The Mystery Of Fabric Content

Shopping for a new piece of furniture is always an exciting time for anyone.  It’s a chance to find something new, a way of expressing our personality and giving us something to look forward to in the future.

Many of the pieces of furniture that we buy for our home are covered in fabric to some degree.  Sofas, chairs, pillows, draperies, bedcoverings, etc., to name a few.  But before you plunk down that credit card and finalize your purchase, it’s a good idea to have a little knowledge in hand about just how that fabric is going to hold up or how you’re going to clean it if it’s gets soiled or stained.  After all, the condition of the old fabric is usually the first consideration when deciding to replace a piece and usually the first thing that attracts you to a new piece of furniture.

Here is a brief rundown of the majority of fabrics that you will come across in the home furnishings stores.   While this only serves as a guideline, it could save you from making an expensive mistake.


Cotton has been around for about 7,000 years dating back to 5000BC from excavations in Mexico and Pakistan.  It’s almost pure cellulose.  It grows in a boll and is spun into yarn which is then woven into fabric.  The cotton part of the plant is used to help distribute the cotton seeds in the wind because of its light weight.  In older times, it was a fairly expensive fabric but since the invention of the cotton gin, it has become extremely affordable.  It has since become the best-selling fiber in the United States.

Cotton is available in natural cotton and cotton blends.  Cotton blends tend to be stronger and more durable than cotton.  Adding a stain-resistant finish helps cotton hold up well around children.  However, staining and wrinkling can occur.  If soiled, cotton should be professionally cleaned to avoid shrinkage and discoloration.  It’s a perfect fabric for warm climates.


Silk is a fragile material for use on pieces that are not used often.  It can be easily damaged or stained and typically not great around children or pets.  The most widely known silk is a natural protein fiber produced by the mulberry silkworm.  The prism-like shape of the silk fiber allows it to capture light and reflect it back in different colors.  The only type of silk used for textiles comes from the moth caterpillar.

Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers but is easily damaged by water, after which, is impossible to repair.  Once available only to Kings and royalty, silk is still considered a luxury fabric.  It can have a smooth texture or be woven into a slub texture.  It holds color and patterns extremely well but can also have a tendency to stretch if used for drapery without the proper inner-liner or backing.  Silks can only be cleaned professionally.


Linen is woven from fibers of the flax plant.  It is another strong fabric that is popular in warm climates because of its cooling qualities.  Linen is a very labor intensive fabric and this explains why it is more expensive than some of its rivals.

Once used as currency in ancient Egypt, linen has long been considered a luxury fabric due to its purity and fine woven qualities.  However, linen wrinkles more than any other fabric.  While some people may find this troublesome, most people who purchase linen, buy it especially because of this relaxed look.  Being a natural fiber, linen should always be professionally cleaned.  It can also have a tendency to “pill” or gather small balls of fiber on the face of the fabric with wear and tear.


Synthetic fibers are the result of extensive research to improve on natural plant or animal fibers.  They can be produced in quantities with complete control over their qualities.  As a result, synthetic fibers tend to be less expensive but are usually extremely durable and easy to clean.  The majority of synthetic fibers used in furnishings fall into four types:

Nylon: Nylon was developed by DuPont as a replacement for silk.  It’s very strong, easy to clean, resists mildew and insects and great for high traffic items and carpets.

Acrylic: Also developed by DuPont in 1941, acrylic can be woven to mimic soft, luxurious fabrics such as cashmere, wool or chenille.  It can also be made to look like cotton.  The colors are pigmented into the yarn before weaving, making acrylic very color steadfast.  It holds up against chemicals, moths and deterioration from sunlight.  It is also the perfect fabric for patio furniture or areas that are easily soiled.  It can be cleaned with mild soap and water.

Polyester:  Polyester is used extensively in home furnishings due to its stability and strength.  It is very stain-friendly and cleans easily with mild detergent and water.  It may have a tendency to “pill” with wear and tear.  It is an affordable fabric and is available in many different colors, patterns and textures.

Olefin:  Olefin is abrasion, stain, sunlight, fire, and chemical resistant. It does not dye well, but has the advantage of being colorfast.  It provides warmth without weight and is abrasion resistant.  One of the most important advantages is olefin maintains its strength in wet or dry conditions.  In other words, it wears like iron for years and years.  It is non-absorbent so stains usually don’t present a problem unless they are oil based.  Water and mild soap should clean most spots including oil stains.


Rayon is actually a semi-synthetic fiber with the same properties of a natural fiber.  It’s a cellulose fiber manufactured from naturally occurring polymers.  It’s in a category of its own.

Rayon can imitate silk, wool, cotton or linen, all with some added advantages.   Rayon is a soft, cool, absorbent fiber but does not insulate body heat, making it a good choice for warmer climates and is relatively affordable to most.   Rayon has a low melting point so it should never be exposed to ironing or dryers.  Only professional cleaning is recommended.


Leather is a category that is often confused because there are different grades of leather, each representing a different cost.  Since leather furniture is often the most expensive, it’s a good idea to know exactly what grade of leather you are purchasing and what the advantages and drawbacks could be.   It is broken down into four main categories.

Full Grain:  Full grain is the most expensive type of leather available.  It is the hide in its purest form without the epidermis or hair.  It has not been sanded or corrected to remove any imperfections and therefore retains its strength and breathability,  resulting in less moisture from prolonged contact.  This type of leather will, over time, develop a patina based on a wear pattern and is absorbent so it will stain.  It’s natural to find small imperfections in this leather as a result of insect bites, barbed wire or contact with other animals.  This is considered the very best leather you can buy.  Full grain can be aniline or semi-aniline dyed depending on whether you want an extra layer of protection on the finish of the leather.

Top Grain:  This is the second most expensive leather, having its split layer underneath removed, reducing the thickness of the leather making it thinner and more pliable.  The top has been sanded and a protective finish has been applied sometimes making it more “plastic” looking and cold.  It is less apt to show wear, will not patina with age and will resist stains as long as the finish remains intact.  It is much less expensive than full grain.  Sometimes top grain can be lightly sanded on the grain side raising the fibers to a velvet quality, becoming nu-buck leather.

Corrected Grain:  This is any leather that has had an artificial grain embossed on the face of the hide.  This leather has been sanded and treated and stamped with an leather grain.  These leathers are made from the hides that do not meet the standards for full or top grain because of their scaring or conditions.  Once dyed, these leathers tend to have a uniform pigment dye, allowing them to hide the corrections made.

Split:  Split leather refers to the leather after to the top grain has been removed.  Depending on the thickness of the hide, it can be split several times into thinner layers.  The top is then coated with an artificial material and stamped with a leather embossing.  This is also known as bycast.

Splits are also used to make suede.

So as you can see, it’s a little more involved than just looking pretty.  If you’re working with a designer, they can steer you into the right direction but if you’re shopping on your own, you may want to take a little more time to digest what you are getting into.   In the end, you’ll have a product that you not only love and appreciate but one that will have meaning.


This entry was posted in News by Bill Philby, ASID. Bookmark the permalink.

About Bill Philby, ASID

Bill Philby is co-founder of Retro Interiors of Fort Lauderdale and Island City Traders of Wilton Manors, Florida. He is a professional member of American Society of Interior Designers and licensed by Florida Board of Architecture and Interior Design. Mr. Philby is a BFA graduate of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and currently resides in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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