Decorator Fabrics 101

From cotton to cretonne, learn all about the different types of fabric and where they're best used. 

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May 11, 2016
By: Mark McCauley

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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. Image courtesy of HGTV Magazine

Fabric Pros Vs Cons

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. The following slides explain the various types and styles of fabric and how they're best put to use.

Natural Fabrics: 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 and bedding, 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. Image courtesy of Thibaut.

Natural Fabrics: 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. See more of this colorful home, featured in HGTV Magazine

Natural Fabrics: 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.

Fabric Types: 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, such as the tartan chair shown here, 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.

Synthetic Fabrics: Rayon

Rayon is 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.

Synthetic Fabrics: Acrylic

Acrylic fabric 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.

Synthetic Fabrics: 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.

Synthetic Fabrics: 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.

Synthetic Fabrics: 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 for shower curtains or as part of an upholstery blend.

Synthetic Fabrics: 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.

Fabric Styles: Chenille

One of the most popular upholstery fabrics around, chenille fabric can be made from silk, wool, cotton, rayon or a blend of any of the above. Recognizable by its soft, fluffy texture, this durable fabric gets its name from the French word for caterpillar. 

Fabric Styles: Chintz

The chintz style originally hails from India and was brought to the West by the British raj. Chintz is a highly polished, rather thin, brightly colored and typically floral cotton fabric. Popular for upholstery and slipcovers. Image courtesy of Romo

Fabric Styles: Cretonne

Cretonne is a heavy cotton fabric that's similar in look to chintz but with a much sturdier construction that makes it perfect for use as both upholstery and curtains. See more of this colorful kitchen, from HGTV Magazine

Fabric Styles: Damask

Damask features 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; the style can also be seen in bedding and wallpaper. Image courtesy of Thibaut.

Fabric Styles: Gingham

Gingham is 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.

Fabric Styles: Grosgrain

French for 'coarse grain,' grosgrain is a trim with a wide ribbed grain, or texture. Most often found as ribbon, the trim can be applied to dress up window treatments, upholstered pieces or accessories, like lampshades, pillows or fabric shades.  

Fabric Styles: Herringbone

Herringbone is 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.

Fabric Styles: Mohair

Mohair is a natural fabric made from Angora goats' hair. Boasting a high luster and incredibly soft feel, Mohair doesn't have a scratchy feel, like wool, and is a high-end choice for upholstery fabric. 

Fabric Styles: Satin

Dating from the 14th century, Satin is 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. Today, the look can be reproduced in rayon for the cost-conscious.

Fabric Styles: 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.

Fabric Styles: 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.

Fabric Styles: Toile de Jouy

Literally French for fabric from Jouy — short for Jouy-en-Josas, the riverside city where it was first manufactured — bleached cotton printed with pastoral or figural scenes has been popular as a wall covering, bedding and upholstery fabric since its introduction in 1770. Learn more about French design and how it still inspires trends today. 

Fabric Styles: Ultrasuede

An advance in technology, ultrasuede replicates natural suede (the underside of leather) but resists stains much better than the highly absorbent natural hide. Second-generation ultrasuedes feature microfibers that are less dense in terms of fiber count and therefore more affordable.

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