What makes a “good” upholstery fabric?

This week on YouTube,  we’ll get our first look at fabric for Aunt Bea, so it seems like a good time to discuss the tricky business of fabric selection.

Fabricbooks

There are a lot of important considerations, whether you’re having something done, or doing something yourself. Obviously, there are design considerations: color, pattern, scale. What does it LOOK like? How does it FEEL?

That’s the super fun part 🙂

Pinterest it up! Express yourself! Make your house a home! How funky is your funky little chair?

But when it comes to fabric for upholstery, there are other factors that should be weighed.  Lots of sunlight? Cats? Kids? OCD tendencies with a tufted couch and a long single seat cushion? There are so many things to consider before you casually slap fabric on your furniture. 

The truth is, there’s no “perfect” fabric  – it depends upon the client, the project, the great big picture. That’s why many professionals want you to order fabric through their shop – sorting through all the relevant information is a bit of an art, one that takes knowledge and practical experience. Sometimes, upholstered pieces are purely decorative, but in most cases, they are functional parts of our home, and using an appropriate fabric ensures a good outcome, and long term satisfaction.

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But today, because we are teaching, I don’t want to talk about good fabrics:

I want to talk about FABRICS THAT ARE GOOD TO WORK WITH.

This is a little trickier, but upholsterers know what I mean. In order to get fabric onto a frame, we have to put it through some pretty serious paces.

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Some fabrics are cooperative. And some are a walking nightmare.

I’ve taught a lot of students, and I tell you what –  fabric selection can make or break you. The best fabrics will let you pull, hammer, steam, restitch and make happy little mistakes. A fabric that cheerily accepts every whim and torture makes the job a whole lot more enjoyable.

Obviously, if you’re a pro, you need to develop skills for wrangling a wide variety of textiles. But when you’re starting out, I don’t think there’s one thing wrong with stacking the deck in your favor. Time enough later to expand your vocabulary of upholstery related cuss words.

need-all-the-swears

So what fabrics are good to work with? It’s probably easier to talk about what isn’t Here’s a short, incomplete list of fabrics that are particularly challenging and why:

  1. Anything really thin (drapery weight, polished cottons, lighter linens etc.) Imperfections in your padding will be evident, fabric may tear if you pull too hard, and you may not be able to use a hammer on it, so no metal tack strips, no pli-grip. Usually, these fabrics don’t particularly love hand sewing either, so, you know . . . good luck.

  2. Anything really heavy. Sometimes people think heavier is automatically better, but super thick fabrics can be a nightmare when you get to corners where lots of layers land together, or where you have to sew through 4-5 layers on a cushion. Padding and trimming need to be meticulous.

  3. Vinyl/leather. There are definitely different rules for dealing with these materials – but most importantly when you’re learning, sewing perforates vinyl and leather, which means you have almost no ability to rework a seam. Sewing is a one shot deal.

  4. Velvet. I might be biased here, because I still hate working with velvet. It takes a whole slew of tricks off the table. You can’t fold it, or it will mar, which is a bummer because you also can’t steam it (at least not aggressively) Even if you don’t fold it, it’s hard not to rumple fabric as you work it onto furniture. You also can’t regulate it, because you’ll push the fibers right out of the weave, and any hammering has to be extremely delicate, which somewhat defeats the point of hammering. It has a mind of its own at the sewing machine, and will wander all over the neighborhood if you aren’t paying close attention. In conclusion: velvet is evil.

  5. Patterns that need to be matched. Centering isn’t such a big deal – even on a solid, we talk about marking centers and staying straight. But throw in a giant plaid or floral and you might as well punch yourself in the face right now. The problem, really, is that you need to understand the big picture from the outset – in a loose cushioned chair, for example, your last piece (cushion) is matched to your first piece (nosing). You can’t really isolate each step. When people are tackling their first project, they’re already taking in so much new information. Pattern matching is slathered right on top of 1,000 other things. It’s really fun for  the already overwhelmed (not.)

Again, over time, you want to develop confidence with a variety of fabrics. But get your sea legs first.

So what makes a good, cooperative upholstery fabric? Let’s discuss generalities and then I’ll show you a few of my favorites.

  1. Something that isn’t too strict about being perfectly straight – I like a random pattern or texture, and there are so many fun options! I tease my advanced students that they should use floral tapestry on everything (which of course they don’t) There’s a reason you see it in so many antique shops – it hides a multitude of sins through a combination of being busy, cooperative, and fairly random. Not into floral tapestry? No worries, there are lots of contemporary options that will deliver a satisfying upholstery experience.

  2. Just the right weight. How’s that for specific? See earlier comment about super light and super heavy fabrics. Not too thick, not too thin – just right, Baby Bear.

  3. Movement, not stretch. Again, tricky – a fabric that’s too stiff is hard to shape, but something that’s too loose won’t stay snug. An ideal fabric has just enough movement to cooperate. A good example might be a properly backed, tightly woven chenille or Greenhouse’s new Crypton Home line

  4. Something that can tolerate a variety of treatments, like steam, hammering, hand sewing, etc.  – Personally, I’m a big fan of polyester. It’s a great combination of easy to work with and easy to live with.

  5. Something that won’t unravel. Rework is a given when you’re learning upholstery – a fabric that falls apart will be the cause of MUCH frustration.

The fabric we selected for Aunt Bea is a polyester blend from Greenhouse Fabrics in North Carolina. It has a lovely hand, a bit of flexibility with a knit backing for stability. It’s a solid, so no pattern to match, but it has a little texture that we thought would read well in pictures and videos (and also be a bit more forgiving, since we’re not replacing all the padding.) At just $38.90/yard, we felt it was a good value for students who want to treat themselves to a first quality fabric without breaking the bank. Check out all the colors online:  A4367 Aqua

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What other Greenhouse fabrics should you check out?

Greenhouse carries plenty of cooperative options that are attractive, durable, cleanable and forgiving. Here are a few of my personal quick pick recommendations:


B6762 Bay Greenhouse Fabrics

I’ve often said, if I could only carry one fabric (heaven forbid!!!!) this would be it. I’ve used this polyester chenille so many times in so many colors and I’m always impressed with it’s general awesomeness. The polyester is durable and easy to care for. It has nice movement, with just the right weight, a flexible weave, and an upholstery-appropriate backing – it’s like butter.  It comes in loads of colors and has a delicious, varied appearance that manages to look amazing on everything. What else could you want? It’s a great all-around fabric that retails for $58.90/yard

I used A2921 Avocado in my Craftsy Class, “Getting Started with Upholstery” and  98599 Poppy on a client’s truly fabulous Pearsall sofa. I’m currently putting 98611 Sky on Rose, our gorgeous Victorian sofa that’s all curves, va-va-voom!


B7814 Driftwood Greenhouse Fabrics

Animal prints are so big right now, and why not? They’re loads of fun! Some are easier to work with than others, but I’m quite enamored of this random cheetah pattern in Greenhouse’s new Revolution line – it’s bleach cleanable!!!! It also has a nice weight and backing, and because it’s random, there’s a little more room for minor imperfection. That’s a lot of happy for $48.90/yard!

One of our weekend instructors, Lindsay Orwig from A Chick and a Chair recently posted a client bench in this fabric: could it be ANY cuter???? What a fabulous update!!


Seriously, tapestry is fun and easy to work with! If you’re not into florals, check out one of their botanical or novelty options. I think the leaf tapestries are lovely, such as 10379 Black on this student cushion project from last year,  but I’m also pretty enamored of this map pattern <3 A8176 Jewel ($48.90/yard)


A4272 Midnight Greenhouse Fabrics

Okay, you know how I feel about velvets, but if you MUST . . . a velvet like this, with a little texture and a low pile may give you the flavor you’re craving without making you homicidal. When Angela, one of our advanced students,  put in on her little love seat last year, I was really impressed with the amount of life it had – very rich.  Photos hardly do it justice; this one should be seen in person! Nicely done, Angela!

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The truth is, some fabrics are great to work with, and some fabrics are terrible. Most fabrics fall somewhere in the middle, with their own quirks, perks and challenges. The best way to know for sure what will work for you and your project is to talk with an experienced upholsterer, designer, or fabric rep. And sometimes, you just learn through your own experience, – the very best teacher of all!

Now I’d really like to know, if you’ve worked with a variety of fabrics: What makes your top 5 list for, “Good Upholstery Fabrics?” Feel free to comment here or on Facebook, we’re curious to hear what you think! 

And remember, we’re cutting up fabric this week on YouTube, so go check it out!

REUPHOLSTER AUNT BEA: PART 2 

Huge thanks to Greenhouse Fabrics for providing fabric for our Aunt Bea series! You can always browse their beautiful fabrics online at www.greenhousefabrics.com or find a showroom in your area. If you’re in the St. Paul area, you’re always welcome to browse through samples at The Funky Little Chair! 

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