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05 May 2021

Picking the Right Fabrics for Your Home

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Whether it’s time to choose the soft furnishings for your new build or to pep up a current interior scheme, it’s important to get the basics right. Here, professional Upholsterer Sarah Jane Hemsley points you in the right direction.

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Once you’ve ticked the boxes for pet-, child-, red wine-proofing, fire retardancy, durability as well as abrasion tests, you’re ready for the fun stuff. Now, if that sets off alarm bells, there’s no need to worry. Fabric nowadays comes in a vast range of stain-resistant, fibre guard and contract standard robustness – and this doesn’t mean a compromise on style, texture, design or colour.

Most fabric suppliers that deal directly with the consumer make it clear on their websites the suitability of a particular fabric, be it for light or general upholstery or curtains and soft furnishings only. For regular family use on everyday furniture, you will need an abrasion rub score of over 20,000 – that’s the test used to check the robustness of fabric by applying repeated friction. The higher the score, the more durable the fabric – with over 50,000 rubs being deemed suitable for contract use.

You may also notice a reference to ‘FR’, or fire rating. All fabric used in the home is subject to compliance with UK flammability regulations. For example, fabric used to upholster furniture produced after 1950 must be treated for fire retardancy. However, certain fabrics can be used with a fire retardant interliner if they’re made from at least 75% natural yarn. FR, and its implications, is something all consumers and engaged third parties, e.g. interior designers, soft furnishers and upholsterers, must be aware of and comply with.

Many large fabric manufacturers offer an extensive range of stain-resistant fabrics, making them super practical for the average family home as their primary benefit is to repel rather than absorb liquids. The technology in this area is constantly evolving and improving, and the range of available fabrics includes the luxury end of the market, such as plain and cut velvets, woven designs and printed linens.

If in doubt about any fabric’s suitability, it’s worth asking the experts; be that your upholsterer, curtain maker or soft furnisher. They will advise on the necessary flexibility of a fabric to cover that iconic ‘60s egg chair, or if boucle wool is really a good choice with two cats and three dogs, or if that large skull and roses print will still be timeless on the sofa after a couple of years. Those same professionals have access to and knowledge of a huge range of fabrics, be it cost-effective, hard-wearing velvet or unusual textile prints from small boutique makers.

Searching for the right fabric for your project can be overwhelming; there’s so much out there. As an Upholsterer, I often find a two-pronged approach helpful when embarking on a fabric hunt with a client:

1. Listing all the interior decor-associated elements they don’t like – such as colours, textures, designs etc. For example, shiny pink velvet, bold checks, busy florals – whatever they may be.

2. Focusing on something in the room that they love that will be staying in the new scheme. It could be anything from the wallpaper, a piece of furniture, an ornament or a painting. Analyse that positive feeling. What is it that you like about the item precisely? Is it the combination of colours, the clean lines, the period of design? Whatever you come up with, try and translate it into fabric terms and use it as a starting point for your search.

Another helpful gizmo adopted by several fabric house websites is the ability to view your selected fabric on a computer-generated armchair, sofa or as curtains. Not only does this let you see the design on the intended item, but it also helps you understand the scale of a pattern and even how the pattern, colours and design may impact the rest of the interior space.

Take inspiration from what’s around you in the real world – a chocolate wrapper, street art, blossom tree, reflections on water, local architecture etc. – make notes and take photos. Use these with the various online tools available. Instagram and Pinterest offer endless interior possibilities but try and narrow it down, or you will be overwhelmed. Is there a hotel chain you’ve stayed with that inspired you, or a period of history, a stylish movie or TV programme you’ve seen or a Mid-Century work of art? Be prepared to get sucked down a few online rabbit holes but keep a note of where you see something to be able to refer back to it later. Nothing is as annoying as losing that perfect pineapple wallpaper on a multi-directional path from the original search.

Gathering all your ideas together along with physical swatches of fabrics (many fabric companies will send you a limited amount of free samples) is crucial to capture the scheme and hone your ideas to define the final fabric selection. Mood boards are extremely useful, as are seeing examples of your fabric choices in other interiors.

It’s often a good idea to use the opinion of someone you trust with colours, texture and pattern – be that a friend or a professional. You don’t have to run with it, but they may offer an alternative take or a suggestion you hadn’t thought of. And, as the professionals work with fabrics every day, they will know just where to get that silver jaguar print velvet at 40,000 rubs…and yes, it does exist!

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