The types of fabric we use on upholstery - find out which one is right for you

Fabric softens the look of this room

Fabric upholstery and furnishings soften the look of this room. Image source:

Fabric completes the look of a room. A room could be full of furniture and ornaments yet still look bare without the use of fabric. You can take the look of a room from rags to riches by changing the soft furnishings. The theme of the room can be changed from bohemian to opulent just by changing the furniture coverings. The key to a comfortable and relaxing environment at home is the kind of upholstery chosen for the sofa, bed covers, curtains and drapes. It is possible to get the right ambience and the desired look by using the right fabric combination. A room that is only used for entertaining can have delicate fabric but a room that is used by toddlers and pets needs sturdy and easily cleaned fabric. You also have to keep in mind the amount of sunlight the room gets. Moreover, personal choice, the personality of the owner and the depth of his/her pockets are all-important factors in the selection of a perfect fabric.

Broadly speaking, fabrics fall into two categories: fabrics derived from natural sources or man-made. However, there is a third category that is very popular as well, the blend. As the term suggests, it is a blend of natural and man-made fabric. It offers you the breathability and texture of natural fabric and the sturdiness of manmade fabric. The weave of thread further categorizes the fabric. Due to the quality of the thread, the variation in the weave and the finish of the fabric, the end products look very different from one another. 

Before selecting upholstery fabric, consider what room and how much use the furniture receives. Your choice of fabric will depend on whether the furniture is in an active family room or a quiet living room that seldom is used. However, today with the wide variety of functional fabrics that are available, you can have beauty and durability at affordable prices.

Fabric Types

Fabric swatches
Fabric swatches. Image source:

Synthetic Material

Synthetic fabrics for upholstery are often a first choice for furniture that gets a lot of use. These fabrics are durable and stain resistant. Polypropylene is loosely woven and requires latex backing. It has a tweedy, bulky appearance. Nylon is known for its strength, resistance to sunlight and easy care. The fabric has either a silky appearance or wool-like texture. Another popular synthetic fabric for high use furniture is microfiber, a tightly woven fabric that is a combination of nylon and polyester. Its resemblance to natural suede and the availability of many solid colours has made it a popular choice for upholstery. 

Cotton and Linen

Cotton fabrics work well on upholstered pieces that get minimal use and are not in the vicinity of direct sunlight. This natural fibre is less stain-resistant than blends or synthetics. Linen, with its beautiful texture, adds a designer touch to any room. Used for upholstery, linen might be too fragile for heavy-use pieces of furniture; it also can fade and disintegrate with constant exposure to sunlight. Linen is one of the more expensive upholstery fabric choices. 


In the past, leather upholstery probably conjured up a picture of a dark panelled library or den. However, leather is often the upholstery fabric of choice for sofas and chairs in all rooms of the house. You can select from many designer colours besides the old standby, brown. 

Read our article on leather here.

Fabric Blends

Fabric blends are popular as they offer beauty and durability. Add a synthetic fibre to cotton and the fabric becomes more durable, colourfast and stain-resistant. Wool is often teamed with polyester fibres to upholster heavily used pieces of furniture. Luxurious silk blended with a synthetic fibre creates a more durable fabric that retains the original beauty of the silk.

Natural Fabrics

Natural fabrics come from different sources. Cotton and linen come from plants. Both fabrics are cool, soft to the touch and comfortable. They are highly absorbent, breathable, and can withstand high temperatures. Damask, gingham, velvet and tapestry are suitable for upholstery whereas satin and percale are ideal for tablecloths and bed linen. Pima cotton, muslin and lawn are thinner fabrics making them more suitable for curtains, drapes, valances, blinds and tablecloths. 

For centuries silk has had a reputation as a luxurious and sensuous fabric, one associated with wealth and success. Silk is one of the oldest textile fibres known to man. The Chinese have used it since the 27th century BC. Silk has a rich look and touch to it. It has superb texture and lustre. Brocade, damask and taffeta are ideal for tailored curtains, pelmets and cushions, whereas organza is the most suitable for drapes and bed skirts.

Wool comes from fibres of animal coats, such as sheep, goats, rabbits, alpacas and llamas. Woollen fabrics are warm, have a soft feel and fuzzy surface, very little shine or sheen and will not hold a crease. They are heavier and bulkier than other fabrics. Tweed, tartan and mohair can be used for upholstery, curtains and pelmets, whereas jacquard tapestry is only suitable for upholstery.

Man-made Fabrics

Nylon, polyester, rayon, viscose and acrylic are manmade fabrics. They are manufactured either as 100% synthetic or are blended with natural fabrics. The blends have a more natural feel to them, are easier to care for and have better fall than the natural ones. Most of the fabrics available in the market are blends. Blends hold their shape and do not need much maintenance. 

Micro fibres are now very popular in the garment and upholstery industry. Their popularity can be attributed to their strength and durability and to their ability to repel moisture. Well-known families of micro fibres are ultra-suede and faux leather. They are highly durable as well as luxurious and imitate real suede and leather very well. These fabrics have revolutionized the textile industry. They are any designer’s first choice; they are Ideal for upholstery, curtain and drapes, pelmets, swags & tails, tiebacks, valances and blinds.

You can get the million-dollar look by spending a fraction of that and still let your children and dogs run amuck on the sofa. After all, all you have to do is wipe it clean and it will be as good as new.


Textile manufacturers have created some synthetics to imitate natural fabrics. Rayon imitates cotton, linen or silk, acetate imitates silk, and acrylic imitates wool. Micro fibre has a similar feel to suede leather, but is less likely to stain.

Final Tip

Choose fabrics by gauging the style of room and type of furniture. For highly trafficked areas or children’s areas, vinyl, micro fibre and polyester provide more durability and ease in cleaning. For fancier, less frequented areas, silk, linen or wool is better. Wear and tear is a fact of life and is not really avoidable with use, but exercised care will minimise it.

Read about what you need to consider in choosing the right fabric for your sofa or chair