The technical guide to choosing a fabric

October 23, 2020

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Let’s get it out there… I’m a fabric geek! But to be fair, in this line of work you have to be. It’s not enough to love the pattern of a fabric or the way it perfectly suits a certain piece of furniture. If it doesn’t do its job and stand up to technical scrutiny, I won’t touch it. In other words…function comes first! Before you select a fabric for your next project, here’s what you need to know…

Durability

For me, this has to be your number one priority. Before you start to dream of colours or patterns, first ask yourself these questions…

Where is the piece going to be located and is it going to have heavy or light use?

When it comes to durability, there’s a universal way of measuring this called the Martindale test. It’s a system designed to assess the abrasion – or amount of rubbing – a fabric can withstand before there’s a noticeable change in its condition. It’s then categorised with a score to show how hardwearing it is.

Every expert will differ on what level they will look at when choosing a fabric. For me, as a guideline I look for Martindale measurements of 15,000-25,000 for light domestic use; for heavier use furniture or in a busy household, I would use 50,000 upwards; with 70,000 and higher ratings more suited to seriously high traffic areas and commercial purposes.

Let’s face it, the more a chair or sofa gets sat on, the more quickly it’s going to deteriorate. If you sit on yours every single day (and so do the kids and the dog), then you need something robust that will withstand plenty of hard wear and tear. If you’re simply updating a decorative occasional chair or a headboard for instance, then you’re free to choose pretty much any fabric you like.

While the Martindale test is useful, what it doesn’t measure is other factors, such as UV light, staining, or scratches (e.g. from pet claws). All of these things will also affect the longevity of your furniture.

Green sofa and patterned armchair

Stain resistance

What kind of risk factors are there in your home? Children? Pets with muddy paws? Someone who has a tendency to spill the occasional glass of red wine? You need to choose something hard-wearing enough to cope with the challenges of everyday living. Fabric technology has come a long way and one of the main areas it’s improved in is stain-resistance.

“What kind of risk factors are there in your home? Children? Pets with muddy paws? Someone who has a tendency to spill the occasional glass of red wine?”

It’s important to remember though, stain-resistant is exactly that. There are very few fabrics that are completely stain-PROOF. This kind of technology is a safety net that allows you time to deal with a stain before it sets in for good. In fact, some of the fabrics you may think of as a no-no when it comes to stains – like velvet – are actually quite forgiving. In my opinion, manmade, synthetic fabrics tend to be a better bet for being most bulletproof, which is a shame for the purists, but true in my experience.

Cat sat on floral patterned chair

Colour fastness

Where are you going to place your newly reupholstered piece of furniture? A client of mine had chosen a rich, dark, dramatic cobalt blue for her sofa, but it was going to be located right in front of a huge window with the sun streaming in. The problem here is that inevitably fabrics will fade over time, especially if it’s sitting directly under bright sunlight. I had to be honest and say that her beautiful cobalt would soon fade to a pale washed-out blue.

Fade-resistance is a hugely important part of your fabric selection process. Thankfully, some fabrics are more resilient when it comes to fading. Silk, for instance, is known for fading faster and will start to fray in direct sunlight, while fabric blended with polyester is often more resistant to discolouration. Flipping cushions over routinely can help, but with fixed covers, it’s sometimes worthwhile protecting your upholstery with a throw or blanket when it’s especially sunny.

Clearly, outdoor furniture will always need to be hardwearing, and as well as an element of fade-resistance built in, thankfully almost all of them these days will be mould, UV, and stain-resistant too.

Patterned fabric armchair

Composition

Comfort is always key for me when selecting a fabric, and while it may not strictly be a ‘technical’ characteristic of a material, it is worth thinking about the feel of something and whether it will give you the comfort factor you crave. People tend to think of velvet as being really sumptuous, so it’s reassuring to know that while they’re a luxurious choice, most of them are so ‘clever’ that they can be hardwearing too.

Don’t be put off by leather either when it comes to longevity. If you invest in a really good one to start with (and by that, I mean a genuine one made of hide – not bonded), it just gets better and better over time.

There can be practical considerations too. Don’t forget, an open weave on something like a washed linen can be tricky with pets as their claws can get stuck in the yarns and you’ll end up with a load of pulled threads.

Blue fabric sofas in living room

Finding the ideal fabric

It’s easy to get carried away and fall in love with a fabric before you’ve done the technical research. But if you end up having to replace it in a couple of years, it’s definitely not going to be worth the investment. The good news is, once you’ve figured out the finer details like durability and stain-resistance, you can move on to picking a colour or an amazing print. And that’s when the fun really begins!

Blue patterned sofa

I always do a full technical edit on all the fabric swatches I select for your own personal sampling process. So you can be assured you’ll have plenty of choice and they’ll all be fit for purpose. If you have an upholstery project in mind, do get in touch. Drop me a line for an initial, no-obligation quote by filling in the online contact form. Alternatively, you can email me directly at sharon@vintiqueupholstery.com or call me on 07764 182 783.

Credits: Kirkby Design, Liberty, Kitty McCall, Ercol and Villa Nova.

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