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’ll have to employ.

In short, the 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 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.

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

Plant-Based Natural Fibers

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.

  • Premium grades of, which have a 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, making it a good blend 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
  • 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

Animal-Based Natural Fibers

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 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, 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, 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 a dull sheen, and a 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
  • Good for use in outdoor fabrics, as stains can be easily spot treated with solvents or detergents