The upholstery fabric for a new sofa or armchair is a big investment—you don’t want to be second-guessing it a few months after the piece arrives on your doorstep. Choose the wrong material and you’ll find yourself battling snags and stains. Make a mistake on the color or pattern, and the whole room suffers (or you’ll wind up splurging to have the piece reupholstered). So before you pick your new upholstery furniture fabric, read on to find out what you should consider in terms of durability, comfort, and style. Here's how to zero in on a fabric choice you’ll be happy to live with for years.
What Is Upholstery, Anyway?
Upholstery is the materials—which include fabric, padding, webbing, and springs—that make up the soft coverings of chairs, sofas, and other furniture. The process began in the Middle Ages and grew in popularity during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Over the years, a wide variety of materials have been used, from hay to horsehair to wool. Modern upholstered items use metal springs and foam for greater durability. While the interior materials may not be visible, they make a big difference in whether the piece is comfortable . And though fabric can always be changed—and may need to be, depending on wear and tear—choosing high-quality inner layers will help make sure the piece will last for years to come.
How to Choose the Best Upholstery Fabric for Your Sofa (or Chair, or Headboard…)
As you shop for an upholstery fabric, let your practical needs lead, advise Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams, cofounders of the home-furnishings company that shares their names. “First, consider how you live and who will use the piece,” says Bob. “This will help guide you on the type of material to choose.” You may love the look of that silk velvet, but it will quickly get destroyed in a house with kids or pets. Pieces in high-traffic areas, such as family or living rooms, will need durable fabrics, especially for outdoor cushion and pillow fabric, while furniture that doesn't get as much wear and tear, such as a bedroom settee or headboard, can sport any type of textile.
A big mistake people make, Bob says, is not considering how a fabric or leather may age over time. Check the label and ask questions at the showroom to find out about the material’s content and cleaning needs, then think about how much maintenance you’re prepared to do to protect your selection. “How will it look in five years?” asks Bob. “Will you still love the leather as it develops a nice patina from everyday living? Will you vacuum the upholstery fabric regularly? Will you close the drapes when away or not using a room to avoid some of the fading that naturally occurs from exposure to sunlight?”
The Best Upholstery Fabrics for Homes with Kids and Pets
“Growing up, my brother and I weren’t allowed in the living room; it was for company only,” says Mitchell. Today, though, there are plenty of upholstery materials that match good looks with durability. “For children and pets—and maybe red-wine lovers—we like the easy care of a faux suede or the durability of a Sunbrella indoor-outdoor fabric,” he says. “We’re also big fans of slipcovered upholstery. And distressed leather is great—you don’t have to worry about the occasional scuff or scratch.” If you have a busy household, stay away from delicate or textured options, like silk, which could pull and aren’t as forgiving when it comes to stains.
How to Pick a Luxurious Upholstery Material
If messy children and pets aren’t a worry, “you can really flaunt your freedom,” says Mitchell. His top decadent picks: fluffy Tibetan wool (“it feels so indulgent, but it’s not a great place to eat peanut butter crackers”) and Belgian linen. “While linen is very durable, in lighter colors it doesn’t offer the level of stain resistance that a kid-friendly household might need and may not have a crisp, wrinkle-free look after a lot of lounging,” he says. If you're worried about upkeep (or cost), you can always use these luxe fabrics on pillows, which can be swapped out once they've seen better days or a new trend comes along.
Don't Forget to Consider the Piece Itself
Take the shape of the furniture into consideration when you're choosing a fabric. (Your upholsterer will thank you.) If you’re upholstering a curvaceous piece, Bob recommends sticking to solid-colored fabrics for office chair fabric. “Patterns or textures with a distinctive direction may not upholster well.” A pattern that looks great on a bolt of fabric may not look great once it is chopped up and put back together on your sofa, particularly if it's a tricky, ornate shape. Take the size of the furniture into account, too. “We like larger pieces, such as a sofa, in a rich solid color or classic neutral so you won’t tire of it over time,” says Bob. “Liven things up with smaller pieces—for instance, a great statement chair in a bolder shade or pattern.” Think about the other furnishings in the room as well—especially the other upholstered pieces. You'll want to make sure the colors, textures, and patterns work well together.