Decorator Fabrics 101
There are two basic forms of fabric – natural and synthetic – and both have their positive qualities. Synthetics, for instance, can be very durable and can often resist sun damage. But don't think of naturals as necessarily being weaker than the synthetics – durability often depends on the weave and finish applied to the products, not the inherent qualities of the fabric itself. For example, chintz is a highly polished, somewhat thin-fibered cotton that isn't long-wearing. It's a "look," whereas a cotton using thicker fibers and heavier weave will perform better for greater periods of time.
In some cases, a synthetic-natural blend is going to be the best option for your upholstery, floor-covering or window-treatment need. Blends can give you the strength of the synthetics combined with the desirable qualities of the naturals.
Here's a look at the various types and styles of fabric used for decorating and how they're best put to use:
Cotton: Cotton is extremely versatile and the strongest of the natural fibers, with the exception of wool (but who wants to sleep on wool sheets?). Cotton accepts dyes well, so color options are great, and it allows for the flow of air through the goods; in industry jargon, we'd say it's a fabric that "breathes" well.
Where to Use It: For upholstery, cotton's breathability has distinct advantages. For a room in which people sit for long periods of time – a family room, for example – the breathability factor will enhance the comfort of the furniture. If you like that ever-so-fashionable wrinkled, easygoing "forever summer" look, you can't go wrong with cotton slipcovers. To add durability to the breathability mix, look for a cotton-synthetic combination. Cotton is also a great choice for breathable seat cushions for occasional chairs or, with fabric protection, for dinette chair covers. Cafe curtains and less formal window treatments for spare bedrooms can be made from inexpensive chintz or brushed cotton (this type of cotton has a soft, smooth hand, like chamois), giving you great color at a low price.
Linen: Made from a vegetable fiber, linen has a fine luster. It possesses a healthy stain resistance but wrinkles if you even look at it funny. Therefore, the style of linen is wrinkled. Often, style follows the inherent nature of the material.
Where to Use It: Linen is super as a table covering. Its lighter hand and casual nature relate to spring and summer. Use it to add a little magic to summer table settings or as a casually elegant unstructured window treatment on a decorative rod.
Silk: Silk gets a bad rap because it's susceptible to sun damage. If you avoid overexposure to the sun (which can create what's called sun rot), silk can be a wonderful investment. It comes in a wide variety of fabric weights, from light-handed to heavy raw silk. The weave will often determine the wearability of silk, with some of the raw silks being much stronger and able to take more wear.
Where to Use It: Lined silk makes gorgeous window treatments and is very long-wearing. It makes durable upholstery fabrics as well. Before synthetic fibers, silk and cotton were used extensively. Many of the finest Oriental rugs are made of silk and last for hundreds of years. Silk makes terrific throw pillows, feeling cool and slick on the cheek when taking that too-rare nap on the sofa.
Wool: The battleship of the naturals, wool is a fabric that provides long wear. Wool can be scratchy and warm, however, and some people may be allergic to it (your dog, too, might have an allergic reaction to wool carpeting or upholstery).
Where to Use It: Wool makes fabulous hard-wearing wall-to-wall carpeting. Wool sheepskin, in its natural state, brushed and airy with long fibers, makes wonderful small floor coverings at the side of a bed or near a cozy fireplace. Wool upholstery will last to the next ice age. Think of wool upholstery as the famous Pendleton shirt, which warms and breathes well simultaneously. For some people, though, it gets a little too warm.
Rayon: Here's a synthetic that can hang well, but it can also do some pretty bizarre things for a fabric. Check the fabric contents on window treatments to be sure the rayon content is low or nonexistent. In the summer, rayon absorbs humidity and shrinks upward. It lets back down in lower-humidity months. It's like window treatments on a pogo stick.
Where to Use It: Rayon is fine for window treatments in a very low-humidity area.
Acrylic: Acrylic is colorfast and resists stains well. It also has sun-resistant qualities not found in the natural fabrics, but it's slightly harder to clean than wool, and it can pill.
Where to Use It: Acrylic is often blended with natural fabrics to add durability.
Nylon: Nylon is tough stuff. It says "no" to stains and static electricity and wears well. Nylon is a continuous filament, as opposed to a twist (hence nylon can't breathe, while cotton has a high breathability factor, as air passes through the twist).
Where to Use It: The solidity of the filament makes nylon not particularly comfortable to sit on, as it warms up from body heat quickly, but it's fabulous if you're jumping out of an airplane.
Olefin: Olefin is another test-tube baby with high durability, but it's not so high on style.
Where to Use It: Olefin is great for professional-football stadiums (it makes for swell AstroTurf), but it's not so great in the home-unless you have a need for some indoor-outdoor carpeting.
Polyester: Polyester is what's called a staple yard, consisting of strands bonded together. It's fade-resistant but harder to clean than nylon or wool, and it's not as resilient as other fabrics. The term staple refers to a short length of fiber that's twisted to form a thicker strand.
Where to Use It: It's often used as part of an upholstery blend.
Acetate: Acetate is long-wearing and is less affected by humidity than rayon. Softer than the other test-tube babies, acetate rarely pills and is tough to wrinkle.
Where to Use It: It's good in window treatments because of its wrinkle-resistant draping qualities.
Styles and Patterns
Chintz: The style originally hails from India and was brought to the West by the British raj. Chintz is a highly polished, rather thin, brightly colored calico cotton fabric. Popular for upholstery and slipcovers.
Cretonne: A plain-weave fabric with both printed floral motif and angular shapes for people who can't make up their minds about what they like. Often used for chair coverings and curtains.
Damask: A glossy Jacquard weave (a Jacquard weave is made with a Jacquard loom, which was invented Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801) that has a flat look on the pattern itself but a glossy look for the background. In silk, rayon or linen, it's often used for draperies and upholstery.
Gingham: A relatively inexpensive fabric that usually has a checkered pattern. Looks great as a dining tablecloth in Italian restaurants or on kitchen or nursery windows.
Grosgrain: A silk with a ribbed appearance.
Herringbone: A regular geometric pattern consisting of two slanted rows that form a "V" shape on the fabric. This menswear look has become popular in upholstery.
Moiré: For some reason, the French liked fabric with water spilled on it just like your kids do. Moiré is a "water-marked" fabric (an effect now produced by cylindrical presses) with vertical "cathedrals" (lines that look like the peak of a cathedral).
Mohair: Angora goats' hair. Sometimes used for throws and pillows.
Satin: This one dates from the 14th century. It's believed to be named after the Chinese town of Zaitun, though no one knows where Zaitun was. Satin was originally a glossy silk fabric with a dull back, but the look can be reproduced in rayon for the cost-conscious.
Tapestry: Tapestries were originally developed in the Middle Ages as a form of insulation, as the walls at the time had pretty low R-values. Tapestries helped to block the wind coming in through the chinks in your basic castle's mortar and later developed into a brocade type of weave with ornamentation.
Ticking: Ticking is a striped cotton fabric traditionally made in black and white but also seen in blue/white and red/white. It's used for mattress covers and informal curtains and coverings.
Toile de Jouy: Literally meaning "fabric of joy," toile is a French fabric with a pattern that's somewhat naïve, featuring country scenes of a solid black, red, gray or blue against a cream-colored background. Toile is often associated with cottons.
Ultrasuede: An advance in technology, ultrasuede replicates natural suede (the underside of leather) but resists stains much better than the highly absorbent suede. Second-generation ultrasuedes are the more affordable microfibers that are less dense in terms of fiber count and therefore more affordable.
Velvet: A pile that's cut at uniform lengths to create an even overall surface. Very durable and great for heavy flowing draperies.
Mark McCauley is a professional member of the American Society of Interior Designers and author of Color Therapy at Home (Rockport Publishers) and Interior Design for Idiots (Great Quotations Publishing Co.).