How to choose the right upholstery fabric

Investing in a sofa or occasional chair for your home can be a costly exercise so it pays to understand a little about upholstery fabric before you hit the shops.   A sofa, in particular, is a piece of furniture that you need to last for a long time and you also want it to keep looking good and performing well for you.  Usually when people look to source a new sofa or chair they will be focussed on style, size and colour, which of course are all extremely important.  But before you even consider these aspects you need to understand the properties of the different fabrics available and which one will be suitable for your needs.

How to choose the right upholstery fabric
Image – Warwick Fabrics

A viable alternative to leather upholstery

Leather sofas and chairs are a classic choice however many people invest in a leather sofa as they feel it will be more durable than a fabric one.  I have explained to many of my clients that in fact if you select the right fabric then it can still be very durable and often they will then opt for a fabric sofa.  This was what they wanted but they believed it was a choice led by the heart rather than the head.

How to choose the right upholstery fabric
Image – James Dunlop Textiles

Fabric performance categories

Fabric companies perform a Martindale test which is a measure of durability – some call it the rub test as it is basically a guide to how many times you can sit on the fabric.  I’m not sure how they do this but I have visions of very fit staff sitting and standing up thousands of times a day which of course is not the process but it is one of life’s mysteries!  It’s good to just understand the basics of this process.

Fabric is placed into a classification as follows:

10,000-15,000 martindale is considered appropriate for light domestic use.  These are your decoration pieces, the beautiful occasional chair that is more of a decorating piece than a workhorse that you will sit on every evening.  Delicate embroidered fabrics, light cottons and prints fall into this category.

15,000-25,000 martindale is considered appropriate for General Domestic use.  This means that the fabric can be used on a daily basis however it will not be as durable as many other fabrics and is certainly not suitable for a fixed back chair without a cushion or for reclining furniture.

25,000-30,000 martindale is considered appropriate for Heavy Domestic use.  These fabrics are great for sofas and chairs that are in high traffic areas and will get a big workout.  These are great for rumpus rooms, TV rooms etc that are used on a daily basis.  You can also use these fabrics on reclining chairs.

30,000 + martindale are the Heavy Commercial fabrics.  Despite their name, these fabrics are just as suitable in a residential environment.  If you have children or will be eating dinner on the sofa then this is a really safe option.  Technology has advanced so much that these fabrics perform really well but actually look like everyday upholstery fabrics.

How to choose the right upholstery fabric
Image – Designers Guild

Don’t rely solely on the martindale test however as there are also fabrics that contain stain repellent properties.  Some have a Teflon coating which makes them very stain resistant so although they may fall into the heavy domestic use, in fact they can really withstand a lot more wear.  So a fabric with a high Martindale rating and stain resistant properties will really be the one that you are looking for as a viable alternative to leather.

How to choose the right upholstery fabric
Image – Warwick Fabrics

Also consider whether fabrics can be dry cleaned.  Remember that a fabric can be treated with a stain resistant product once it is on your sofa or chair and you will find that most suppliers will recommend this and organise this for you.

How to choose the right upholstery fabrics
Image – Sanderson Fabrics

Washable slip covers for upholstery

I love this option.  You really can relax on a sofa that is covered with a fabric that can be removed and thrown into the washing machine.  Every parent will relax more knowing that a fabric can be washed and you don’t need to constantly nag children and teenagers about eating on the sofa.  There are a lot of suppliers who will offer a sofa with a slip cover option.

These sofas and chairs aren’t as structured and beautifully upholstered as some other alternatives but they do always look good and can be kept clean without expensive dry cleaning costs.  Look for fabrics that are specifically for washable slip covers as they have been pre-shrunk and will be suitable for this purpose and always follow the care labels carefully.  I particularly like Warwick Fabric's Chambray material as it is soft and comfortable and looks great.

How to choose the right upholstery fabric
Image – Warwick Fabrics

Natural vs man-made fibres

I am absolutely in love with natural linen.  I love the look and feel of it and this is always my first choice.  Natural linen is breathable, hypo allergenic and much stronger than cotton.  Many upholstery linens will have a high Martindale test – around 30,000 – which makes them very durable and many now are treated with a stain resistant product.

However, there are also some great polyester/viscose fabrics that may just contain a small percentage of linen which perform really well and are beautiful fabrics to work with.  The days of a man-made fibre being markedly less superior to a natural one are gone and it is often difficult to tell the difference now.

How to choose the right upholstery fabric
Image – Designers Guild

Linen fabrics almost deserve their own blog post as there are so many different types.  Just a couple of points – You should be careful to ensure that the linen you select for your project is meant for upholstery as many are lighter and more suitable for drapery.  Also, bear in mind that you can also achieve different looks with upholstery linen, for example a washed linen will give more of a relaxed feel than a standard linen that will give a tighter more formal look.

How to choose the right upholstery fabric
Image – James Hare

How to upholster with the best of both worlds

One of my favourite ways to upholster a chair or sofa is to use a more delicate patterned fabric for the back and sides of the piece of furniture and then use a very durable, stain resistant heavy residential/commercial fabric for the seat and back.  This way you get the beauty of the more delicate textile but the areas that are used to sit on and rest against are the durable fabrics.

These pieces are very striking, particularly for an occasional chair and this is a way to bring colour and pattern into a room without it being overwhelming.

How to choose the right upholstery fabric
Image – Sanderson Fabrics

Considering velvet for your sofa?

Before you fall in love with a gorgeous velvet fabric, remember that once you sit in it, the fibres will be crushed and you will always have a mark where you sit.  Some people are happy with this but if you think that this would bug you then you should consider velvets that do not crush.  They are on the market so if you are looking at this for a luxurious statement piece, ask the question first before committing to the fabric.

How to choose the right upholstery fabric
Image – Zepel Fabrics

This post only skims the surface as there is so much involved with upholstery fabric but I hope that this has just given you some ideas and a little knowledge to help you ask the right questions of your designer or retailer when you are making such an important purchase.

I have lots of inspiration on my Pinterest boards and I would really like to hear from you about your upholstery projects and any comments that you have.

How to find the right upholstery fabric

Related: How to design the perfect window seat

Related: Seating options – finding the perfect place to sit

Related: How to choose an upholstered bedhead

21 thoughts on “How to choose the right upholstery fabric

  1. Avatar
    Shad Morris says:

    We have a chair in our living room that is in need of new fabric, but we didn’t really know how to choose it. It’s interesting that you say to get a relaxing fabric that can be washed. It would be nice to be able to clean it up if it gets dirty.

  2. Avatar
    Maggie Allen says:

    I didn’t even know that there is a test for fabrics to determine their durability. In my opinion, I probably need something in the Heavy Domestic use section for my living room. I have a few young children, and I know that they can wear down furniture pretty quickly. It would be nice for the upholstery to last for a long time!

    • Samantha Bacon
      Samantha Bacon says:

      Definitely heavy domestic for you Maggie! You might even go to the commercial ranges which will still look great but will stand up to the wear and tear of young children without you tearing your hair out!

  3. Avatar
    Evelyn Staff says:

    Hi Samantha, I have found this article very helpful as I am in the process of choosing fabric to have my leather lounge recovered. I have a federation style home and have dreamed of having a cream lounge with pleated skirt. I’m just a bit hesitant about it getting dirty quickly. My other thought was to go a darker grey but not sure if it will suit my country/classic theme? I am looking at the Warwick Chambray range which you mention in your article but is it only suitable for slip covers? I would appreciate your thoughts thank you.

    • Samantha Bacon
      Samantha Bacon says:

      Hi Evelyn You can certainly have a darker grey in a classic country scheme – just ensure that the sofa style is a country/classic look as you certainly don’t have to have cream to achieve this look. However if you do really love this idea then the light coloured slip covers may be the answer. The Warwick Chambray range can also be used for full upholstery if you would like to go this route. Good luck! Samantha

  4. Avatar
    Max Jones says:

    My wife has been looking for a fabric company that could do washable slip covers like you talked about in your article. I like the idea of being able to wash the slip covers from the fabric company in our washing machine rather than having to have the whole piece of furniture dry cleaned. I’ll have to see if we can find a good fabric company to help us get our slip covers, and make sure that they are out of washable material so that we can easily keep them clean!

  5. Avatar
    Rachel Lannister says:

    You advised trying to get natural linens for your reupholstery, as you have found them to be more durable. I’ve been meaning to get some of the items in my own reupholstered and wanted to get some tips before making any important decisions. I’ll have to look around online for a service that does this kind of reupholstery, as I need durable material to keep up with my kids playing on it.

  6. Avatar
    Tiffany Locke says:

    I like that you mention how there are fabrics that have special properties, such as stain resistance and your advice to upholster chairs or sofas with a more delicate pattern for the back and sides and a more durable one for where people will be sitting. This could help you get a unique design that enhances the decor while still making sure you’re able to sit in it without wearing it out too quickly. In order to do this, you’d probably want to talk to your upholstery company to see what options they offer and to make sure they’re able to provide you with the results you want.

    • Samantha Bacon
      Samantha Bacon says:

      Hi Jane I would recommend something washable and you could even look at outdoor fabrics which look like a normal fabric but are even washable with bleach. As they are made to withstand the elements and inhibit the growth of mould, they will certainly stand up to your grandchildren! Most fabric houses carry a good quality outdoor range – just double check they can be cleaned with bleach and then you know you are getting the most durable ones. Good luck! Samantha

  7. Avatar
    Ellie Davis says:

    Thank you for pointing out that natural linen is breathable. My mother is wanting to reupholster her couch and needs to find the right fabric for the job. I’ll have to look into finding the right swatch cards to help her choose the right fabric.

  8. Avatar
    Tammy Houston says:

    It got me when you said that you prefer natural fabric when it comes to upholstery because of the fact that it is hypoallergenic and stronger than cotton. This is perfect for my family then since I am after something durable and safe. My little girl is sensitive and can get skin allergies while my little boy can be rowdy, so I need something strong.

  9. Avatar
    Gillian Babcock says:

    My mom wanted to make sure that the furniture will be upholstered properly because it’s worn out. It was explained here that she should consider fabric performance categories. Moreover, it’s recommended to hire professionals when considering upholstery fabric.

  10. Avatar
    Russell Noah says:

    Good job!!! No matter how much cleaning you do. Some stains just won’t come out. And usually the color doesn’t go with the design plan. So an upholsterer is almost always necessary.

  11. Avatar
    Millie Hue says:

    I like that you pointed out how Teflon coating will be able to withstand wear while being stain resistant. With that in mind, I will choose this for the upholstery of our dining room chairs. This is because I have twins, and they are still really young which means that they might spill sauces or even step on the chairs a lot. This will be perfect for us.

  12. Avatar
    Frank Delaware says:

    My wife has an old chair that she wants new fabric on, and we were curious about how to find the right kind of fabric. I really like that you say to look at the different properties before buying. I know I would want something that is durable.

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