Fabric Education continued

Upholstery as we know it today began during the reign of Queen Elizabeth when furniture was first stuffed. The Upholsterers’ Guild of London received its charter in 1626. Upholstery fabric began as hangings for walls and beds. These served to reduce drafts and provide insulation and warmth. Early furniture used cushions for comfort, but chairs and benches were not upholstered. Today mostly all fibers can be divided into two categories, natural or synthetic.  
Textiles are manufactured from natural fibers like cotton, linen or wool, as well as modified natural fibers like viscose or rayon and synthetic fibers like polyester, polyamides and microfibers.   Furniture has become more of a staple of style and fashion and less about the material it’s made from.

Categories of Fabric

All fibers can be divided into two categories, natural and synthetic.  Natural fibers are fibers that come from natural sources such as plants or animals.  Synthetic fibers are fibers that are man made from thermoplastic materials coming from the petroleum industry, or products that are synthesized from natural materials like rayon and acetate.

Cellulosic – Those fibers coming from plants
Cotton     Linen

Protein – Those fibers coming from animals
Wool        Silk

Synthetic – Man made
Rayon               Acetate           Nylon            Polyester        Microfiber         Acrylic    Olefin

Cellulosic or Vegetable Fibers
These fibers come from plants and have been to make cloth since pre-historic times, when man first learned to weave.  In the manufacture of carpet these cellulosic fibers have been largely replaced by synthetic but in upholstery they are still widely used and are really the predominant class of fabric in finer furniture.  Cotton and linen may be used alone or in blends.  Either way, they are an important factor in the furniture industry.

Cotton – Cotton is a staple fiber taken from the seedpod of the cotton plant.  Cotton is one the oldest fibers under human cultivation, with traces of cotton over 7,000 years old recovered from archaeological sites.  Cotton is also one of the most used natural fibers in existence today.  The longer fibers are called lint and are used to produce fabrics.  The shorter fibers are called lintners.  They are too short to be used for weaving yarns but are used for other purposes such as the manufacture of rayon and acetate fibers.  The cotton fiber is flat with a natural twist.  The lumen or center of the fiber is hollow and carries nutrients to the fiber of a living plant.  This lumen is one of the main culprits in cottons high absorbency.  It will draw moisture into the fiber and hold it, making drying a longer process.  Cotton is a very popular upholstery fiber due to its versatility.  It can be processed to take on many different looks from the most unrefined Haitian cotton to very refined, polished cotton.

Linen – Linen is obtained from the stalk or stem of the flax plant.  Fibers taken from the stem or stalk of a plant are referred to as bast fibers.  Linen textiles appear to be some of the oldest in the world; their history goes back many thousands of years.  They are brown, tan or grey in color and the fiber is from 12-40 inches in length.  Linen is usually an expensive textile and is produced in relatively small quantities.  Linen has many of the same characteristics as cotton.

Protein Fibers
These are fibers that come from animals (mammals or insects), the most common of which are wool and silk.

Wool – Wool comes from fleece of sheep or lambs and is a protein fiber.  The structure and chemical composition of wool give it some interesting characteristics.  Wool is highly flame resistant and frequently used for mattresses and rugs for that reason.  It is highly durable, able to stretch up 50% when wet and 30% when dry.  It addition, wool has excellent moisture wicking properties; moisture causes the fibers to swell and release soil when cleaning.  Wool is favored for textile production because it is easy to work with and takes dye very well.

Silk – Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles.  The best-known type of silk is obtained from the cocoons of the silk worm.  The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.  Silk is a very strong and elastic fiber.  It can stretch up to 20% of its length, which can also be a problem since it will only retract about 2%.  It is very absorbent and dyes easily.  It takes a wide arrange of rich colors, which makes it very popular with those who can afford it.  It is currently very popular in its raw state and natural colors.  Silk is quite possibly the most elegant and most difficult of all the fibers to maintain and to clean.

Synthetic or Man-Made Fibers
Synthetic fibers are made by combing different chemicals in liquid state and forcing the liquid through a shower head device called a spinneret.  The chemical compound hardens when it contacts the air, forming a continuous filament fiber.  This process is called extrusion.  Synthetic fibers account for about half of all fiber manufactured today with applications in every field of fiber and textile technology.  Although many classes of fiber based on synthetic polymers have been evaluated as potentially valuable commercial products four of them are: Nylon, Polyester, Acrylic and Polyolefin dominate the market and they account approximately 98% by volume of synthetic fiber production with polyester alone accounting for around 60%.

Rayon – Rayon is one of the most peculiar fabrics in commercial use today.  Strictly speaking, it is not an artificial fiber, because it is manufactured from cellulose.   It is not, however, a natural fabric, because cellulose requires extensive processing to become rayon. Rayon is usually classified as a manufactured fiber and considered to be “regenerated cellulose”.  Rayon was one of the first man-made fibers.  Cellulose materials such as cotton by products and wood pulp, combined with high alkali are the basic ingredients that make up rayon.  Rayon is very lustrous and as absorbent as cotton.  It is also more resistant to sunlight and mildew than cotton.  Rayon is not very elastic, and once stretched will not regain its original shape.  Which is why you will rarely see a 100% rayon fabric designed for upholstery usually, it will mostly likely be a component of a blend.

Acetate – The manufacturing of acetate begins with the same wood pulp and cotton lintners as rayon does.  These are dissolved and purified to form pure cellulose.  Different treatments with glacial acetic acid, other chemicals and acetone form the liquid which becomes acetate when it goes through the spinneret and dries.  Acetate is moisture resistant, dries rapidly and has no natural tendency to shrink or stretch.  It is heat sensitive (melts at 350 degrees F) and will dissolve in acetone, alcohol or glacial acids.  Due to its and complexities when cleaning upholstery it is recommended that you use cleaning solutions that are specifically formulated for and label identified for cleaning upholstery.

Nylon – Rarely used alone, nylon is usually blended with other fibers to make it one of the strongest upholstery fabrics.   It is the most elastic fiber and can stretch up to 33% of its length and still regain its original shape.  Nylon is very resilient; in a blend, it helps eliminate the crushing of napped fabrics such as velvet. It doesn’t readily soil or wrinkle, but it does tend to fade and pill.

Acrylic – Acrylic is a rather unique fiber.  It resembles wool as closely as a synthetic fiber can, yet it is a true plastic (derivative of petroleum products) and is stronger than wool.  Acrylic resembles wood in its dull appearance, its bulk, and its insulating properties.  It also tends to hide soil like wool.  Low-quality acrylic may tend to pill excessively in high-wear situations. Better-quality acrylics are manufactured to resist pilling.  You will often see acrylic blended with wool to give the fabric the best of each fiber.

Polyester – Polyester is a manufactured product made from synthesized polymers.   It tends to be very resilient, quick drying, resistant to biological damage such as mold and mildew, easy to wash, and able to hold forms well.  While polyester is often maligned as a textile, it has many useful applications. Polyester is, however, highly flammable, so care should be taken when wearing or using it.  Most synthetic fabrics are subject to flammability by nature, because they are made from polymers.  It’s affinity for oils (oleophilic) make oily stains harder to remove, especially older spots left without proper cleanup.  Its oleophilic nature also attracts oily soils and may cause it to yellow over time.

Olefin – Olefin is a synthetic fiber made from alkenes.   Olefin is also referred to as polypropylene, polyethylene, or polyolefin. This makes it a strong man-made fiber, giving high resistance to abrasion and has a high stain resistance.  It has a softer feel than nylon, good resistance to fading when solution dyed, very sensitive to heat.

One of the most popular types of upholstery fiber is called microfiber.  Microfibers are a relatively new, rapidly growing category of fabrics.  Some microfiber is made for mops, cleaning cloths and other non-upholstery uses.  These are entirely a blend of polyester and polyamide (non-branded nylon).  The Microfiber used in upholstery is predominantly the combination above, but there is a considerable amount (estimates of 10%-20% of the market) that is 100% polyester.  Microfiber is a man-made fiber that is finer than silk.   The term Microfiber is short for “Micro denier” fiber, which means ultrafine fibers that are less than 1 denier in size.  Most microfibers are finer than most delicate traditional silk fibers.  In fact, microfibers are approximately 100 times finer than human hair.  Since they are very fine, microfibers can be tightly woven or knit into a very high quality fabric which creates a velvety texture that appeals to many customers.  The denseness of the fibers in the fabric leads to many desirable characteristics.  One of the great advantages to microfiber is that it is designed to repel liquids and very difficult to stain which makes it a fabric that is very easy to maintain.  Microfiber though it can be very durable tends to lose its aesthetic appeal with time when subjected to a lot of wear and tear.  Still many households favor this fabric over all others and has become a growing favorite in furniture upholstery.

Blended Fabrics

Most of your Fabric Upholstery today consists of a blend of fibers.  Blended fabrics are those derived from both natural and, or synthetic fibers with at least two or more different kinds of fibers woven together to make the finished fabric.  Natural fibers can be blended with other natural fibers to create a natural blend and they can also be blended with synthetic fibers. Synthetic fibers may also be blended with other synthetics to create a desired fabric.  There are many benefits to blending fabrics; many different textures can be created for various different uses.

Some of the benefits of blended fabrics are the qualities of each individual fiber combined with the qualities of other fibers.  For example cotton blended with polyester will give you the comfort of cotton, along with the wrinkle-resistance of polyester.  These fibers combine the best of both worlds, allowing you to enjoy the look of organics while keeping with the durability of synthetics.

Maintenance of Fabric Upholstery

Textiles are manufactured from natural fibers like cotton, linen or wool as well as modified natural fibers like viscose or rayon and synthetic fibers like polyester, polyamides and microfibers.  All fabric upholstery has different physical and chemical properties that in turn not only influence the strength and stain resistance of the manufactured fabric, but also determine what type of maintenance is required.  In order to maintain your fabric correctly, you must know what sort of fiber it is manufactured from to properly care for it.  Regular maintenance is suggested for any upholstery.  Whether a fabric is made from natural, artificial, synthetic fibers or blended some simple rules must be followed to help maintain its looks without risking irreversible damage.


All textiles subject to friction, like seats and carpets require weekly dusting to prevent microscopic particles of dust from becoming attached to the fibers and from the effect of the mechanical action inevitable with normal wear.  Failure to dust fabric upholstered furniture on a regular basis leads to accelerated wear.  To dust fabric upholstered furniture, use a vacuum cleaner fitted with a soft furniture brush or a normal carpet cleaning attachment.


All textiles subject to normal use must be cleaned regularly to avoid becoming soiled in appearance.  If they are not cleaned, dirt and perspiration penetrate into the fibers causing serious fading and weaken the fabric.  At least every 6 months, thoroughly clean all areas of fabric that come into contact with the human body to prevent the fibers from being attacked by the fatty acids contained in perspiration.  Everyone perspires!  The absence of stains on fabrics does not mean that perspiration is not already penetrating them.  Dusting alone is never able to eliminate dirt, oils and build up of normal wear.  It must be followed up with routine cleaning as well.

Back to Materials page

(561) 253-0916

Furniture For Sale