Guide to Upholstery Fibers

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 will have to employ.

In short, the type of fabric is 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 to produce more interesting textures and colors. Blending fibers can also make a fabric more supple and better able to withstand everyday wear and tear.

Fabric Considerations

When selecting a fabric for your upholstery, there are few factors you may want to take into consideration:

  • Appropriateness to lifestyle: Does the fabric match your decor and your lifestyle? For example, if you have young children, a delicate fabric that is difficult to clean may not be your best choice.
  • Resistance to wear and tear: Take a look at the fabric and determine its hardiness when it comes to stains, soil, abrasion, and sunlight.
  • Care and maintenance: How difficult is it to clean the fabric? Are you willing to maintain and care for the upkeep of the fabric as needed?
  • Durability: How long can the fabric be expected to last? In many cases, you get what you pay for.

Two Fiber Categories

There are two fiber categories, natural or man-made. Natural fibers can be cellulose or plant-based fibers, or animal/protein fibers. And, if it does not come from the natural world, then that means it is synthetic or man-made.

Plant-Based Natural Fibers

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

Cotton

Cotton is a popular plant-based fiber that is used extensively. Premium grades of cotton can be almost as expensive as silk and just as lustrous; lesser grades, with a shorter fiber length, can be fuzzy and dull. Cotton is strong and versatile, but not very resistant to wrinkling and stretching.

Cotton takes finishes and dyes really well. 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, making it a good blend with other fibers. Linen can be cleaned easily; it can be washed and ironed or dry cleaned.

Linen ages well, as it does not fade from light and is resistant to insects; however, it is prone to mold and mildew and will not tolerate very high humidity. It is more often used in drapery and wall coverings instead of upholstery.

Animal-Based Natural Fibers

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

Silk

Silk is derived from silkworms and has been a symbol of luxury for centuries. Reeled silk is smooth and shiny, while spun silk is more textured. Silk is strong and can last a long time if not exposed to sunlight, as long as not mildewing 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's texture can range from soft and fuzzy to hard and smooth.

Wool is wrinkle- and soil-resistant and can stand up to abrasion, mildew, and sunlight; however, it does need to be protected from insects.

It makes a durable, but relatively expensive upholstery fabric and is often blended with 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 feel 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 and is also found in novelty fabrics, lining, and taffetas. It is easily cleaned with soap and water or by dry cleaning.

Acrylic

Acrylic fibers are also man-made and include such brand names as Orlon, Acrilan, Dolan, and Dralon. With a soft, wooly, and natural feel, acrylic is used to create plush velvets.

Acrylic fabrics are quick drying and resistant to sunlight, fading, mildew, and insects; however, it is 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, mildew, insects, and wrinkling; it does have 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 can be made from an olefin. It is easy to wash or dry clean.

Polyester and Microfiber

Polyester was also introduced by DuPont in the 1950s. 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 crisp to soft feel.

It is strong and durable with good resistance to abrasion, standing up well to sunlight, mildew, and insects. Traditional polyester can be subject to pilling and soil easily, but microfiber has excellent resistance to soiling and wrinkling.

Polyester blends beautifully with other fibers, such as cotton, and can have a silk-like appearance. It is good for use in outdoor fabrics; stains can be easily spot-treated with solvents or detergents.