Guide to Upholstery Fibers

Characteristics of Plant Based, Animal, and Synthetic Fibers

woman re-upholstering chair
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Upholstery fibers not only determine how a fabric will look and feel, but also how it will wear, how care-intensive it will be, and the cleaning methods you’ll have to employ.

In short, fabric is one of the most important factors in how any upholstered furniture will look and wear. It is also a major deciding factor when you buy furniture. Here is a guide to different fibers so that you can find a good match for your needs.

When creating a fabric, manufacturers often blend fibers together, because blending fibers produces more interesting textures and colors. Blending fibers can also make a fabric more supple, and better able to withstand everyday wear and tear.

Considerations for Fabric Shopping:

  • Appropriateness to lifestyle.
  • Resistance to stains, soil, abrasion and sunlight.
  • Care and maintenance.
  • How long it can be expected to last.

Basic Fiber Categories:

  • Natural fibers, which can be cellulose or plant-based fibers, and protein, or animal fibers.
  • Synthetic, or man-made fibers.

Natural Fibers That Are Plant Based

These fibers are derived from plants, and cotton and linen are two of the best-known ones.

Cotton: Cotton is a popular plant based fiber that is used extensively.

  • There are different grades of cotton. Premium grades, which have long staple, can be almost as expensive as silk and just as lustrous. Lesser grades, with a shorter fiber length, can be fuzzy and dull.
  • Cotton takes finishes and dyes really well.
  • Cotton is strong and versatile, but not very resistant to wrinkling and stretching.
  • It soils easily and consequently needs fabric protection to deter stains. Cotton blended with other fibers is easier to use than plain cotton.

Linen: Linen is another plant-derived fiber, and shares many similarities with cotton.

  • Linen is available in a variety of grades, with the finer grades looking smooth and almost silk like.
  • Like cotton, linen is not very resilient and wrinkles easily, and needs to be blended with other fibers.
  • Linen ages well, as it doesn’t fade from light and is resistant to insects. However, it is prone to mold and mildew and will not tolerate very high humidity. Because of its high maintenance, it is more often used in drapery and wall coverings instead of upholstery.
  • Linen can be cleaned easily as it can be washed and ironed or dry cleaned.

Natural Fibers That Are Animal Based

Protein or animal fibers such as silk and wool are used in high-end fabrics as they are expensive to produce.

Silk: Silk is derived from silkworms and has been a symbol of luxury since time immemorial.

  • Reeled silk is smooth and shiny, while spun silk is more textured.
  • Silk is strong, resilient, and can last a long time if not exposed to sunlight. It doesn’t mildew easily.
  • Silk is beautiful, but due to its cost, is only used in high-end fabrics.
  • It can be dry cleaned or cleaned with a mild detergent.

Wool: Wool is obtained from sheep fleece and the term”virgin wool” denotes new, not recycled wool.

  • Wool can be soft and fuzzy as well as hard and smooth.
  • Wool is wrinkle-resistant, as well as soil resistant, and can stand up to abrasion, mildew, and sunlight. It does need to be protected from insects, however.
  • It makes a durable, but relatively expensive upholstery fabric, and is often blended with other synthetic fibers.
  • To clean wool either dry-clean or use a mild detergent and cold water.

Synthetic or Man-made Fibers

Synthetic fibers or polymers such as microfiber, are the most extensively used group of fibers in modern upholstery. There are endless possibilities in textures, colors, and patterns with these fibers. As a rule, they also hold up well to all kinds of wear and tear.

Acetate: Acetate is a synthetic fiber made from cellulose acetate.

  • Acetate has a luxurious look and feels, with strong luster, and a good ability to take dyes.
  • Acetate is resistant to shrinkage, wrinkling, and mildew, but does not resist solvents or abrasion.
  • Acetate is used extensively in blends to impart softness and luster. It is also found in novelty fabrics, lining, and taffetas.
  • It is easily cleaned with soap and water, or dry cleaning.

Acrylic: Acrylic fibers are also man-made and include such brand names as Orlon, Acrilan, Dolan, and Dralon.

  • Soft, wooly and natural to feel, acrylic is used to create plush velvets.
  • Acrylic fabrics are quick drying and resistant to sunlight, fading, mildew and insects. However, they are not flame-retardant.
  • Acrylics make excellent outdoor fabrics.
  • To clean, either wash with soap and water or dry-clean.

Nylon: Nylon is the generic name for a group of chemically related fibers and was introduced by DuPont in 1939.

  • It dyes and drapes well, and has a good luster.
  • Nylon is very durable as it is extremely resistant to abrasion. It does a terrific job of resisting mildew, insects, and wrinkling, but has poor resistance to sunlight.
  • It is extensively used to create velvets, woven fabrics, and knits.
  • You can either dry clean or wash it.

Olefin: Olefin is derived from petroleum, and can mimic wool in appearance.

  • It resists moisture, mildew, chemicals and abrasion. It is sensitive to heat and if not treated properly, it can be damaged by sunlight.
  • Flat woven fabrics and velvets are made from an olefin.
  • It lends itself to being washed as well as being dry-cleaned.

Polyester and Microfiber: Polyester was also introduced by DuPont in the 1950’s. Microfiber, which has increased in popularity over the years, is a blend of polyester and polyamide.

  • In appearance, polyester fabrics can range from bright to dull sheen, and a crisp to soft feel.
  • It is strong and durable with good resistance to abrasion. It stands up well to sunlight, mildew, and insects. Traditional polyester can be subject to pilling and soil easily. However, microfiber has excellent resistance to soiling and wrinkling.
  • Polyester blends beautifully with other fibers, such as cotton, and can have a silk-like an appearance. It is also used in outdoor fabrics. Stains can be easily cleaned with solvents or detergents.