Decorator Fabrics 101

Learn information about the different fabric types and which ones to use.

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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 synthetics¾durability 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:

The Naturals

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.

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