The Best Fabrics for Upholstery

Laurie Brenner

A reupholstery job saves on the costly purchase of a new couch or chair, but if you want long-lasting results, pick the right upholstery fabric.

Thread Count

Furniture exposed to heavy wear day in and day out requires a tightly woven durable fabric. Higher thread counts in the fabric -- the number of threads per inch -- result in a stronger, more durable fabric that can withstand the abuse children and pets put it through.

Fabric Weave Durability

The type of weave used to make the fabric contributes to the strength of the fabric. You'll find as many weaves and more as there are fabrics, and the most durable include the plain, twill and jacquard weaves. Basket weaves work better for shirts than for furniture, because they stretch a bit, and satin weaves will work for furniture not exposed to a lot of wear.

Durable Natural Fabrics

Natural fabrics provide some of the best durability when it comes to upholstery, but they don’t resist ultraviolet rays so well and can fade when placed in direct sunlight. Some natural fabric weaves may also result in pilling -- those little annoying fabric balls that gather on the material. Choose flat-weaved natural fibers for greater strength.

Leather: Full- or top-grain leather is a tough fabric, which is why you find it used for saddles, shoes, jackets and purses. Clean leather by regular vacuuming and wiping with a damp cloth. Periodically maintain it by adding a conditioner. Keep leather out of the sun to avoid fading.

Heavy Duty Cotton: As a 100 percent natural and soft, absorbent fiber, heavy-duty cotton fabrics such as duck and sailcloth -- though more casual -- offer the most durability. For a more formal look, opt for damask cotton fabrics. Damask fabric often includes a reversible pattern woven into it by using one warp and weft yarn each.

Wool: Usually blended with a synthetic fiber to reduce felting -- fibers that flatten and bond together to resemble felt -- wool fabrics resist soil, fading, wrinkling and pilling.

Cotton Blends: A cotton fabric mixed with a man-made fabric works best to create family-friendly furniture. To keep stains at bay, add a stain-resistant finish.

Vinyl: Though made of plastic, vinyl works well for kitchen or dining room chairs. Vinyl can simulate the leather look, and resists liquid spills and staining. Higher-quality vinyl fabrics provide greater durability.

Adult-Only Homes

Furniture in homes with no children or pets doesn’t require the same qualities family-friendly fabrics need. Choose the fabric that best suits your decor and the room, because some fabrics don’t perform as well as others.

Linen: Opt for linens for formal living areas that don’t see a lot of wear and tear. Linen does wrinkle and soil easily, but it rests fading and pilling. Linen upholstery requires professional cleaning to prevent fabric shrinkage.

Silk: It's a luxurious product, so choose silk for that fainting couch or chaise longue that you don’t use all the time. Silk fabrics require professional cleaning.

Synthetic Fabrics

Acrylic: Originally created as a substitute for wool, acrylics resist soil, fading, wrinkling and wear, but low-quality acrylic fabrics end up with a lot of pilling in areas exposed to constant wear. Higher quality acrylic fabrics end up with less pilling.

Nylon: Used with other fibers, nylon helps make a cotton upholstery fabric stronger. The fibers bend easily and don’t wrinkle or soil. Nylon fibers can pill or fade in direct sunlight.

Olefin: Synthetic olefin upholstery fabrics work the best for furniture exposed to heavy abuse. You’ll find this fabric used on outdoor furniture thanks to its durability and resistance to fading.

Polyester: Polyester is usually added to cotton or other fibers when used in upholstery. When added to cotton, it can reduce fading, wrinkles and mashed surfaces of napped fabrics, such as velvet, for specialty furniture.

Fabric Selection

When you make your fabric selection, add 10 percent of the total amount needed to account for cutting out the pieces. Upholstery fabrics are in a special section in the fabric store -- they are stored on long rolls instead of bolts because they are much wider. Check a reupholstery chart to determine how much fabric you need for your reupholstery project before buying fabric.