Whether you need to buy a new couch or you want to learn how to reupholster an old armchair, you have thousands of colors and styles to choose from. Upholstery fabric lets you match your furniture to your style. But with so many different kinds of furniture available today, you may find yourself wondering, what is upholstery fabric?
Upholstery fabric provides a cushioned covering over the solid frame of a piece of furniture. Popular kinds of upholstery material include leather, velvet, and synthetic blends. The best, most durable kinds of upholstery fabric contain a high thread count that prevents wear and tear.
In this article, you’ll learn the key characteristics of upholstery fabric. You’ll also discover the top 15 most popular kinds of upholstery material. Finally, you’ll get tips for the best material to use on your couch or chairs!
- What is Upholstery Fabric?
- What is the Difference Between Upholstery Fabric and Regular Fabric?
- How Can You Tell if Fabric is Upholstery Material?
- 15 Types of Upholstery Fabric
- Upholstery Fabric Grades
- What is the Most Durable Upholstery Fabric?
- What is the Width of Upholstery Fabric?
- Where Can I Buy Upholstery Fabric?
- What is the Best Fabric for a Sofa
- Upholstery Fabric for Chairs
What is Upholstery Fabric?
Upholstery fabric covers the padding and solid support of any cushioned seat. The swiveling office chair you sit on at work has upholstery fabric covering the padded seat. So does the cushy overstuffed couch your parents have had in their basement for thirty years!
Any cloth used to cover furniture is upholstery fabric. This material has special characteristics, though, as it needs to withstand a lot of wear and tear. It also has to cover any stuffing, springs, webbing, and solid framing inside the furniture!
What Does Upholstery Mean?
The word upholstery refers to the whole process of cushioning furniture. This involves adding padding, foam, springs, webbing, and fabric to a piece of furniture to make it cushioned. Essentially, upholstery means everything but the solid wood, metal, or plastic frame of the furniture.
Historically, the word came from way back in the Middle Ages, when a person who decorated furniture was called an “upholder.”
The concept of upholstering furniture picked up much more steam in the 1700 and 1800s. During this era, it became fashionable for wealthy people to decorate their houses in a certain style.
Rich people paid decorators to overhaul their homes to keep up with appearances. Of course, back then, the stuffing inside furniture could be anything from horsehair to coconut husks!
It is interesting to note that many of the styles launched way back in the Regency era still impact today. For example, the “chinoiserie” craze had many Europeans attempting to interpret a Chinese style in their drawing rooms and ballrooms. (Yes, you would call this cultural appropriation today!)
This involved everything from redoing wallpaper to reupholstering furniture. Much of the furniture used lacquer and heavy silks featuring pagodas, floral patterns, or nature scenes.
Today, most furniture manufacturing takes place in a factory. High-end designer pieces may get upholstered by hand, but factory machines make most furniture. That said, you can still find professional upholsterers who have the skill to reupholster furniture.
If you have an old wingback chair you’ve been planning to recover for a long time, you may want to consider hiring one of these professionals. Of course, you can learn reupholstery. But this skill involves specialized knowledge, tools and techniques!
What is the Difference Between Upholstery Fabric and Regular Fabric?
Most upholstery fabric is heavyweight material that uses either a pile or flat weave. It usually features woven patterns instead of dyed-in patterns that might wear away. Specialty upholstery fabrics like velvet almost always have a sturdy backing to make them hold up better.
In contrast, most of the material you see on bolts in a sewing store is medium-weight, multipurpose cloth. These kinds of materials drape well. You can use them to make dresses, jackets, or curtains.
You can feel the difference for yourself by performing this test. First, rub a piece of midweight cotton between your fingers. Then rub a swatch of upholstery fabric.
You will notice the difference in weight and thickness right away!
Upholstery fabric would not make good apparel. If you made a skirt out of this cloth, it would stand out from your body like a lampshade because of its weight and stiffness!
Also, many lightweight and mid-weight fabrics use dyed-in patterns to create pretty designs. Most upholstery fabrics use woven patterns instead. These use threads dyed in different colors woven into the desired design.
You can spot the difference if you look at the back of the cloth and find the design reversed there, like a mirror image of the front!
The main thing to remember about upholstery fabric is that it has to survive lots of friction and hard use without wearing away. Lots of modern upholstery material goes through something called a “double rub” test. This process uses a mechanical arm abrading the fabric to find out how long it can survive friction!
How Can You Tell if Fabric is Upholstery Material?
The easiest way to spot upholstery material is to notice its weight and thickness. These fabrics also cost a lot more than the average apparel material because of their added heft, so you can always check the price tag!
Because upholstery material costs a lot to produce, retailers do a good job describing it as upholstery or furniture fabric. If you’re buying this material by the yard, it usually comes on a big roll instead of the typical flat cardboard bolt of apparel or quilting fabrics.
Sewing stores often place the upholstery and outdoor materials together in a separate part of the store.
15 Types of Upholstery Fabric
The most popular types of upholstery fabric today include polyester, velvet, and leather. You can find a detailed list of the top 15 types of upholstery fabric in this section!
Before you dive into the specifics, please note one huge, important difference between these kinds of material. Today, you can buy either synthetic, natural, or blended kinds of upholstery material. What does this mean?
Synthetic fabric is man-made. It contains plastic fibers that come from petroleum or petroleum byproducts. Materials like polyester, nylon, and acrylic fall into this category.
Natural fabric comes from something in the natural world, such as a plant or animal. For example, cotton comes from a cotton plant, and wool comes from sheep.
Synthetic material costs less and usually has greater durability. Because of this, modern manufacturers also create blends. Blended fabric mixes natural material with synthetic materials.
1. AcetateAcetate fabric comes from the cellulose inside the wood. The cellulose undergoes a chemical transformation that creates a semi-synthetic kind of cloth.
When blended with a natural material like silk or cotton, this material feels soft to the touch and has a lustrous, elegant appearance. It also drapes well and holds dye, making it a fun decorative choice.
All that aside, acetate has less durability than most synthetic materials. It melts when exposed to nail polish remover or chlorine bleach. It also wrinkles and rips under pressure.
Plus, many kinds of acetate upholstery material require dry cleaning. You wouldn’t want to use this cloth for a piece of furniture in a high-traffic area.
2. AcrylicAcrylic fabric comes from acrylonitrile that undergoes a complex manufacturing process. This entirely synthetic material has lots of advantages, such as durability. It also allows for easy care and provides excellent insulation.
Acrylic also serves as a popular choice for outdoor upholstery, as it can withstand lots of weather-related elements such as sunlight and mildew.
That said, acrylic does have a much rougher texture than a soft, natural material such as cotton. It can also stain easily if its original stain-resistant coating wears away.
For indoor fabrics, acrylic often goes through a special pile weave process that makes it look like velvet. Specialty furniture pieces that resemble faux fur very likely also contain acrylic!
3. ChenilleThe word “chenille” comes from the French word for caterpillar. This fabric features many tiny, soft tufts poking out of its pile weave like fuzzy caterpillar hair! Today, most chenille contains polyester or a poly blend twisted into these special tufted yarns.
As you might expect, this special yarn makes for a soft, plush feel. What you might not know is that chenille withstands hardy use and makes great upholstery for family rooms and high traffic areas! You may even find chenille recommended over a cheap, tough material like microfiber.
On the downside, you do have to vacuum chenille furniture quite often to prevent dust from building up in the fluffy yarns. This material also doesn’t do well around pets because the yarn can snag on claws.
4. CottonYou may think of quilting squares or airy bedsheets when you picture cotton fabric, but this versatile kind of material also gets used a lot in upholstery! Like most types of material, cotton can form many different kinds of cloth depending on its style of weave. For example, cotton velvet uses a pile weave, while cotton denim or canvas uses a heavy weave with thicker threads.
If you prefer all-natural materials, cotton could work well for you. It often costs more than synthetic upholstery, but it comes with a natural softness that you can’t get from man-made materials.
High-quality cotton has longer staples than low-quality cotton. These longer staples twist into more lustrous and more durable threads, so keep that in mind when researching cotton furniture!
Cotton makes great slipcovers because you can easily wash them. You can also get cotton printed in every pattern or design imaginable, making it a fun decorative choice! Cotton also resists pilling, though not as well as most synthetic materials.
Unfortunately, cotton does fade over time. It also absorbs stains easily, and all in all does not have super great durability. Because of this, you often find cotton blended with something tougher like polyester.
5. JuteBelieve it or not, jute ranks right behind cotton for natural fabric production! This versatile, natural textile needs a better PR agent because you don’t hear about it nearly as much as cotton. Despite that, it sees tons of popular use in rugs, carpets, and burlap furniture upholstery.
This material has a coarse, rope-like texture. If you embraced the DIY burlap decor craze recently, you probably have a padded burlap headboard or burlap-lined baskets in your home now! Rope-wrapped furniture often also contains jute.
This material comes from the jute plant and is considered one of the most sustainable materials on the planet because it’s easily renewable and doesn’t need as much water or chemicals as cotton production.
Of course, jute has a rougher texture than many other textiles. It also has a unique appearance that doesn’t vibe with every design style.
6. LeatherHigh-quality leather upholstery comes from the outer layer of cowhide. It usually goes through a process called aniline dying to give it a smoothly pigmented surface. It also gets buffed to create a smooth, sleek finish.
Real leather holds up well over many years, especially if you give it a soap-and-water wipe down and a quick leather polish every few months. Plus, using leather polish hides any scratches or nicks it develops over time!
That said, lots of leather upholstery uses something called bonded or blended leather that is just polyurethane that looks like leather. While animal rights activists can breathe a sigh of relief about this faux leather, it doesn’t hold up well at all in upholstery.
Fake leather flakes and tears much more easily than real leather and tends to peel and crack over time.
7. LinenLinen comes from the flax plant. This material has a light, airy, soft feel to it. It usually has a distinctive loose weave that gives it a texture you can feel under your fingers.
You see, this cloth is used a lot in high-end furniture even though it doesn’t allow for super easy care. It gives a gorgeous, bright, fresh look to a room and feels very comfortable and soft!
That said, linen shrinks easily when washed. You can’t use bleach on it, as that will damage the falx fibers. It stains and wrinkles incredibly easily.
All of this goes to say that linen upholstery looks and feels amazing, but you should avoid it if you have children or pets!
8. NylonNylon usually blends with other synthetic fabrics in upholstery as it tends to pill easily on its own. In a blend, nylon creates an incredibly tough and durable upholstery. It prevents piled fabric like velvet from crushing and keeps the cloth from wrinkling or staining.
You see nylon blends a lot on commercial furniture like the chairs in a doctor’s waiting room or a public space like a museum. This material has great stain resistance and does not wear easily, meaning it can last well even through heavy use.
This kind of upholstery usually gets special coatings or an acrylic backing on top of the fabric’s natural toughness. This may make the material feel plasticky, but it also allows the cloth to last even longer!
9. OlefinOlefin, also known as polypropylene, comes from a waste product made during petroleum processing. Advanced textile science turns this once-wasted gas into a sustainable, highly durable material perfect for covering outdoor furniture. This material has a high resistance to almost anything that could damage it.
This synthetic material resists fading, staining, mildew, abrasion, fire, and chemicals. You can even safely bleach it without causing any damage!
Olefin production may see an upswing in the coming years because of its toughness and relative greenness compared to a material like polyester. That said, it lacks the softness of a natural material like cotton. Right now, you tend to see olefin used mainly for outdoor furniture or for public seating like church pew cushions and office chairs.
10. PolyesterPolyester is hands-down the most popular form of synthetic fabric in the world. It comes from a plastic made out of petroleum. Still, it has such incredible versatility that it can create velvet, microfiber, canvas, faux leather, various kinds of satin, twill, and plain weave textiles!
Polyester costs a lot less than many other types of upholstery fabric. It allows for easy care and has tough fibers that resist fading, mildew, stains, or wrinkling. Unlike cotton, polyester couch cushions won’t look baggy and wrinkled over time.
Of course, this fully synthetic process has a lot of plastic pollution and a non-sustainable downside to it, and it typically does not feel quite as soft or “real” as a natural material. That said, you really can’t beat polyester upholstery for a high-traffic area and it wears well even around kids!
11. RayonLike an amphibian that belongs fully to neither land nor water, rayon fabric doesn’t belong to the world of synthetic or natural materials. Instead, it falls into a semi-synthetic category because it comes from chemically processed wood pulp. It sees popular use in everything from faux-silk to cellophane production.
Does rayon make good upholstery? Well, it has lots of downsides like extreme flammability and easy wrinkling. It often requires special chemical treatments to make it safe for home use. Plus, it needs dry cleaning, making it a pain to take care of!
Despite that, it does have a light, silky feel and makes great silk or brocade cushions. It has high absorbency, unlike many synthetic materials, and does well in hot or humid climates.
12. SilkYou know that silk comes from silkworms and that its production started thousands of years ago in ancient China! This venerable, beautiful material offers the last word in elegance and luxury. Of course, this luxury also comes with a high price tag!
You can find silk upholstery fabrics in many different weaves that create velvet, brocade, or heavy satin. Today, lots of upholstered furniture that looks silky probably actually contains 100% polyester, so make sure you research and read product descriptions to find out if you’re buying silk.
Silk has surprisingly good durability despite its delicate appearance, but it almost always gets a backing made of another material like cotton when used in upholstery. This gives it extra resilience against stretching or ripping. Water can stain silk, so it does require some special care and cleaning practices.
13. VelvetVelvet historically came from weaving silk threads on a special double weave loom that makes two layers of fabric connected. When these get sliced apart, a thick, soft pile remains! Today, velvet more often contains synthetic fibers like polyester. You can find velvet in several different styles, such as crushed velvet or embossed velvet.
Because it used to come from silk and had a prohibitive price tag, velvet still has associations with luxury and wealth today. It adds a plush, luxe look to any space.
Most upholstery velvet includes a special woven backing to help it hold up over time. Many kinds of velvet also get treated for additional water and stain resistance. Surprisingly, velvet wears well over time. Even if heavy use flattens the soft nap, you can use a steamer or gentle brushing to fluff it up again!
14. VinylVinyl fabric looks and feels like plastic because it comes from a chemical process that turns ethylene and chlorine into polyvinyl chloride. You find vinyl fabric in lots of restaurant booths and cars. It can lend a retro 1950s vibe to your decor!
Vinyl allows for super easy cleaning, as you can wipe it down with soap and water and even use many chemical cleaners to peel away old paint or other gross matter. However, it has a plasticky feel and tends to stick to bare skin. For this reason, you have to want a particular type of style to go with vinyl in your home.
15. WoolYou may not see wool as often in upholstery because it costs more than synthetic materials. That said, it offers a soft, sturdy coating for your sofa or armchair. It also has the kind of breathability you can only find in natural fibers. It has good resistance to fading and doesn’t stretch or sag.
That said, the soft comfiness of wool upholstery does require lots of upkeep. You have to regularly vacuum wool to prevent dust from clogging its fibers. Some wool requires dry-cleaning, though you can find often special products or spot-clean wool furniture at home.
Finally, wool contains lanolin, an allergen that might bother you if you have a sensitivity.
Upholstery Fabric Grades
Upholstery fabric grades give you some indication of the quality of a particular material, but the grades vary from one manufacturer to another. Many upholstery fabric manufacturers apply a letter grade ranging from A to F to their products. Grade A indicates lower quality, while grade F fabric uses the best material, highest thread count, and most intricate weave.
Here’s the catch, though. There is no universal standard for this grading system. Every manufacturer can label their material however they like.
This means that a “grade F” material from one factory may have an entirely different quality from a “grade F” material made by another company!
Rather than trusting this dubious system, carefully read product descriptions to find out what kind of material the fabric contains. See if you can find out its thread count and “double rub” test results.
All upholstery fabric needs a certain amount of thickness and weight to make it durable. In general, a good weight for upholstery fabric comes in at least 12 oz per square yard of material.
What is the Most Durable Upholstery Fabric?Microfiber and leather usually rank as the most durable types of upholstery fabric.
As you now know, microfiber usually contains 100% polyester, a tough synthetic material made out of plastic. Microfiber weave uses threads even finer than silk strands, creating a close weave that has incredible resilience. While microfiber may seem like a cheap and low-quality choice compared to luxury fabrics like silk or velvet, it does well in high-traffic areas.
Leather costs a lot and requires some special care to keep it in good shape. If it receives that care, though, it will last for a long time! You do have to watch out for faux leather if you choose to go with leather upholstery. Unlike real leather, faux leather has very little durability and gets damaged quite easily.
What is the Width of Upholstery Fabric?
When you buy upholstery fabric by the yard, it typically comes in a width of 54 or 60 inches. This comes as no surprise to anyone who sews a lot because you can buy most fabric in these common widths.
That said, this does mean that you often have to cut out pieces and sew them together if you make your own upholstery. The fabric will not usually provide enough width that you can just drape one giant piece over your whole sofa!
Where Can I Buy Upholstery Fabric?
Almost all sewing and fabric stores sell upholstery fabric. Joann Fabrics, Hobby Lobby, and many online fabric retailers provide this heavy-weight material. You can purchase upholstery material on Amazon or search out trendy, specialized types on Etsy.
Don’t expect to reupholster your armchair for the same price as you would pay to sew a summer dress, though! Upholstery fabric has an average price tag of around $50-$70 and can easily cost as much as $100 or even $200 per yard!
This cost comes from the added weight and intense thread count required by these durable kinds of cloth.
What is the Best Fabric for a SofaUltimately, the best fabric for a sofa matches your personal style with a level of durability that can withstand the necessary level of use.
For example, if you love the luster of silk but need a sofa for your high-use family room, you would better purchase a tough fabric like microfiber or leather. On the other hand, if you plan to purchase an elegant loveseat for your rarely used sitting room, you can safely go with silk, as it matches both your style and the expected level of use!
If you’re planning to reupholster your couch, plan on purchasing at least 12 yards of fabric for a basic six-foot sofa. Obviously, bigger couches will need more fabric!
Upholstery Fabric for ChairsChairs come in many shapes, sizes, and styles, and some kinds of fabric work better on different kidneys of chairs. For example, fancy dining room chairs often have brocaded cushions. Recliners that get used every night in front of the TV usually feature a more durable microfiber or leather upholstery.
The cool thing about upholstered chairs is that you can choose from so many different styles! That said, the same general rules apply. You should always try to meld your style with the expected level of use.
You may love the elegant art deco look of a velvet sofa, but will it hold up to years of sticky hands and muddy shoes while your preschoolers grow up?
The great thing about all these varieties of upholstery fabric is that you can match functionality with style once you know what to look for!
Upholstery fabric covers any cushioned portion of a piece of furniture. It might have the tough synthetic texture of an office chair or the plush velvet of your favorite sofa at home. You can buy furniture upholstered in everything from jute to velvet.
Most upholstery fabric has a heavy weight and high thread count. Many types also include special backing or protective coating to prevent wear and tear.
What kind of upholstery fabric cushions your favorite chair or sofa? What do you like most about the texture of this fabric? Leave a comment below to let us know!