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The Yardage Stick: Types of Fabrics

Austin is a crafty, artistic city. It’s a safe bet that anyone who has one job, has another in a creative field, or at least a passion in that direction. At our studio we employ not just upholsterers and seamstresses, but talented clothing & bag designers, interior designers, vintage experts, painters, and writers. It makes you think that there’s no need to explain simple things like how to choose a fabric for your new chair – don’t we already all know that?

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In fact, we have plenty of clients who come in knowing nothing about the process of upholstery. We’d like to explore a few of the topics potential clients (or existing ones) would appreciate. A little basic info on what goes into the process of reupholstery. Let’s start with fabrics.

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There are endless choices of fabric, but basically they come in two varieties - natural and synthetic. Natural fabrics are from cotton, wool, silk, linen. They can also be created from jute, bamboo and other fibrous plants. These are upholstery grade, but they are often not as durable as synthetic fabrics. They wear quicker overall. Cotton may "shift" if washed and your slipcover or cushion can end up not fitting properly after a run through the machine. Sometimes, we'll recommend pre-washing cottons. For light use upholstery, however, they are appropriate, and some clients cite the "green" element that seems inherent in them. (Buyer beware however - not all natural fabrics are the most environmentally friendly! Here's a nicely researched article found on

Synthetic fabrics are processed either from the cellulose-like molecules found in oil, giving us Nylon and polyester, or from the actual cellulose found in plant walls which are extracted and processed into Rayon. You may also see this labelled as "viscose." They’re durable, with a look and feel that is very much like any natural fabric. Depending on the makeup of the fibers, they can sometimes be washed without any loss or shifting in shape. Many synthetic fibers are mixed with natural fibers to add breathability and help performance. If you feel like geeking out on the how and why of fibers such as this, check out "Natural fibers, polymers and composites" by Wallenberger and Weston. Not for the faint of heart.

Durability? You may have heard the term "Wyzenbeek" as a test for durability. This is a standard test in the U.S. for fabric durability. Its broken down as follows:

  • Light use: 6000 - 9000 double rubs

  • Medium use: 9000 - 15,000 double rubs

  • Heavy use: 15,000+ double rubs

Many natural fabrics fall in the light and medium categories, so for mudrooms, kid's rooms, and heavy use couches or chairs, this durability may not be enough. If you want your items to last for years, and really prefer natual materials, look for the highest numbers in the fabric manufacturer's specifications to ensure a longer life for your pieces.

And how much? That depends a lot on your piece, and the fabric you choose - not the material, but the pattern. For solids, you will need less, and for prints it can depend on the repeat of the pattern as it is applied on your piece. To find out exactly how many yards, it’s best to have the measurements of your piece and know the fabric you’re going to apply – the horizontal and vertical repeat. Sometimes, it won’t make a difference but for very large patterns it can mean a lot more fabric.

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