Finding the Right Fabric

Smith Brothers offers more than 900 different fabrics, which sounds exciting at first... but when you start to dig into all those choices, it can start to get pretty overwhelming! While it's great to have options, you may want a little extra help in finding that perfect fabric for your new furniture—especially considering that there's a lot to fabric beyond what color works best.

Here is a brief guide to choosing fabric for your furniture.

Fabric Content

While this is not an all inclusive list of contents found in upholstery fabrics, these are the basics. Knowing the pros and cons of each will help you select the fabric for you.

Natural Fibers

Natural fibers generally feature flat weaves that are ideal for prints. They are softer, and tailor well for upholstered furniture. However, being a natural product they can fade in direct sunlight, and may be susceptible to pilling.

Pilling is when a fabric begins to develop little balls of fiber on the surface. While undesirable, this is a natural characteristic of many fabrics. Not all fabrics pill, but it is difficult to predict which ones will. Most pilling can actually be shaved off with a fabric shaver. .

  • Cotton. Made from the cotton plant, this is soft, absorbent, and fades easily.
  • Linen. Made from the flax plant, linens tend to have a lot of hard plant fibers and slubs.

    For a textural look, designers make yarns with irregularities, producing the characteristic uneven surface of the finished fabric. Sometimes, this creates a regular pattern in the fabric once it is woven together, but it can also be a natural characteristic of the fiber that shows up occasionally in the fabric. Linen, cotton and silk tend to have natural slubs.

  • Wool. Made from animal hair, wool is warm, and not often used in upholstery.
  • Silk. Made from the cocoons of silk worms, silk has strong fibers and a natural shine, but can be damaged by sunlight.
  • Rayon. Also known as viscose, rayon is made from wood pulp and designed to be shiny like silk.

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic fibers are made by extruding chemicals into fiber strands. They are more durable and (in general) more resistant to staining and fading than natural fibers. Synthetic fibers are just as likely to be susceptible to pilling, however.

  • Acrylic. Very durable and often has a texture similar to wool.
  • Polyester. Very durable and cleanable.
  • Nylon. Stain resistant and durable.
  • Olefin. Durable, but can be susceptible to pilling if used in high amounts.
  • Polypropylene. Related to polyester.

Fabric Types

There are several different ways to turn yarn into fabric.

  • Woven. Most fabrics are woven together on a loom. Some looms can create very intricate designs using multiple colors of yarn, like the Jacquard loom. There are also other looms, like the Dobby, that make simpler designs.
  • Knit. Not many upholstery fabrics are knit (like a sweater), but sometimes fabrics are adhered to a knit backing for stability.
  • Velvet. Velvets are actually created on a loom by weaving two pieces of fabric face-to-face and then cutting them apart. This creates that luxuriously soft hand.
  • Non-woven. Some fabrics (like microsuedes) are not actually woven. The micro-denier (really thin) fibers are bonded together in an irregular "tangle" of fibers (like felt). Sometimes they are then adhered to a knit backing for stability.
  • Print. An easy way to create any kind of design is to print it onto the surface of a pre-woven fabric. Prints are usually less expensive, but the designers are no longer limited by the looms, so they can work with some amazing colors and patterns. Unfortunately, prints are more susceptible to fading because the dyes are only on the surface of the fabric.

Pattern Types

There are a great many types of patterns in upholstery fabrics, but here are some of the more common terms.

Pattern types

Examples from left to right: floral, stripe, chair pattern, and a body cloth

  • Body cloths are solid colors or textures generally used on the body of a sofa or sectional.
  • Florals are patterns with flowers or leaves, usually done at a relatively large scale. Sometimes these are also called Jacquards.
  • Paisleys are tear-drop shaped patterns and tend to be relativel ornate designs.
  • Geometics heavily feature squares, circles, patchwork, and so on.
  • Stripes include pinstripes, awnings, ombres, herringbones, and can be balanced or unbalanced.
  • Plaids include checks, ginghams, windowpanes, and hound's tooth.
  • Frames feature mirrored patterns like damasks.
  • Chair patterns may include diamonds, ditsy dots, or other patterns, and are in a relatively smaller scale.
  • Novelties are unusual designs such as animal skins or highly decorative designs.
  • Ethnic patterns include suzani or ikat patterns.
  • Prints are anything printed on top of a woven fabric. These designs can be extremely complex because they are not limited to a loom, but they can also be more suscpetible to fading as the design is not worked into the fabric itself but is only on the surface.

Quality Testing for Fabric

If you've bought fabric upholstery before, you know that the fabric is often the first thing to show signs of wear and age. Most likely, the quality and longevity of the fabric is just as important to you as the construction of the furniture itself.

Fortunately there are a number of industry standard tests that a furniture manufacturer can use to ensure that the fabrics they put on their furniture will last. At Smith Brothers, we use each of the following tests before we introduce any new fabric—though we impose much stricter threshholds than most manufacturers would allow when we determine whether a fabric passes these tests.

  • The Wyzenbeek Test. This test rubs either a screen or a piece of cotton against a fabric in a "double rub" motion. The more double rubs the fabric can withstand without yarns breaking, the more durable it is.
  • The Pilling Test. This test rubs a fabric in a circular motion, mimicking normal wear. We then give it a rating based on the amount of pilling or fuzzing that appears after the test is complete.
  • Dynamic Seam Fatigue Test. This test stresses a seam sewn between two pieces of the same fabric. If the seam fails too quickly, we reinforce the seams on that particular fabric while upholstering.

The Smith Brothers Recliner Rating

If a fabric satisfactorily passes both the Wyzenbeek and the Pilling tests, we allow it to be used on recliners. Fabrics that do not satisfactorily pass one or both of these tests are restricted to stationary pieces. This is because recliners create a lot more friction and cause fabrics to wear out more quickly.

Fabrics that do not pass this rating are not necessarily bad—they just need to be saved for stationary pieces of furniture.

Correlating Fabrics

While there really are not any set-in-stone rules for mixing fabrics, here are a few guidelines that may help.

  1. Choose a pattern (floral, leaf, geometric, etc.) that you like. It is easier to start with the most complex pattern first. This will go on chairs, ottomans, and/or pillows.
  2. If you need more than two fabrics, find a stripe or chair pattern next. This should look good with the first pattern (similar colors and scale). If this fabric is for a recliner, make sure it passes our test.
  3. If you need yet another fabric, find that next. Repeat as necessary.
  4. Last, choose the body cloth for the sofa. Unless you want a floral or patterned sofa, this should be a solid color or texture. It is a good idea to pick one of the more prominent colors in the first pattern and try to find a body cloth that matches.

Once you have selected all your fabrics, decide where they should go. Usually, the body cloth goes on the sofa/sectional. The biggest scale pattern usually goes on a chair and/or pillows. The stripe or smaller scale pattern should go on a second set of pillows, a second chair, or an accent ottoman.

Also, decide if you want to contrast the welt on any pieces of furniture or the pillows or select any decorative fringes or cords.

Check out the Suggested Correlate Groups in our catalog for some great ideas to get you started!

Fabric to Frame

In general, you can put any fabric on any of our frames. However, there are some things to keep in mind about how patterns and frames mix.

  1. Scale. Scale is very important. A tiny ottoman won't have enough surface to showcase a fabric with a large pattern, and a small pin-stripe might look dizzying and distracting on a large sofa.
  2. Style. Fabrics and frames both have their own style, and it's usually a good idea to be consistent. A modern geometric fabric may not be the best choice for a traditional chair with a turned leg and scroll back. Likewise, a colorful floral may not do justice to a boxy, track arm chair.
  3. Buttons and curves. Some frames have curved shapes or buttons that distort patterns, making them impossible to match. Some curves pose a challenge for stripes and plaids especially. The catalog indicates which styles do not look their best in stripes and plaids. It is most likely because some part of the frame's design requires the fabric to be pulled at an angle, so the stripe would run diagonally across that part of the piece. Most of the time, these distortions are not severe, and you are free to choose any fabric you like if you decide to do so.
  4. Recliners. As mentioned above in the section on quality testing, there are some fabrics that we have found to be more prone to damage at friction points on a reclining piece. Be on the lookout for that indicator on the fabric swatch if you're in the market for a recliner. (Remember that this only applies to recliners; tilt-back chairs do not have these friction points and are fine for all fabrics.)

With all of that said, of course, rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes deliberately bending or breaking these rules can create a very eclectic design that you will love, and that will look great in your home. The choice is yours!