Jayne Duncan

Modern upholstery fabrics are both durable and desirable.

By Kate Jonuska

It used to be an either/or proposition. You could live near your furniture, admiring its high-fashion upholstery fabric from afar. Or you could actually live with your furniture, accepting the inevitable aging, fading and wear that result from everyday sitting—as well as the inevitable roughhousing, movie watching, napping, working, blanket-fort making, eating, drinking and spilling, in the case of most active families.

Jayne Duncan
Jayne Duncan

“What’s nice about people in Colorado is they actually use their homes. They don’t have rooms that sit with furniture in them that no one ever goes into or sits on,” says interior designer Cynthia Stafford, partner at TruDesign in Lafayette. “So generally when our clients first talk about fabrics, they’re talking about durability, but you can have both durability and style in today’s world of fabric choices.”

Double Rubs & Durability

Before getting to style, the first step of fabric choice is always gauging the necessary durability, says textiles expert Jim DiTallo. And today’s fabrics have higher durability ratings than ever before. Those ratings are expressed in “double rubs,” so called because they’re tested through repeated rubbing with another fabric.

“Consumers now know how to read labels, and if they understand what a double rub of 25,000 to 30,000 means, then they can make judgments themselves if it will wear properly for their application,” says DiTallo, a textiles instructor for 20 years and now a fabric representative for more than 35, currently with the Duralee brand.

For reference, a score of 15,000 is deemed suitable for residential use. Commercial fabrics start at 30,000 and go up from there. Compare that to engineered fabrics, like the popular indoor-outdoor Sunbrella brand, which boasts 50,000 double rubs and an ever-growing catalog of colors, patterns and textures.

“There’s a big demand for those (indoor-outdoor) products to be brought indoors,” DiTallo says about Sunbrella and up-and-coming competitor Bella Dura. The fabrics resist stains and wear, are easy to clean and don’t fade with sun exposure, which is especially vital in sunny Colorado. “Ten years ago, you could identify an outdoor fabric immediately by its flatness and stiffness. Now they’re much softer and more supple.”

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Fabric Blends

Often, engineered fabrics include some percentage of natural fibers—usually cotton or wool. According to DiTallo, “Of all your natural fibers, cotton blends are probably the best, usually blended with rayon, polyester or nylon.” The man-made fibers make the cotton stronger and less prone to fading.

Other than durability, the biggest blended-fabric consideration is the texture, or hand. “Hand is how something is going to feel when you touch it and how it’s going to react with your skin when you sit on it for a significant period of time,” says TruDesign partner Aleta Hebner. “Not all sturdy, sturdy fabrics are going to feel great against your skin.”

One blend to watch for, according to Hebner, is cotton or wool with rayon: “It’s meant to give a sheen and a luxurious hand, and it does both very nicely. But it tends to get very fuzzy and pill when it’s abraded.” If you’re going for a fuzzy chenille look, however, that natural pilling will enhance the texture.

Another bonus of natural-artificial blends is built-in visual texture. You can add depth and subtle pattern to even a solid-colored sofa through the texture created by the woven materials. For those of an eco-friendly persuasion, many engineered fabrics are made of recycled materials, and some have been tested for substances harmful to humans or pets. For the latter, look for fabrics that have been certified by Oeko-Tex Standard.

Au Naturel

Of course, some natural fabrics are incredibly durable choices, too. Leather is a great example, but leather-finishing techniques make a big difference.

“If you really want something that’s going to give you that 20 years’ worth of usage, you want a top-grain hide with an aniline dye,” Hebner says. The dyeing technique results in a leather colored all the way through the hide, so scratches and marks won’t be visible.
Perhaps the pinnacle of natural fibers in terms of hand and durability, though, is mohair.

“Mohair is a plusher, more luxurious velvet look, with a thicker pile. It’s so soft, and it’s bulletproof,” Stafford says. “It’s also very expensive. It can cost $100 a yard, easy.”

True to Style

In addition to being sturdy, durable fabrics can also be stylish, with options that won’t quickly become dated.

“Most of the time when we’re selecting a sectional or a sofa or that larger-scale piece that you don’t get to replace very often, we’ll tend toward something that’s more solid visually so that it lasts longer,” says Hebner, who says prints inspired by menswear, small geometrics and patterns created by texture are alternatives to solid colors. She also advocates using bolder, trendier prints on accent chairs or throw pillows, which can be more easily and cheaply swapped out based on trends. Those are also places to use fun but less durable fabrics.

DiTallo says several trends are here to stay, including mid-century modern patterns and chenille fabrics.

However, he sees a large change in color trends. “Warm grays are very popular, shading into graphite tones,” he says. “It’s a new neutral, and gray can be mixed with almost every other color. At the market, we saw gray and bright yellow, gray and chartreuse, gray and pink, and gray with orange. Warm grays, not cool or blue tones, are all over the place.”

Handle with Care

Even a fabric with the highest durability, best hand and great style can degrade or be ruined by bad maintenance.

Hebner reminds clients to regularly vacuum their furniture, “because all of that same dust that’s landing and you’re wiping off your coffee tables, all of that is going on your furniture, too. Every time you get that grain of dust or dirt on the sofa, you sit on it and move, and you abrade the fabric by tearing up those yarns through friction.”

And if you get stains, “treat them immediately, don’t let them go,” DiTallo advises. He recommends Nanotex, a fabric protector that’s made Scotchgard obsolete. “And sometimes it’s just as easy as flipping the cushions regularly to let them wear evenly.”

[accordion title=”Top Textiles” open=”1″]Here are the top five textiles for home furnishings:

Benefits: Indoor-outdoor fabrics in general are resistant to fading and stains, and can be cleaned with a simple wipe. Sunbrella and Bella Dura are popular brands.
Drawbacks: While quality and variety are improving, some indoor-outdoor fabrics have less selection, are stiffer and don’t offer a luxurious hand. Be sure to handle the fabric in person.

Benefits: Leather is a natural product and, if treated properly, will be soft against the skin and should last for 10-plus years.
Drawbacks: Not all leather treatments are created equal. Specifically, painted leathers feel slippery, don’t adjust to body temperature and clearly show scratches.

Benefits: This man-made product offers the hand of genuine, more delicate suede, plus it’s stain resistant and relatively easy to clean.
Drawbacks: Ultrasuede is a trademarked product of the brand Toray. Watch out for cheaper microfibers that mimic Ultrasuede’s texture, but often leave clear impressions when sat upon or touched.

Made-in-the-USA Textiles
Benefits: Manufacturers offering domestically made textiles, like Duralee, Robert Allen and Barrow/Merrimac, have dependably high levels of quality.
Drawbacks: Such fabrics will be relatively more expensive than bargain fabrics produced internationally.

Contract Fabrics
Benefits: These fabrics are designed for commercial use in restaurants, hotels and other applications. They have impressive double-rub scores of 30,000 or higher.
Drawbacks: Not all contract fabrics have great hand. Plus, you may one day see the fabric from your living room in a generic hotel room.