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What kind of fabric is good for upholstery?

Choosing upholstery fabric is probably best done with a good deal of advice.

And with that in mind, in this month’s blog, I’m going to dissect the topic so you can make informed choices that will save you time and money!

Because you see, all fabrics are not created equal. For example, cover a sofa that’s likely to be sat on (and jumped on in some households!) many times a day, with lightweight cotton, and you’ll quickly see the signs of wear; and, I’m sure, plenty of rips and tears. Because the materials used for clothes and lighter soft furnishings like cushions, will just not stand the strain.

It can be a bit of a minefield deciding what’s ‘fit for the purpose’ so I’m going to cover the different types of fabric you should use a little later in the blog. But a great tip to start with is this. If you see a beautiful fabric in a store (this won’t work with online shopping!) and you’re unsure if it’s suitable, try this…


…The Martindale Test

There are others similar to the Martindale Test (they’re known as ‘rub tests’) – but this is my favourite. It’s really only a guide, but it’s a great starting point and will definitely help you to narrow your choices down.

Please read our blog on What is the Martindale Test, and how does it work for more info. For now, I’ll say that it works, for sure, but can only be used as a guide. That’s because, typically, an upholstery weight will start at around 20,000 rubs for light domestic use going up to 100,000 or more for furniture in commercial environments such as busy offices or the public areas in hotels.

Clearly, there is a massive difference between the two with lots in between, and it can be a little misleading if you don’t take into account the end-use of the furniture. Use it as a guide only.


Always use Fire Retardant Fabrics

Between 1950 and 1988 ((when the H&S legislation came into place), there was an awful lot of furniture around that contained foam that would both burn and emit poisonous gasses. Not good. And that’s why the fire regulations were introduced – for our safety.

Even when you work in the furniture industry, it can be a minefield.

In a future post, we will try to simplify the official rules for you regarding fire-retardant furniture and fabrics, but until then, below are the official requirements as written on the official Fire Safe website.

 Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988/1989, 1993 and 2010.

The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988 (amended 1989, 1993 and 2010) are UK law and are designed to ensure that upholstery components and composites used for furniture supplied in the UK meet specified ignition resistance levels and are suitably labelled. There are six main elements contained within the Regulations:

  1. Filling materials must meet specified ignition requirements
  2. Upholstery composites must be cigarette resistant
  3. Covers must be match resistant (with certain exceptions)
  4. A permanent label must be fitted to every item of new furniture (with the exception of mattresses and bed-bases)
  5. A display label must be fitted to every item of new furniture at the point of sale (with the exception of mattresses, bed-bases, pillows, scatter cushions, seat pads, loose covers sold separately from the furniture and stretch covers)
  6. The first supplier of domestic upholstered furniture in the UK must maintain records for five years to prove compliance.

You can visit for more detailed information on this.

What are the pros and cons of different fabrics when used for upholstery projects?

Next on the list to consider is the composition of the many different fabric types. And there are LOTS to choose from! This can be a blessing and a curse because, well, there are LOTS to choose from!!!  That’s brilliant of course as there will be the perfect fabric out there for your project. But not many of us have hours to spend perusing swatches and rolls of fabric. So, apart from the colour and design, which will, of course, be totally up to you, I thought it would help to explain the difference between natural and synthetic fabrics. You can read that here.

For now, I’m going to take you through the difference between natural and synthetic fabrics.

Natural fibres

Natural fibres are a great choice and look beautiful. Along with cotton and linen, there are some gorgeous heavy-duty silks, and of course, cotton and wool are popular options. These are fabrics that are more associated with clothes than sofa coverings, but when woven into a denser weave, they are very durable as well as looking stunning. Remember that they are susceptible to sunshine – moisture too. (And wool needs to be moth proofed!)

Rayon is a newer addition to the natural fibre range and came on the scene in the 20th Century. It’s actually made from processed wood pulp, but it has a drape and lustre that’s similar to silk.

A point to remember with natural fabrics is that although, yes, they are natural, to begin with, they’re usually highly processed and the dyes used are likely to be synthetic. If making sure the fabrics you are using really are totally natural, and no chemicals have been used, is important to you, look for a ‘certified organic’ label.

Synthetic fibres

These are made from petroleum products. The chemical is reformed into fine strands that can then be woven into the fabric. Types of this fabric you may recognise as seeing on the labels of sofas are -polyester or polypropylene, nylon and acrylic. They’re the most common/popular ones. The reason they’re so popular is their durability.


What also happens often, is synthetic fibres are mixed with natural fibres, so you get the best of each combined as one, and they have good resistance to fading and staining.

Sometimes synthetic fabrics will be formed to resemble natural fabrics. An excellent example of that is acrylic, which looks and feels a lot like wool. And, microfiber fabrics which (usually) are made of polyester are woven in a way that gives them a short nap, so they feel like suede. In case you’re wondering, I’m not talking about your afternoon forty winks when I say nap. In the world of fabrics, the nap refers to how raised it is. So velvet has a longer ‘nap’ than suede.

To explain further, if your fabric has a raised or distinct nap, you will need to make sure it’s facing the same direction when the fabric is made into the final covering for your furniture. If you don’t, then it can look like you have used two different materials.

A final note on synthetic fabric is they can be a popular choice if you have pets. Especially microfibre as it copes with claws and stains really well!


Resource for fire retardant regulations