same reason as linen upholstery fabric.

Luckily, however, chemical treatments and blending with other fibres can make this fabric much more durable, and therefore suitable for use in upholstery.

It also depends on the weave: damask weaves are effortlessly graceful and formal (and wear easily) whereas canvas weave cotton fabric is both more casual and more durable. 

Wool

Wool is a textile fibre most commonly obtained from sheep, but other types of wool include angora and mohair. Sheep’s wool is sturdy and durable with a distinctively dry, tactile feel.

Wool can also absorb a massive amount of water, even though the fibres aren’t hollow. 

Leather (or rather, ‘leather look’ upholstery fabric)

In contrast to cotton, linen or wool, leather-look fabrics are a very tough material that can be easily wiped clean, vacuumed and generally be put to the test as an upholstery material, day after day. Leather-look is generally a more practical and cost-effective option. 

Silk

Silk production, otherwise known as sericulture, actually involves the cultivation of the insects that make it - the best known of which is the silkworm.


Silk has been synonymous with luxury for centuries. It is best used as an upholstery fabric for decorative purposes and in formal settings.

PART THREE: Synthetic fibres in upholstery fabric

The low-down on synthetic fibres used for upholstery fabrics

Synthetic or man-made fibres are the most commonly used for modern upholstery fabrics due to their durability, versatility and cost. 

Acetate

Developed as an alternative to silk in the U.K. in 1923 by an English company, Celanese, acetate fabric is made by deconstructing cotton or wood pulp into a white cellulose liquid.

Acrylic

Acrylic comes from acrylonitrile, a derivative of plastic. Acrylic fibre is a man-made alternative to wool, and was developed in the 1940s. Acrylic fabric as upholstery is lightweight, warm, and soft to the touch, much like wool (above). 

Nylon

Nylon is one of the toughest upholstery fabrics out there, and its continuous filament means it resists stains and static electricity. It is quite a warm fabric to use as an upholstery fabric.

Polyester 

Polyester is among the most desired fabrics for design, fashion and interiors, as it is very durable and chemical-resistant, shrink and shine resistant, and the fibres are strong but light. It is also remarkably fade-resistant - and for all of these reasons, a great choice for use as an upholstery fabric. 


PART FOUR: Blended fabrics: the use for upholstery

Blended fabrics have their own unique properties, and are created when two (or more) different kinds of fibres are blended together (when spinning the yarn) to create a wholly new fabric.

Fibers have been blended in this way throughout history to create fabrics with specific properties in order to meet specific needs, such as

  • For added strength or absorbency

  • For improved texture

  • To reduce manufacturing costs

  • To produce certain dye effects

  • To increase manufacturing efficiency 

Polycotton - polyester and cotton - is one of the most common blended fabrics, combining the strength of polyester with the softness of cotton. 

Unlike cotton, polyester doesn’t shrink and also holds its colour well, but unlike polyester, cotton is softer and more breathable.

Blends aren’t always between natural and synthetic fibres though - there are natural blends, blending natural fibres, and synthetic blends, blending synthetic fibres, too.


PART FIVE: The difference between upholstery and drapery fabric

There are a number of things that separate upholstery fabric from drapery fabric, such as weight and durability.

Weight

Upholstery-grade fabric is heavier, thicker and stiffer than drapery fabric, whereas drapery fabric is generally a medium-weight fabric.

Upholstery fabrics can also sometimes have backings to provide extra support, in which case we would recommend you not use them for drapery projects. 

Durability

As we were saying above with blended fabrics - the needs of upholstery and drapery fabric are different. 

Upholstery needs to be able to wear really well even though people sit or lie on it every day.

Drapery fabrics need to be able to drape well and keep their shape even when they have been hanging in the same position for a long time.

These differences come out through the fabric testing process, which we’ll look at in the next section.


PART SIX: Textile tests: the how and the why

Fabrics go through rigorous tests to ensure the quality of the finished product. Like everything else in the textile world, the tests that a fabric undergo are largely dependent on the end-use of the product.

Performance standards for textiles used in upholstery vary depending upon the end use of the furniture concerned.

Types of fabric tests

The Martindale wear resistance test

The Martindale test assesses a fabric’s resistance to abrasion.

The fabric is placed in the Martindale machine which rubs it over and over. Light domestic use is acceptable at 5.000 rubs, whereas heavier contract use is acceptable at 40.000 rubs.

The pilling resistance test

The pilling testing is also done in the Martindale machine, but in comparison to the Martindale test, the rubbing here is done with even more pressure, over a much more compact space.

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A pilling scale grade of minimum 3-4 at 5000 rubs is generally acceptable.

The Wyzenbeek test

The Wyzenbeek test is also an abrasion test, and is used mostly in North America, and is one of the standard double rubs tests. In the Wyzenbeek machine, the fabric is drawn back and forth on top of a cylinder, which is covered with either cotton fabric or a delicate wire mesh. General contract upholstery is acceptable at 15,000 double rubs, whereas medium residential duty is 9,000 rubs.

One double rub is roughly the equivalent of sitting down and getting up from a chair once. The higher the double rubs, the more resistant to abrasion.

Seam slippage testing

Moving away from abrasion tests, other tests for strength such as seam slippage tests are very important for upholstery. Nobody wants to find that the seams on their favourite armchair have slipped out of shape.

Fabrics are pulled in both directions and the seam slippage that occurs is then measured. Seam slippage of up to 4mm is acceptable for upholstery fabrics.

Tensile strength test

Another test that is mainly for upholstery fabrics, the tensile strength test pulls the fabric until it rips, and then the force used and the extent of the breakage are measured.

A tensile strength of minimum 350N and an elongation of maximum 50% is acceptable.

Color-fastness to rubbing/light/washing/water/dry cleaning

There are many color-fastness tests, and for good reason. Upholstery fabric needs to be tested in this way as the fabric manufacturers can never control where exactly furniture with their fabric is placed in a room (or outside!). 

Fire retardant testing

Fabrics can undergo fire retardancy testing for end use in both contract and residential markets. There are many different standards throughout the world, and fabrics can adhere to all of these or just a portion, depending on where they are intended to be sold.

  • The British FR standard, for example, tests fabrics before and after cleaning, placing them on a metal frame with the application of a flame to the fabric for 10 seconds

  • The USA contract FR standard has the fabric being weighted before the test, hanging from a frame in a vertical chamber. A methane flame is then applied to the fabric for 45 seconds.

The International Maritime Organisation FR Standard

The IMO standard, the standard for fabric use in maritime settings such as on cruise ships, deserves its own section. This stringent test is difficult for a fabric manufacturer to pass, (which is understandable when you consider the fabric’s end use.).


PART SEVEN: Special fabrics for commercial and contract use

As you probably know, or might have noticed already, commercial fabrics have higher durability requirements than those destined for residential use.

There are three ‘pillar’ applications for fabrics that many different kinds of fabrics, both upholstery and drapery, fall into. These are maritime fabrics, fabrics for outdoor use and fire retardant fabrics. 

Maritime fabrics

This stringent test is difficult for a fabric manufacturer to pass, (which is understandable when you consider the fabric’s end use.).

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is a United Nations specialised agency responsible for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships. 

Outdoor fabrics

Outdoor fabrics are textiles that are engineered for outdoor use, and constructed to last.

These fabrics are inherently fade and mildew resistant due to their unique properties including colorfastness to light, their durability and their water and stain resistance. 

Fire retardant fabrics

Fire Retardant (FR) fabrics, also commonly known as Flame Retardant fabrics, are textiles specially developed with properties that will not support the spread of flames. 

Within these three pillars, fabrics have all sorts of applications:

  • Fire retardant fabrics are a standard for the hospitality, entertainment (theatre and stage) and medical industries

  • If a fabric is IMO certified, for example, it means that it passes such exacting testing standards that it can be used in very many other places

  • The automotive industry requires very specific fittings for upholstery, and fabrics that pass specific standards. There are leather and cloth seats, headrests and armrests as well as car carpets to think of, and that’s only the beginning. 

  • The needs of high traffic areas, such as restaurants as well as public transport, would overlap greatly with the requirements of all three of these main pillars.

You’ve made it to the end! Fantastic!

Now you know all there is to know about upholstery, from fibre to fabric.

From blackout to flat weave, from print fabrics to vinyl and leather-look fabrics, our shop will have everything you’re looking for (and more). Feel free to browse to your heart’s content and remember: shipping is free!

If you have any questions or comments go ahead and get in touch or check out our LinkedIn page.