April 8, 2022
By: Peter Gregory
Whether you’re making sofas, headboards or dining chairs, choosing your upholstery fabric is an incredibly important part of the creative process. Furniture fabric should be easy to clean, durable, attractive and tactile. Your textiles need to endure decades of constant use while still looking great and feeling good. So how do you pick the right furniture fabric?
We spoke to a cross-section of our furniture customers, and one thing became clear. If you’re not sure what fabric you want to wrap your furniture in, you should start by asking one simple question: What do you need this furniture fabric to do?
There are thousands of unique, attractive and practical materials on the market. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses. When you filter out any unsuitable fabrics based on the properties of the fabric (durability, ease of cleaning and so on), it becomes much easier to find the right one.
If you’re new to furniture making, then this is the most important thing you need to know. By law, you must upholster furniture with match-resistant fabrics. Your fillings and fabrics need to meet specific fireproof standards, and every piece of furniture you make needs to carry a fire safety label. It’s illegal to sell furniture without a fire safety label, so you have to get this right from day one.
Materials that are not naturally fire-resistant (cotton, for instance) can be treated with fireproofing chemicals so that they’re safe to use in furniture projects. You can also use a fire-proof interlining just below the outer surface of your upholstery (permanent covers only) if you need to.
When you buy your fabric, tell your supplier that you need flame resistant material. Ask to see the certification that proves the material is fire-resistant. If possible, get the fire safety rating listed somewhere on your invoice. You should have a clear, easy-to-follow paper trail for future reference.
If in doubt, read the law for yourself. The UK’s furniture fire safety law is called The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988. We have also written a guide on fire safety labelling.
For most furniture items (dining chairs, armchairs and sofas for instance) this one is vital: furniture fabrics must be easy to clean.
Wipe-clean fabrics like vinyl and leather are the go-to choices for ‘family furniture’ (think footstools and sofas), but they’re not ideal for every project. Wipe-clean leathers and vinyls tend to have a high sheen, and they can feel a little slippy, especially when they’re new. What’s more, genuine leather is not water-resistant (see our guide).
If you want to work with a more organic, textured material like tweed, you can make it easy to clean by applying a water repellent spray treatment to the finished piece. Just make sure that the spray treatment you apply is suitable for furniture and fire safe.
The most durable fabric for upholstery is genuine leather. The leather tanning process makes this material incredibly tough and strong. As long as your leather doesn’t get cut, and as long as your furniture owner treats the leather every so often, it should outlive its owner.
The same can’t be said of vegan or plastic-based leathers, which crack over time. Tweed is good, but it will stain more easily than a treated leather and it will eventually fray.
We all love to sink down into a favourite chair! If you want your cushions and armrests to feel squashy, your fabric needs to allow for a lot of movement. Acrylic fabrics, cotton fabrics and woven wool (tweed, for example) all stretch slightly and hold their shape well. Just make sure you pack enough filling and foam into your cushions so that your customers don’t get a sinking feeling!
If uniformity is important, then a synthetic textile will be your best bet. Synthetic fabrics are made in a factory to exacting standards. Whether you’re covering a four-seater sofa or designing a set of ten dining chairs, you can rely on a consistent colour and texture across the whole product.
The same can’t be said of more organic materials like leather. One of the problems with genuine leather is that it doesn’t look perfectly uniform. On a big project, you will probably need to use more than one ‘hide’ of leather, from two or more animals. Natural discrepancies in the grain, colour and texture of the leather will show up in the finished product.
If you’re designing outdoor furniture, then an engineered weather-resistant fabric is going to be your best bet. In the UK, weather-resistant textiles are typically sold as Marine Fabric or Outdoor Fabric. The technical names are acrylic fabric and olefin fibre, but you’ll rarely be able to search a haberdashery website for these terms.
Acrylic fabric usually has a low-sheen tight-woven appearance, similar to denim or cotton, and comes in a wide range of colours. Some acrylic fabrics are teflon-coated and UV treated, which improves the weather resistance even further. Weatherproof fabrics tend to be mould-resistant, but you need a mould resistant filling, too. Pick your foam carefully to ensure that your outdoor furnishings look their best in all weathers for years to come.
Some of our customers only design one-off pieces. They can produce a unique bespoke item with end-of-line materials or rare textiles and it’s not a problem. For most of our furniture customers, however, fabric availability is key.
Covid-19 has rattled the global textile industry. Some factories have closed, and others have had to shut down for weeks at a time, at short notice, due to staff illness. It’s also much harder and much more expensive to get stock into a shipping container than it has been in the past.
Many of our customers have struggled to get their hands on their preferred choice of textile and have had to think fast to find alternatives. The best way to avoid this problem is to plan ahead, and only work with fabrics that you can get more of in a hurry.
PU leather and cotton are both great options if you want something that’s easy to replace. Try to stick to the most popular best-selling fabrics wherever possible, and always have a fall-back fabric in mind, just in case you find yourself running low.
That’s it for this week! We hope that this guide gives you a steer on what you have to consider when shopping for upholstery fabric.
It’s a great time to be in the furniture industry. There are so many gorgeous textiles and materials to choose from, and the British furniture industry is going through a real renaissance at the moment.
Let us know how you get on, and when it’s time to get your furniture labels made, you know who to call!
Thanks for reading!