Buying Upholstery Fabric 101


Upholstery Fabric

Every fabric type has a use. Dress fabric will not work for furniture. Make sure you are buying upholstery fabric. Here are some fabric elements to take into consideration:

Weight – How thin or thick. For example, you may use fabric that is meant to upholster, to sew curtains, but you should not use a lesser weight curtain fabric to upholster a sofa. Always ask or look at the fabric tag, it will tell you its function. Remember that when you are sitting you are applying weight to the material and when you move around you are creating friction.

Resiliency – If the fabric has low resiliency it means it will loose its shape and sag.

Sunlight – Some fabric colors will fade or yellow when exposed to sunlight. I would say, eventually all fabrics do, but some fade faster.

Colorfast – When a fabric is colorfast, it means, it will not transfer colors. Example: you buy a new pair of jeans and next thing you know, you look like a member of the Blue Men Group. Your jeans are not colorfast.


Silk, Vinyl, “Suede”, Rayon, Velvet, Poly-blend and Cotton


Cotton – Soft, natural and easy to clean; but not stain resistant. Some of the cons are that it is not so good when it comes to keeping its shape and may not be durable enough for everyday use just by itself. However, all negatives are overcome when this material is combined with others. Look for a cotton blend.

Linen – Beautiful material, great for hot weather and has a very nice hand/feel. Use on furniture that is sparingly used.

Wool – Natural, keeps its shape and it is wrinkle resistant. Cons, some people are allergic to wool and it can peel. If you are buying wool, get a blended fabric.

Silk – Beautiful, delicate and shiny. Although, I agree that a pair of red silk chairs seems like a great idea, it really is not; unless you plan to upholster something nobody will ever sit on. Silk is easily damaged and it needs to be dry cleaned. Use for décor and not for practical furniture.

Leather – Great material, durable, myriad of colors and finishes. If proper cared for, it will last a very long time. Due to its thickness it may not be a great choice for upholstery beginners or pet owners. Make sure you are buying real leather and not bonded leather.

Rayon – It is a durable material, but it wrinkles and can fade when exposed to sunlight. Ask for high quality rayon.

Polyester – Great for households with kids, pets or messy folks. Easy to clean and it comes in variety of finishes. The only problem is that it is not a natural fiber.

Vinyl – An option to leather. Usually inexpensive, easy to clean, hygienic, will stay looking nice for a long time. My only issue here is that vinyl does not disintegrate.

Is it going inside or outside? If you are redoing your patio chairs, make sure you are buying fabric that is meant to be used outside. Why, because regular fabric will grow mold, loose color and the fibers will break due to exposure. You do not want to go through all that hard work just to have to redo the whole thing again in six months do you?


Outdoor Fabric

Choosing the right color:

Never buy fabric you have never seen in person. Always get a test swatch first.

Unless you live in the in the middle of nowhere, chances are you have a variety of fabric stores near you. Big box stores, mom & pop and upholstery shops. The latter ones tend to be hiding in downtowns or industrial sections of town. Go and explore. You can ask for advise and see the material in person and on a larger scale. Sometimes a pattern or color is cute until you see it in a larger piece…

You can also go online and order some swatches. But this can get expensive with shipping and all. I am not saying don’t, cause I do it too, just keep in mind that the color you will see on the screen is a combination of the following things:

The actual fabric color + the scanner setting (where the swatch was scanned) + the web manager digital settings (e-store) + your devices color settings and resolution. I for one, keep my devices brightness to a minimum, so the colors I see online are dimed and dark. If you need a very specific tone it would be best to see it in person.


Fabric Swatches

Getting swatches home is critical, here is why:

Light! The color you see will depend on your home’s illumination. Morning light is very different to noon and evening light. Your homes position, windows and architecture play a role too. The light bulbs you have will distort the color of the swatch. I always go for natural white light bulbs (unless you want to create a warm environment or for your nightstand lamps). The color you see at the store is not the color or at least the tone you will see at home. Have I told you about the gray swatch that looked green in my living room! The swatch was gray at the store, gray at the store’s parking lot and gray in my kitchen, but it looked green in my living room. Had I decided to buy my sofa that day without taking the swatch home, it would have been a very unhappy green sofa owner. Close call.

Tips for Success:

  • Tape the swatches to the wall where the furniture is going and pay attention to the color at different times of the day.
  • Once you have selected a few swatches you are happy with…. Do the AKA the “wine, key and pet test”. Huh? Okay.
  • First, spill some red wine on the swatch and try to clean it. This will tell about the cleaning capabilities of the fabric. The swatches that pass your test get the key test.
  • Take the piece of fabric and scratch it with a key. This will tell you about how the fabric reacts to abrasion. You should be able to see which fabrics will last longer, which one will peel faster, which ones will age better, etc. These two tests should be sufficient.
  • Now, give the swatch to your pet. Ok, hold on. NO NEED TO DO THIS. Seriously, do not give it to your pet, they might choke if they eat the fabric. Let’s call it the W&K test.

Last but not least. How will you feel about your fabric choice a year from today? How about 5 years and what about 10. If the item you are reupholstering is easy, then go crazy and pick something obnoxious. If, on the contrary, the item is big, needs a lot of fabric and needs to be reupholstered professionally, go with something more subdue and use the crazy fabric to make some throw pillows. Those you can change anytime. Better yet, take that crazy fabric and make some curtains. Ottomans are great for accent fabric as well.

So how much fabric will I need? Like everything, it all depends on the size.

Example: The sit flat surface is 20” x 22”

  • Plan in advance before you cut. How much distance will you need in between cuts?
  • Measure twice cut once.
  • If your fabric has a pattern. Decide how you want the pattern to look. Left, right, up or down. Maybe there is a special feature you want in the center. In my case, I wanted more blue than anything else. So I planned accordingly.
  • How much fabric will I need? You have to measure the top, plus the sides and the fabric that will be stapled underneath.
  • Measure the side thickness, for example if your cushion is 3 inches thick, you have to add 6” x 6”. At this point the measurement becomes 26”x 28”
  • Now, you need the material that will be attached to the sit (where you are going to staple). I would add 6 inches per side. 12” x 12” + 26” x 28”= You would need a minimum of 38” x 40” . This is a guide only as it does not take into consideration the shape of your cushion.
  • Always measure the longest or highest point. For example, the center of the sit maybe longer.
  • You will also need about 2” in between cuts, in case you don’t cut a straight line, the fabric is pilling, etc. This is a fairly easy calculation if you are using a solid color fabric. If you are using a fabric with pattern, then you have to calculate where you want your motif to be and you may need more distance in between cuts.
  • People with upholstery experience do not need so much fabric in between cuts and folds. But since this is your first time it is better to have extra for mistakes. In fact, I bought ½ yard more than what I actually needed.
  • Your fabric seller will be very happy to help you with dimensions and best practices. For your first trial, just to double-check your math skills, I would take a cushion to a fabric store so they can measure this for you. After you have your trial fabric and you know how much you really need, then you can buy the fabric of your dreams.

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