How to choose the right fabric for reupholstering furniture

About five years ago, I scoured Craigslist in search of two vintage swivel club chairs I could have reupholstered to suit my tastes. I found the perfect pair of chairs and then set out in search of a fabric. At our local fabric store, I fell head over heels in love with a remnant bolt of blush Ralph Lauren silk velvet fabric. The fabric was expensive, but a steal for what it was, and as I was checking out I asked the staff at the store “will it hold up as an upholstery fabric?” I was told yes, and that was the primary intention for this fabric. So I felt confident in my decision, spent my several hundreds of dollars on the fabric and didn’t think twice about it. We dropped the chairs and fabric off at the upholsterer and were eager to see the finished product. A month later, when we went to pick them up, the upholsterer told us offhand that that fabric was a little tricky to work with. That was my first indicator that maybe, I hadn’t done my homework on the fabric.

*This post is sponsored by Fabricut. All content, ideas, and words are my own. The fabric was provided by Fabricut, in exchange for sharing the experience of shopping for fabric. Thank you for supporting the brands that allow us to create unique content while featuring products we actually use & enjoy!

As I quickly discovered, silk velvet is very temperamental: it’s challenging to clean without a professional, and it’s prone to getting crushed. In the subsequent five years, I have learned to strategically drape throw blankets to hide stains and crushed areas of the fabric. All in all, the chairs are still beautiful, but in retrospect, I definitely would have chosen a different upholstery fabric for them, given that they are frequently sat in.

Let’s just say, I’m now a pro at placing throw blankets and not shooting these chairs from certain angles (aka please don’t look at the bottom right corner of the right chair, k thanks).

So, fast forward to earlier this year when I scored the perfect beaten up vintage Baker sofa for our living room for all of $80. I knew we were going to be reupholstering this sofa and that I wasn’t going to repeat my past mistake of not choosing an upholstery fabric designed for longevity. Reupholstery is not inexpensive, so choosing the right fabric can greatly improve your investment and how great a piece looks over time. So, I went to the showroom of one of my favourite fabric houses, Fabricut, and started looking through all their options, keeping the below criteria in mind:

1. Performance Fabric

A performance fabric is a fabric that has been specially treated to hold up better than your standard fabrics, and is usually easy to clean. One challenge here, is that not all performance fabrics look nice and luxe. That microfiber velvet that you often seen as the default fabric on retail sofas is also a performance fabric, but it can often look less special and elevated. We previously had a West Elm sofa with a performance velvet that was super short-pile and just never really looked like anything special, so I knew that the key is to be really discerning when looking at performance fabrics to ensure that they still look high-end, even though they are designed for durability. Performance fabrics are generally treated to ensure that they are less likely to stain, which is very appreciated.

2. Double Rubs

Nearly every fabric on the market has been tested, and one of those tests is for the number of times a fabric can be rubbed before it begins to show visible wear. This test is done using a machine to test for abrasion and typically the number of rubs is measured by one back and forth motion over the fabric. If you’re selecting fabric for reupholstery, paying attention to the double rubs count can really help you to understand the durability of a fabric, given your application. If you’re re-upholstering a piece that is sat in frequently, you’re going to want to look for 15,000 double rubs or more. Commercial grade is generally 30,000 double rubs or higher. The higher the number, the more abrasion the fabric can sustain before breaking down.

3. Cleaning Codes

Before selecting fabric, read up on how to clean it. All fabrics will have instructions on how to clean them in the case of stain and those codes could vary from “Professional dry cleaning is recommended” (that’s one I would definitely avoid in the case of reupholstery) to “Use water based agents only” (much more friendly for day to day use). The codes will get more detailed and will tell you what type of solvents to use for cleaning, whether water may stain the surface, etc. This is a good indicator of how well you’ll be able to maintain the fabric. For my sofa, I was looking for as low-maintenance and easy to clean a fabric as possible.

4. Fabric composition

When you’re looking at different types of fabrics, don’t be surprised if the material contents can differ a lot. For instance, within the velvet category, you may encounter polyester velvets, cotton velvets, silk velvets, linen velvets, mohair velvets and many more. Not all are created equally as it pertains to cleanability, durability, and general longevity. Other fabrics have different compositions and blends, so I’d recommend doing your homework to ensure that the fabric composition matches both your lifestyle, isn’t prone to getting overly stretched out (this can often happen with linens), and looks great (sometimes introducing synthetic fabrics can make a fabric look like luxe, though some high-end brands have really invested in synthetic fabrics that look fantastic).

So, what did I choose?

I knew from the get-go that I wanted a luxe velvet in an olive-y green for reupholstering this sofa. For years, I had been saving images of green sofas and kept finding myself gravitating towards the warmer green tones. At the Fabricut showroom, I honed in on three different dark, warm green velvet fabrics. I brought the swatches home and held them up against different parts of the sofa to see how they looked in the space. One trick with velvets: since they are a fabric that looks different across different lights, make sure you like your fabric swatch when it’s both vertical and horizontal, as it will really vary in shade across your piece of furniture.

My winning fabric was the Fabricut Baird in Olive (appropriately named!). And here’s why:

  • First-off, I loved the color and the appearance of the fabric, not to mention the soft feel. To me, it looks super luxe and high-end. Over the course of the day, as the light changes in the living room, it really feels dynamic and like it’s a different colour every time I look over at it. The mid-dark colour is also easier for maintenance: if for some reason we can’t get a stain out of the fabric, it will be much less noticeable than it would be on a lighter fabric.
  • It’s a performance velvet! And not just any performance fabric, but a Fibreguard performance fabric. After doing quite a bit of research, I learned that Fibreguard is all about making life-friendly fabrics: they’re stain resistant, easy to clean, and they’re green-conscious. Fibreguard treated fabrics won’t release harmful chemicals or finishes into your home.
  • It’s super durable. I was shocked when I looked at the double rubs listed for this fabric: it’s 200,000. If you look at the guidelines I provided above, commercial use is typically 30,000 or above, 200,000 is insanely high. This gave me the confidence that this velvet would really hold up over time and that we didn’t need to worry about how it would fare under our daily use.
  • It’s very easy to clean. The cleaning code for this fabric is at WW, which means you should clean it with water based products only. This makes it one of the easiest types of fabrics for cleaning. Fibreguard provided even more detailed instructions: for most stains, just apply some water and blot (to avoid crushing the fabric), for more intense stains, you may need some standard, white household soap. There’s a whole Youtube channel dedicated to how to address different types of stains, but I felt really comfortable with this type of cleaning.

And, if you follow me on Instagram, then you already know that we have been using our newly reupholstered sofa every day for the past month. I wanted to make sure I had a good handle on how the fabric was meeting our expectations before sharing, and I am pleased to say that it looks as good as new! We have had a few small, minor stains that have lifted easily with a little water. Otherwise, you can’t tell that we tend to lie in the same spot on the sofa constantly, ha! We’re so very happy with this newly upholstered sofa and can’t wait to see how the upholstery holds up over the coming years.

And for fun, let’s look at a before photo, this sofa definitely had a glow up!

Our living room is still very much a work in progress, but I can’t wait to build the room around this gorgeous new sofa.

Isn’t she a beaut? I hope the lessons I’ve learned in my reupholstery journey can help spare you from making the same mistakes I made during my first time!

And if you’re looking at some more projects for inspiration, I love these reupholstered dining chairs and this DIY tutorial for upholstering the seat of a chair.

4 thoughts on “How to choose the right fabric for reupholstering furniture

  1. Thank you so much for all these details! I’ll be reupholstering a chair for our reading nook soon in a cognac velvet and will be doing a little research. I’ll put these tips to use.

  2. Gorgeous!! Love it so much and your tips too. We just purchased a new sofa and I literally rubbed catsup and wine on the sample. When I rinsed it off in the sink with no residue I knew I had a winner.

  3. As a professional upholsterer and member of the National Upholstery Association, it would be great if you credited the upholsterer that did the work for you.

    It is a centuries old skilled trade and art form. All too often our work is pictured with no credit. How is the next generation going to see this craft as a viable career path if we are overlooked?

    1. I typically don’t include info for local trades because they are so specific to where we live and not where the vast majority of our readers live, but, your perspective is one I really appreciate and hadn’t thought of before. Our upholstery was done by Custom Upholstery in Fairfield, CT, and they did fantastic work.

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