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If you are about to buy a lounge suite or upholstered dining chairs, or re-upholstering existing furniture, you'll need this guide if you want your fabric to last longer and perform to your expectations. You'll be able to make an educated decision about what you're buying.
• What to look for in a fabric, and what to avoid.
• How to select a strong, durable fabric using a SECRET WEAPON! - a very smart, quick and easy little trick you can do in just seconds to tell how strong a fabric is.
• Care and Maintenance - what to do, what not to do.

FAQs About Upholstery Fabrics

This is difficult to predict, as it can be influenced by many factors, including usage, fabric protection application, window treatments, whether children or pets are using it, maintenance, wet swimming costumes, use of hair creams, perspiration, the quality of the fabric itself, is it textured with raised surfaces, does it have long floats/yarns on the top that can be easily snagged, is it subject to pollution eg a busy street corner, is it in the sun, etc etc etc. Sometimes a fabric can perform well until the owner's situation changes – eg children or pets come along. Some fabrics will need replacing after 2 years, some after 10 years.

No, the cost of a fabric is not influenced by its strength or durability, but by other factors, like the number of colours used, the complexity of different weaves in the one cloth, shipping costs if imported, the volume produced etc. Some inexpensive fabrics are durable, many expensive fabrics are not. Regardless of price, all fabrics need the same maintenance and care.

No, however all good suppliers will stand by their product if it is faulty, provided adequate care and maintenance has been carried out. Faulty fabrics are very rare.

No fibre is perfect, therefore combining fibres results in a better fabric. Qualities lacking in one fibre can be gained by blending it with a fibre that does have that quality. For example, polyester increases the strength of cotton, while cotton increases the moisture absorbency (ie the comfort) of polyester.

While some fabrics are durable, most fabric mills and suppliers have only three criteria when designing, manufacturing or selecting fabrics. They are : Appearance, Cost and Marketability. Please note that End Use and Durability are not amongst the criteria. And just because other furniture manufacturers are using a fabric is no guarantee that it is a good one. Most upholstered furniture manufacturers use timber frames and staples. The fabric is laid over the frame and stapled into place. The remainder of the settee usually consists of cushions. Fabrics used therefore need little strength during the furniture manufacturing process. The look of the fabric, to attract buyers and sales, is much more important to a furniture manufacturer.

Regular care and maintenance, as outlined below, will help.


• Blends of natural fibres combined with man-made fibres are more durable. For example, 100% cotton will fade quickly in sunlight, and will wear quickly. Polyester is very strong and doesn't generally fade, so a fabric composed of both polyester and cotton will perform better than cotton on its own.
• Polypropylene or olefin, while extremely strong, will shrink in high heat, so it's best to have less than 3% in the fabric composition in Australia.
• Modacrylic is a fibre suited to cold climates only, and should not be used in Australia. It distorts at 40 degree heat, easily achieved through body heat, especially on a hot day.
• 100% man-made fibres will give off chemical fumes when heated or in hot rooms, so avoid those. 

2. WEAVE ~
• Twill weaves (diagonal, used on denim) are the strongest.
• Tightly stitched fabrics with short stitches are generally stronger
• Textured fabrics usually contain long floating threads on the fabric surface (satin/sateen weave) which can be easily pulled, so avoid those. They can be identified by checking to see if they are stitched down at long intervals, forming a loose thread that can catch or pull easily.

3. RUB TEST (This is your SECRET WEAPON!) ~
This is a very quick and simple test that can be done before selecting a fabric.

Ask the store for a sample of the fabric - 10cm x 20cm is a good size. You can say it's for colour matching if you like.

Place it the right way up on a flat surface. Hold it top and bottom with one hand.
With your other hand, gently stroke the fabric surface with a very fine grade sandpaper in one area, in 4 different directions – vertical, horizontal, diagonal one way then the other - three times for each. If a hole appears or major structural damage, it can be concluded that this is not a very strong fabric and will not last long on furniture. If however very little change occurs, then with regular care and maintenance, it should last a long time. And yes, some fabrics do pass this test!  The store will not be impressed by this, however not only will you see if the fabric you like is strong enough, if enough people do it, hopefully the stores will use the same test to select better fabrics, and the suppliers will in turn demand more durable fabrics from the manufacturers. 

(It should be noted that a series of fabric tests to Australian Standards does exist. However, firstly, many domestic fabrics are not tested as the tests are expensive. The tests are mostly used for commercial fabrics where flammability ratings for example are legal requirements. Secondly, there are British Standards and International Standards used, which do not take into account the harsher conditions in Australia.
Thirdly, the rub test (Martindale) is conducted using a smooth weight applied under pressure to the fabric in a regular, circular motion until the yarns are observed to fatigue. While this test is used because it is repeatable, it does not reflect the probable true conditions of the end use in your home ie abrasion by dust or fine grit particles, sharp objects, weakening by the sun, etc. The sandpaper test is a home type remedy that soon sorts out the good from the bad, in only a few seconds.)

While no fabric is colourfast from light, all upholstery fabrics should be colourfast from rubbing. Take your fabric sample and rub a white cloth over it a few times. There should be no colour transfer.

Also test the sample for stretch. All fabrics stretch diagonally, but upholstery fabrics should not stretch vertically or horizontally as wrinkling and distortion can occur with use.

There is an extra test for soft pile fabrics, like velvet. Again, a sample will be needed as this test can only be done with a piece of unsewn fabric. Velvets are formed by weaving extra yarns into a foundation fabric, in either a 'V' or 'W' shape and then cropped. 'W' yarns are stronger than 'V' because they have been stitched into the foundation twice. Pulling a single yarn out of the pile will show whether it's a 'V' or a 'W'.


All fabrics, even those that pass the sandpaper test, need some degree of care in order for them to last longer. It's a sad fact that most people tend to take upholstered furniture for granted. They will faithfully wash their clothes, vacuum their carpets and methodically wash and polish their cars on a weekend to a gleaming state of cleanliness without once sparing a thought for their furniture covering. Too often the first time any attention is paid to it is when something about the appearance of the colour or structure changes. Then a flurry of activity occurs, but it is usually too late. Neglect can cause irreparable damage to fabrics. All fabrics need care, and that care must come from the user. However the user must know what care to give. With proper care, upholstery fabrics can last for many years. 

Here are some tips....

Soiling and dust build up can abrade the fabric and dull its appearance. The dust that settles on tables, cabinets and floors is also settling on your lounge, although it may not be seen. When pressure is applied during normal use, the dust particles grind into and around the fabric fibres, abrading them as sandpaper would. Vacuuming weekly with low suction and a soft brush accessory can add years to its life.

Pollution from car exhausts, open fires, cigarettes, gas stoves etc can produce sulphuric acid which can contribute to discolouration and deterioration of fabric. Weekly vacuuming and two yearly (or more often depending on usage) professional steam cleaning is the solution.

SPOT CLEANING ~ Attend to spills and stains immediately. Taking care not to spread the stain, gently scrape away soiling or sponge away liquid. Do not saturate the filling or the fabric with water or cleaning fluids. Avoid hard rubbing. Do not use cleaning products such as detergents, bleaches or spray cleaners other than appropriate recognised upholstery cleaners. An appropriate upholstery cleaner can be used according to directions

Sunlight, both direct and indirect, is very damaging to fabrics. The sun's rays can not only fade a fabric, but can also cause fibres to become brittle and weaken, resulting in holes in the fabric. Keep furniture away from sunlight as much as possible. Close curtains or blinds during the day, especially when no-one is home. In homes where the view is paramount and there may not be any window treatments at all, the home owner should expect the fabric to deteriorate more quickly, and be prepared to replace it as necessary.

Protect from direct heat by placing furniture at a distance from the heat source.

Pilling, or balling occurs on any fabric as a natural result of friction, and interaction of other fibres, such as in clothing. Removal of these pills with a Fabric Pill Remover (available at department stores) is safe and does not affect the fabric.

• Wear and tear can severely limit the life of a fabric.
• Pets' body oils can transfer to fabrics through rubbing against or sitting on furniture.
• Distortion of a fabric can occur when pressure is applied to edges of cushions or arms.
• Sharp objects including buckles, studs, pets' claws etc can pull threads which may develop into holes.
• Harsh rubbing from hard objects or when removing stains, can twist and damage fibres.
• Wet clothing eg swimming costumes can leave a water mark on the fabric, and can contribute to mould growth and dye transfer.
• Chlorine, especially, is a bleach that is damaging to fibres.
• Stains are harder to remove the longer they are left.

• Fabric protection using fluorocarbon based chemicals is recommended and will extend the life of the fabric. It allows soiling to be more readily released, and will allow liquid spills, both water based and oil based, to bead on the surface, ready to blot up, instead of being absorbed directly into the fabric.
• Silicone based protection is not recommended, as it only repels water based stains, and can actually attract soiling.
• Fabric protection should be reapplied whenever the fabric is professionally steam cleaned.
• It should not affect the feel or the appearance of a fabric.
• It should be noted that even fabrics with fabric protection applied still need regular vacuuming.

PROFESSIONAL CLEANING ~ Professional cleaning on site every year or two is highly recommended, IN ADDITION TO the care and maintenance listed above.

That all sounds too hard - maybe I should choose leather instead?


1. Fabrics offer a variety of colours and designs – even pictures within the one fabric so they can be more attractive than leather
2. Because there are many more fabrics to choose from than there are leathers, there is a greater chance a piece of furniture will be unique
3. Fabrics offer a variety of textures
4. Fabrics can 'breathe' and and are therefore more comfortable to sit on than the majority of leathers.
5. They can create a mood instantly in a room, and be its focal point.
6. Fabrics can tie together a room's decor
7. Fabric usually cost less than leather
8. Leather still needs looking after - cleaning and conditioning

And there you have it. It sounds like a lot of work, but considering that a new lounge or dining setting can cost anywhere between hundreds, to thousands of dollars, and re-upholstery of existing furniture can too, it is worthwhile selecting the right fabric to start with, then looking after it. It will last many years longer if you do.

Qualifications :
1. Completed with distinction a 2 year part time TAFE course in Textile Technology at TAFE Meadowbank (Textile Products Certificate) in Sydney, Australia
2. Upholstery Cleaning Technician Certificate from ACCI (Australian Carpet Cleaning Institute)
3. Fabric buyer and tester 1996 - 2003

© 2015 Margo Courtney
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