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Synthetics: To Have or Have Not?

Durable, stain resistant fabrics often tend to be synthetic. Their ability to withstand wear, fading, and stretching is often superior to all-natural linens, silks, and cottons. They are not perfect, however – once stained, they can actually be harder to clean, and may need special treatment. All fabrics have pros and cons, and it’s up to you or your designer to determine which fabric is best. Before deciding, keep in mind what the furniture will be used for. Your piece may be a sofa sat upon every day, by everyone, and is the centerpiece of a room, or you may be recovering a decorative side chair that is infrequently brought out for company. Below are a few synthetic fabrics that you may want to consider when making a decision:

Polyester - Ubiquitous Since 1941!

Also known by name brands such as Dacron and Terylene, what comes to mind when we think of polyester fabric might be leisure suites. Specifically, polyester fabric is Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. It is used in upholstery fabric to aid in wrinkle resistance, reduce fading and increase stain resistance. Generally, it is not biodegradable at all, and can end up in waste water and eventually oceans when clothing made from it is washed in the laundry (such as polar fleece). Luckily with upholstery this is not a concern. Another good thing about polyester is that it offers low toxicity and low emissions in the raw material and processing stage, and is readily recycled into a myriad of products. Look for it in blends with rayon or natural fabrics such as cotton.

Nylon: Not Just for Legs.

Formulated by Dupont and revealed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Nylon is a popular inclusion in synthetic blends. Initially created as a way to replace silk and hemp in parachutes, it is not as soft as other fibers, but resists mold, is strong and is fade resistant. You know nylon from items such as seat belts, tents and women’s stockings (introduced in the 1940s), and is even used in some packaging materials. As part of a blend, it offers durability and fabric strength.

Rayon: Old Faithful

One of the most commonly utilized synthetics, rayon is created from purified cellulose - wood pulp - and is actually considered semi-synthetic. It was first invented as a silk substitute around 1855 and commercial production began in the 1890s, though these early “mother in law” silks were highly flammable. Fortunately the process has improved since then. Great when blended with other fabrics, it contributes softness and comfort, fade resistance and is great for moderate use. Heavier use is acceptable when in combination with a polyester or poly-cotton blend. Rayon is more biodegradable than cotton; recently, it’s experienced controversy in labelling for garments. Sometimes labelled by manufacturers as bamboo, it goes through a high level of processing which leaves more of a carbon footprint than implied by this renewable plant.

Viscose: This material is also semi-synthetic, and also known as viscose rayon, being made from a combination of plant based cellulose fibers. It’s in decline, as the manufacturing component is very costly on an environmental level. Cellophane is made from viscose, and so is synthetic velvet.

Olefin: Behind the Scenes.

Quite soft, Olefin has the appearance of wool. It often appears in automotive upholstery, being extremely resistant to fading, staining and abrasion. Olefin is made from petroleum products, and was first to be manufactured in Italy in the 1950s. Like polyester, it is easily recyclable. Suitable for upholstery, home décor, clothing and industrial uses, in small amounts it can be a worthwhile addition to a fabric blend.

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