A Guide to Choosing Upholstery Fabric

A Guide to Choosing Upholstery Fabric

After the last year we have all taken up new hobbies and interests, but maybe you have dabbled in sewing for a while now and are looking to expand your knowledge into upholstery. To help you out we have written all about the different things you need to consider when looking for the perfect fabric for upholstery.  


Fun Fact for you, did you know that people have been upholstering furniture since the Middle Ages?


Or maybe you have been looking at an item of furniture recently in your home and realised that it needs a little TLC and some new fabric to extend its life. Re-upholstery of an older piece is a great way of breathing new life into an existing furniture item, which given everything else going on is becoming incredibly important. 


What is the difference between upholstery and soft furnishing fabric?


Upholstery fabric needs to be hard-wearing enough to withstand daily or occasional use, it shouldn’t stretch and create unwanted creases and should ideally maintain its colour when exposed to sunlight. Upholstery fabric is often treated with a special finish to make it fire retardant which is an important safety aspect especially if intended for furniture in commercial use such as hotels. The main difference between upholstery fabric and soft furnishing fabric used for cushions and curtains is the level of durability or the rub test which is evaluated using the Martindale test.



What does the Martindale Rating Mean?


You may have seen a Martindale test number on some of our furnishing fabrics, but then wondered what on earth it means? Well, put simply it is the number of times a bottom can be plonked onto the chair before the fabric wears away. It’s rated in terms of how much use the fabric will get and there are 6 different scales of use:

  1. Decorative - Less than 10,000 Rubs meaning the fabric can be used for cushions.
  2. Light Domestic - 10,000 to 15,000 Rubs so it can be used for occasional use domestic furniture (like the chair in the corner of your bedroom, to store clothes on - we all have one.)
  3. General Domestic - 15,000 to 25,000 Rubs meaning it can be used for domestic furniture that gets used every day so bench seat cushions maybe. This is the amount you need for a domestic sofa.
  4. Heavy Duty - 25,000 to 30,000 if still used in the home this is for more than the average kids, pets and grown-ups sit downs.
  5. General Commercial Use - 30,000 to 40,000 now this is reasonably heavy duty and is for the Hospitality Industry.
  6. Commercial Grade - 40,000 plus for the very highest number of bottoms on seats.

Although the Martindale test considers how robust the end product will be, it doesn’t include protection from UV light, chemicals, dirt or pets. This is important to take into account because even a velvet with a high Martindale rating will quickly develop a dented pile from pet claws.  


Does All Fabric Used in Upholstery have to be Fire Retardant?


Fire retardancy is a tricky one, when re-covering furniture for domestic use, it is important to take it into account. But if you are getting someone to do it professionally, they will want the fabric to be fire retardant. Even if the piece of furniture is older it needs to be thought about at least, as anything made from 1950 onwards must match up to the Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations. There are a few different options for this: it can be treated before use, or you can use a fire-retardant lining. The treatments are either soaked or the back is chemically treated. 

But just in case you were worried, curtains, blinds, bedding and cushions don’t have to be fire retardant, and nor do the pop out seat pads in most kitchen or dining room chairs. 


What Type of Fabric is Best for Upholstery?


Upholstery Fabric by Fabrics Galore


Now we have told you all about the important things to bear in mind, we can talk about the fun part of upholstery - which fabric to use. Well, our main piece of advice is for larger pieces of furniture it might be an idea to go for a neutral or pattern-less fabric because things like rugs, cushions and lampshades come and go, but the sofa stays a while, and it would be a costly mistake if you have to re- cover it because you decide you don’t like the fabric. 


This is what we thought when we were choosing our latest range of Upholstery Fabrics, although there are many different subtle plain as well as bright colours in the collection. Even with the plains, the high texture means they aren’t a flat addition to any room, but they are extremely hard-wearing and fire retardant making them perfect for your next upholstery project. 


But if you do have a sudden urge to go mad for a bright print, we would recommend doing it on a smaller chair or maybe a stool. A bit like the idea of saving the most detailed wallpaper for the downstair loo (always a talking point), a small individual chair is a great place for a really interesting print……


Our Pinterest page - Chair Porn is full of great examples. 


The Best Upholstery Fabrics 


Polypropylene Fabric


Polypropylene upholstery fabric


It doesn’t sound at all glamorous, but this fabric is a staple in the upholstery world because it is exceptionally hard-wearing and easy to clean without the need for stain protectors or chemical treatments. It is also resistant to light fading and can also easily be made fire-retardant. Polypropylene is a synthetic fabric which is safe for human contact while also breathable and even better, recyclable.




Polyester and Cotton Blends


Polyester and cotton upholstery fabric





Polyester is rarely used alone in upholstery fabrics but blended with cotton it can create a high performing, attractive material with a slight sheen for upholstery with a high Martindale rub test.




Cotton Upholstery Fabric



Although we tend to think of dressmaking and quilting with cotton fabrics, depending on the weave and finish, cotton can be a great upholstery fabric which is hard-wearing, less prone to pilling or creasing, unlike linen. Look out for high quality cotton upholstery fabrics like those we stock from Maison Thevenon.



Cotton Panama

Cotton Panama Upholstery fabric




Panama weave cotton is great for upholstery as it is fairly durable and is a lovely soft furnishing fabric which can be used to upholster occasional use chairs and sofas. Our brushed cotton panama weave fabrics have a Martindale 35,000 rating.





Velvet Upholstery Fabric





Most upholstery velvet fabrics are actually made from polyester but have the lovely soft pile you get with velvet. Only recommended for occasional use upholstery.


How to Care for Upholstery


Speaking of upholstery care, a top tip would be to give your sofa and armchairs a vacuum once a month, to remove all those scratchy pieces of dirt which might rub against the fabric. 


Ready to Choose your Upholstery Fabric?


We hope you feel inspired to breathe new life into that tired old armchair now, but don’t forget you can use our Request a Swatch service to see how different fabrics look and feel. We are always just a phone call away if you have seen an upholstery fabric online and aren’t sure of its suitability.


You are all set to go forth and save many chairs now….

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Welcome to the Fabrics Galore London online store, packed full of beautiful fabrics to inspire your next dressmaking, patchwork quilting, craft or home furnishing sewing project. We stock a huge range of different materials alongside designer fabrics from Liberty, Cath Kidston, Orla Kiely, Laura Ashley, William Morris and Alexander Henry. We source the highest quality fabrics, so whether it be a cotton, linen, viscose, chambray, jersey or wool, we have you covered.Check out our dressmaking fabric for something with drape, fabulous Liberty cotton lawn prints, quilting fabrics for patchwork inspiration or the home furnishing section to pimp your pad. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get sewing!

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