How to Choose a Fabric for Your New Sofa or Chair
If you've ever been in the market for a new sofa or chair, you understand how expansive the world of fabrics is. There's cotton, linen, basket weave, velvet, melange, boucle, leather, polyester, acrylic and more. It can be overwhelming, to say the least!
One late afternoon last week, I was in West Elm picking up a few swatches for a sofa I'm sourcing for a client. At the swatch counter, I kept having to dance around (read: attempt to social distance with) an older lady and her friend who were there to purchase a chair. Being a designer, I had made a list of the swatches I wanted to pick up and was on a get-in-and-get-out type of mission. But these ladies were a little less organized. They had every ream of fabric strewn out over the counter and were bouncing back and forth carrying them over to a floor model chair ten feet away. I apologized as I attempted to bounce around them when one of them said "don't apologize, we're in your way. We've been here since this morning!". Yikes, I thought. But, so it goes with fabrics! With so many factors to consider, decisions can take hours when you're unprepared, under-educated and trying to get it just right.
I knew immediately after my interaction with these ladies that I wanted to do a blog post about fabrics. While this post is by no means exhaustive, it should help get you started when picking out a new sofa or other upholstered item for your home.
Before we get into the benefits or downfalls of the different types of fabric, let's first talk durability. In your search for a new sofa, you'll undoubtedly come across either the Martindale or Wyzenbeek Fabric Rub Tests. You can read more about these tests in this short article from Apartment Therapy, but here's what you need to know: these tests are designed to give you an idea of the durability of a certain fabric based on how many "rubs" they can withstand. Although the two companies have different scales, I typically like to pick a fabric with a rub count of 15,000+. Some might say this is overkill, and in rare cases I have gone down to 10,000. But with our Netflix-bingeing, pet-spoiling lifestyles, I figure it's better to be safe than sorry.
Now, on to the fabrics. For the purposes of this post, I'm only going to cover the pros and cons of the textiles I gravitate towards. Since I lean into sustainability and environmental awareness with my designs, I'm usually trying to use cotton or linen whenever possible and I generally tend to use natural fibers over synthetic ones. Some of my favorites include:
Cotton - Cotton is a tried-and-true player in the fabric space. The nice thing about cotton is that, for the most part, it is grown and sourced here in the good 'ole US of A. Some retailers are starting to offer organic versions, which I try to use when possible. Cotton is mildly durable fabric that is soft to the touch. It's great if you're looking for a relaxed feel and something with an elevated sense of comfort. Cotton does tend to pill after extended use, is mildly susceptible to wrinkles and is not as easily cleaned as other textiles.
Linen - Linen is a designer's favorite for so many reasons. Linen tends to be more durable than cotton because of its construction and tighter weave. Although not as soft as cotton, linen-lovers are attracted to the texture that it brings to a space. Linen resists pilling, and is typically easy to spot clean. Linen does wrinkle easily but, to some, that's half the charm.
Velvet - velvet is a textural dream, am I right?! Velvet gets mixed reviews... and for good reason. A good velvet can be very durable in terms of rub count, but is also historically hard to clean. Performance velvets* are a good way to go if you must include the fabric in your home. If you go with velvet, be forewarned -- every slightly dirty or oily appendage (or pet) that rubs up against it may leave a mark that's not exactly "easy" to get off. You will always be safer going with a velvet in dark green, navy or black, as lighter colors are going to start looking dingy more quickly.
Bouclé - Bouclé was truly the fabric of the moment for 2020. Although some would argue it never went away, it's starting to pop up all over and I am here for it. As far durability goes, bouclé gets 4 out of 5 stars in my book. It holds up well in most rub tests and is decently easy to clean. The one thing to watch out for with boucle is pilling. Although it doesn't wrinkle or crease easily, you're going to want to invest in a high quality bouclé... and buy a sweater shaver.
*As with any fabric, if it has the words "Performance" or "Durable" before the name, it's likely to have been treated with chemicals. Sometimes, this is a necessary evil when buying a piece of furniture. Sofas and chairs can cost thousands of dollars and therefore we want them to stand the test of time. For that reason, if you're going to buy a treated fabric, I suggest leaving your couch outside (covered) or in a garage for 48-72 hours after purchasing to allow the fabric to "off-gas". This will prevent many of the harmful chemicals from spewing toxins into the air inside your home. (You can also look into purchasing an Air Doctor, which is an absolute beast at air purification).
And lastly, I'll leave you with a final note on Sunbrella and Perennial fabrics. These acrylic (aka synthetic) products are largely considered a designer secret and a trick-of-the-trade. Although developed for outdoor use, designers quickly learned the value of using these products indoors for added durability, especially for homes with young children or pets. While I am tempted by their durability, I tend to lean away from using these fabrics indoors. There are concerns about the potential of absorbing acrylic polymers through the skin. With how much time we spend in skin-to-skin contact with our furniture, I think this is something to be cognizant of. Additionally acrylic textiles cannot be recycled, making them harder on the planet than their natural counterparts.
Ultimately, when choosing a fabric for your new piece of furniture, there is a lot to consider. What questions do you have about fabrics? Leave them in the comments below! And before you go, shop these killer fabric maintenance tools which will help keep your upholstery looking fresh and in tip-top shape for as long as possible.
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