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Upholstery Fabrics From the 1940s

Tonya Yirka

During the 1940s, upholstery fabric was slowing evolving from the older more traditional natural fabrics such as wool, leather and cotton into newer man-made materials such as pleather and vinyl. After the war, upholstery patterns reflected color combinations and designs that were influenced by Europe and Asian cultures; with the influx of new housing and furnishings needed for the return soldiers and their families, upholstery was in high demand.

Traditional Fabrics

Although wool was used somewhat in the 1940s for such items as wood framed club and lounge chairs, it tended to be prickly to bare legs and lacked elasticity, which made it difficult to hug tight corners. Even so, tweed, manufactured using 100 percent wool, was a popular upholstery fabric of the 1940s. Moquette, a velvety thick fabric, was a popular upholstery for car seats and public transportation during the 1940s. From plane cockpits, neoclassical-style chairs to carved wood armchairs, leather continued to be a favorite upholstery material for those who could afford it in the 1940s.

New Fabrics

Heavy, thick-textured, knobby, barkcloth reached its zenith as upholstery material in the United States during the late 40s, when it was first introduced to the mainland by returning soldiers. A cloth made by pounding and soaking certain types of inner bark of specific Hawaiian trees, it evolved into a cotton textured cretonne fabric look-alike that often contained linen or rayon for the larger U.S. fabric markets. Naugahyde, a trademark for a vinyl-coated fabric resembling leather, became popular as an upholstery fabric in the 1940s. As a utilitarian fabric is was used for hospital and waiting room chairs as well as seats in cars made toward the end of the decade and for less commercial, more formal and residential chairs it was usually complemented with wood trim. Vinyl, for the western cowboy look, could be found in many dens and boys’ rooms.

Cheap Fabric

For the economically challenged, osnaburg a left-over fabric from the 1930s used as feed sacks in its grey state and upholstery covers among other uses in its finished state was still being used in the 1940s. Made of PW osnaburgs, a low grade cotton, and part-waste cotton mix along with low-grade, short-staple stock white cotton called clean osnaburgs, this coarse fabric was held together with coarse yarn and had a thread-count that ranged from 20-by-20 to 40-by-40.


Figural fabrics and figurative patterns depicting fantasy, pop culture and myths appeared on many chairs and settees during the 40s. Fabric prints of colorful travel scenes, especially from Mexico, were popular, as well as scenes of the early American West. Floral Hawaiian prints, regional scenes and floral patterns of popular garden trends also were found in the modern 1940s homes. By the end of the 1940s, the new crossover fabrics combined abstracted motifs with these more traditional motifs.


Velvet, linen and mohair as well as leather and vinyl were used in Art Deco and Neo-classical styled furniture during the 1940s. Tufted and plain, silk as well as muslin, usually in shades of white and leather, were the upholsteries of choice on many French-styled chairs.

Weaves and Weavers

During the 1940s, Hollywood studios and Beverly Hills interior designers commissioned hand-woven upholstery fabric from professional weavers such as Dorothy Liebes, Marianne Strengell, Martha Pollack and eventually Laurie Herrick. Popcorn weave was especially popular during this time.