Furnishing Fabrics

Soft furnishings — curtains and upholstery — take up a major part of your decorating budget and affect the look of your home dramatically, so it is important the fabric you choose is suitable for the job in hand. This task is easier now, since it has recently been made law that all fabrics must be marked with their precise fibre content.

Natural fabrics

These fibres come directly from nature — either from plants, like cotton and linen, or from animals, like wool and silk. They have many natural advantages, but some are becoming scarcer and more expensive and you will often find the most suitable material for any given purpose is made from a combination of natural and man-made substances.


Certainly an easy material to care for, cotton wears well and is fairly strong when dry or wet. It is perfect for curtains; but if you want to cover any furniture, be careful to choose a strong fabric and check with the supplier that it is suitable for upholstery. This is very important since furniture covering is an expensive and time-consuming job; the time and money involved could be wasted if you try to save a little by buying a cheap, flimsy fabric which will wear through in no time.

First quality cotton often undergoes a number of finishing processes which deal with any natural tendency it might have to shrink or crease; poorer quality cotton may not be treated in this way, so always establish the fabric’s suitability for upholstery before you buy.

Printed and glazed cotton, called chintz, used to be popular for both curtains and upholstery; but it has become very expensive in recent years. The glaze will come off after several washes and you may have difficulty finding a company which is willing to do reglazing.

Cotton is washable, but to be absolutely safe you should pre-shrink it before making it up. Wash loose covers and put them back on the furniture while they are still damp so they dry smoothly and fit precisely.


A vegetable product like cotton, linen is rather more expensive and somewhat-coarser; it also loses its strength more quickly than cotton and tends to crease unless specially treated. If you want to use it as an upholstery fabric, check it is recommended for this purpose.

Often used for curtains, linen has a naturally stubby and uneven texture which becomes even more obvious when light is shining through the fabric. Many people choose linen exactly for this effect; but it you want a smoother, more formal texture, you should look for another material. Linen is also washable, but you should pre-shrink it and replace it damp on furniture — as with cotton.

Linen union

This material has a cotton warp and a linen weft. (`Warp’ threads run along the length of a fabric, while ‘weft’ threads run across its length.) When two different fibres are woven together in this way, the fabric is described as a ‘mix’ (as opposed to a ‘blend’ where each individual thread is comprised of two or more different fibres).

Linen union is a very common furnishing fabric and is suitable for both curtains and upholstery. It comes in a huge range of traditional and modern prints and plain colours, so you are bound to find something which blends with the scheme you have in mind.

Washing instructions for linen union are the same as for linen and cotton.


Used extensively for upholstery but less often for curtains, wool has many natural advantages as a furnishing fabric. Because it lacks the static electricity of many man-made fibres, it attracts less dirt. It is quite tough and has a natural resilience which helps it to keep its appearance even after several years of hard wear.

This fabric is used widely for contract jobs such as hotels and airports because it is not only soft and warm to sit on, but it also has a natural and very efficient flame resistance; a lighted cigarette dropped onto wool will smoulder and die rather than flare up as it would with many synthetics. Wool absorbs moisture easily and therefore takes dye readily, so it can be made in an enormous range of colours and patterns.

Almost all furnishing wool sold by the metre or made up into upholstery will have been treated with a mothproofing solution; but make sure this is so. All materials which shows the Woolmark (pure new wool) or Woolblend mark (at least 70 percent pure new wool) will have had this treatment; these are trade marks of the International Wool Secretariat.

Wool should be dry cleaned and any spots treated with a slightly dampened cloth, since over-wet wool tends to go lumpy and matted.


Because it drapes beautifully and is naturally crease-resistant, silk is often used on its own for curtains and blinds; but for upholstery use it is usually mixed or blended with a tougher fibre such as wool or cotton. Wild silk (usually Indian or Thai) has an uneven quality, while cultivated silk is smoother and finer looking, although not necessarily cheaper since silk generally is a very expensive material. Nevertheless it has remained popular as a furnishing fabric for many centuries because of its deep sheen and luxurious feel.

Although in theory, pure silk is washable, you will probably feel safer if you send large items such as curtains and covers to be cleaned professionally.


Another expensive and luxurious fabric, velvet is rather tricky to produce. It is made by weaving two pieces face to face, joined only by the pile, and then cutting the pile precisely down the middle between the two pieces so its pile length remains standard. Because the knife edge which accomplishes this sometimes pulls out the odd thread along the way, all velvets have tiny holes known as ‘pin holes’ scattered through them. If you are in the habit of drawing this type of curtain during the day, you should interline them to cut out these potential light spots.

Because it is a pile fabric, velvet also has a tendency to show ‘shading’ — patches of apparently lighter or darker fabric caused by changes in the direction in which the pile runs. This occurs in all velvets and must be accepted as part of the natural quality of the fabric, although it does improve on curtains when they have been hung for a time and the pile has had a chance to spring back.

You should fit a cord or other mechanical pulling system if you have chosen velvet for your curtains, since constant handling will almost certainly cause crushing and damage to the fabric.

Although used widely in the last century as an upholstery fabric, real velvet (as opposed to its synthetic imitators) is probably not suitable for modern families who give their furniture a great

deal of hard wear, since under these conditions the pile is quite likely to wear off.

Velvet should be dry-cleaned professionally.

Man-made fabrics

Science has brought us many new chemically produced materials which relieve the huge demand for natural fabrics and often help to give these fabrics properties which they may not have on their own. Man-made fabrics are divided into two main groups — regenerated and synthetic fibres.

Regenerated fabrics

These have their origin in nature, although not in the fibrous form needed for textile production. All regenerated fabrics should be washed carefully since they lose strength when wet.

Viscose The best known example of regenerated fabrics is viscose (also called rayon or viscose rayon), which comes from the cellulose material in wood and is liquidized and forced through tiny holes to form the filaments which are made into yarn. You will find viscose under trade names like Fibro, Evian, Durafil (especially for upholstery), Sarille (often blended with wool), Vince! 28 (sometimes blended with cotton and polyester) and Rayon FR (treated so it is flame-resistant).

Cellulose acetate Found under trade names such as Celafibre, Dicel and Lansil, this is soft to the touch and drapes beautifully. It is often used in blends rather than by itself.

Triacetate Available as Tricel and Arnel, this is similar to cellulose acetate but is slightly more durable and resistant to stains. An easy fabric to look after, it is often found in the fillings of cushions and quilts.

Synthetic fibres

Chemically produced, these substances originate from raw materials such as oil and coal.


One of the first synthetics produced, nylon is lightweight and very strong; it also is resistant to staining because it does not absorb moisture readily. When, however, dirt does embed itself in the fibre, it can be difficult to remove; it is therefore a good idea to wash items made of this material frequently. Nylon sometimes has an unfortunate clammy smell and feel and is therefore often used in blends with other fibres. It is not recommended as material for curtains on its own since it tends to be weakened by exposure to light. Look for trade names like Bri-Nylon, Celon, Enkalon, Perlon, Antron, Rilsan, Nomex or Quiana (a silk-like nylon which is more expensive than the other types).


This is strong and durable, but greys easily and should be washed often. It dries quickly and is fairly resistant to light so it is used mainly for net curtains. This fibre is also resistant to creasing and, once permanently pleated in manufacture, retains this form indefinitely. Its trade names are Terylene, Trevira, Terlenka and Dacron.


Known as Courtelle, Acrilan, Orlon and Dralon (a fabric which sometimes resembles velvet), acrylic is strong, stain-resistant and easy to look after. Often blended with wool, this material does not matt easily and retains its shape well.


Like acrylics, these fibres — sometimes known as Teklan or Dynel — are similar to wool in appearance and feel and are often blended with wool. Avoid high temperature in washing or iron-mg since modacrylics tend to shrink.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

This is often applied as a tough shiny covering for cotton and imitates the performance of old-fashioned oilcloth at a lower price. Used mainly as leather-look upholstery, tablecloths and blinds, it is sometimes made into cushions — although it can be uncomfortable to sit on. Wash in cool water to avoid shrinkage.


Used under trade names such as Fibreglass and Duraglass, this type of fabric is very strong but has little or no resistance to abrasion; so if your curtains will constantly brush against another piece of furniture when they are drawn, choose another fabric. Glass fibres are washable, but this should be done by hand at moderate temperatures and with the minimum of rubbing. Their most important quality is their resistance to fire and they also stand up well to heat and light.

Care of fabrics

All fabrics suffer to a greater or lesser extent from exposure to sunlight, either because it weakens the fibres or fades the colours — and probably both. There is no material which will stand being in bright sunlight (especially that magnified by glass) all day over a long period of time, so always line curtains and try to position furniture out of any direct rays. Dirt also damages fibres, so clean all fabrics regularly; either wash them or brush with an upholstery brush or a vacuum cleaner.

Try to keep children and animals from abusing your furniture since they can shorten its life by many years. Bouncing will ruin springs, buckles and buttons may catch the cloth (as will animal claws) and rubber or plastic soles will wear it through. Back and arm covers are very useful on seating since they protect the most vulnerable areas from heavy wear. Hang curtains as far away from the window glass as possible to avoid the effects of condensation.

Finally, try not to run riot with aerosols such as polishes, air fresheners and insect sprays since these too can damage fibres.

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