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Understanding Upholstery: From Fabric to Frame

Upholstery pieces often anchor a room and get a lot of use, which makes picking the right ones especially important. We’ve compiled this comprehensive glossary to help you find your way through all the ins and outs. We'll start with upholstery fabrics and cover materials then explore decorative details and seldom-seen upholstery elements such as steel and even coconut husk fiber. Inside and out, it’s all part of the upholstery package, and it will all help you choose pieces that are just right for your space.

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Types of Upholstery Fabric

Types of Upholstery Fabric

Natural Fabrics

Chenille: Chenille’s soft surface pile inspired its name — it’s the French word for “caterpillar.” Its extra weft threading gives it a distinctive nap. This casual fabric is best for comfortable pieces such as oversized recliners, sofas, papasans, and children’s furniture, but it can also do great things with printed side chairs and traditional accent seats. Chenille is often made of natural fibers, but it can also be made from synthetics like rayon.

Cotton: Cotton furniture upholstery is typically a blend, combining this stylish, breathable natural fiber with polyester, linen, nylon, etc. for added texture, strength, or resistance to soiling and wrinkling. The best-quality cotton blends will generally contain about 45% to 60% cotton.

Jute: A natural fiber produced mostly in India and Bangladesh, jute was traditionally used for rope and matting. Though prone to wrinkling, it’s a great material for modern rustic accent pieces such as an ottoman, adding a somewhat rougher texture that pairs well with wood and/or leather.

Leather: Leather upholstery can vary greatly in price and quality, depending on its grade and treatment.

  • Full-grain leather: Full-grain leather uses the whole animal hide rather than layers, and natural marks or imperfections are left intact. This is the thickest, highest-quality leather.
  • Top-grain leather: Top-grain leather uses the strong top layers of the animal hide and is second in quality only to full grain.
  • Corrected-grain leather: Corrected-grain leather has been treated to remove imperfections and then given an imitation grain for a uniform appearance.
  • Split leather: Split leather consists of the underside or drop split of the hide. With bycast/bicast leather, an artificial surface layer is laminated to the surface.

Linen: Made from flax, linen is an extremely strong natural textile fiber. It’s a smooth, soft, and naturally lustrous fabric that offers excellent durability and natural resistance to moths, pilling, and abrasion. It’s often used in conjunction with cotton for greater elasticity. Neatly tailored pieces such as parsons chairs, traditional dining chairs, and tufted arm chairs offer a great look for linen.

Silk: Soft and luxurious, silk feels right at home in formal settings and is best kept to kid-free/spill-free zones. Silk is sometimes backed with cotton to add weight and durability and comes in both natural and synthetic varieties. Sunlight can cause this fabric to fade so think strategically about where you place a silk upholstered piece.

Velvet: Velvet is a luxurious woven fabric distinguished by its thick and short pile. This soft and lustrous material can be made from natural or synthetic fibers and varies in quality and type. Though comparatively difficult to clean, velvet stands out for its comfort, texture, and rich color, which make it a preferred choice for dramatic pieces such as traditional button-tufted headboards and swanky accent chairs.

Wool: A natural fiber that comes from animal hair, wool is a durable choice for upholstery fabric. Most wool you find on sofas and accent chairs today is actually a blend of natural and synthetic fibers. The addition of synthetic materials helps the fabric stand up better to wear and also makes it easier to clean.

Synthetic Fabrics

Faux Leather: Faux leather is typically made from polyurethane, a more eco-friendly alternative to vinyl or PVC. PU is more breathable than PVC, and it’s also degradable.

Microfiber: Microfiber is a knit blend polyester fabric that’s softer than suede and a whole lot easier to clean (just remember to dab rather than rub). This dense material is made of tightly woven synthetic fibers, providing durability and moisture resistance with the aesthetic qualities of real suede. This low-cost fabric is ideally suited to chaise lounges, sectional or convertible sofas, and other comfy casual seats in a contemporary style.

Nylon: A synthetic fiber, nylon is usually blended with other materials to create a strong and durable material. It's typically easy to maintain and isn't prone to wrinkling.

Olefin: Olefin is a manmade material that's produced from melting down plastic pellets. Any desired color is added and the resulting threads are then woven together. Because the colors are baked in rather than added to the surface, olefin tends to hold its color and can be cleaned with bleaches. This durable material is great for upholstery.

Polyester: First introduced in the 1950s, polyester is a high-performance synthetic fabric that does its best work in tandem with natural materials such as cotton and wool. Polyester blends provide excellent strength, easy cleaning, and resistance to fading, wrinkling, and abrasion — and less pilling, in the case of polywool blends.

Rayon: This cellulose-based material was developed to mimic fabrics like cotton and linen. It's commonly blended with other types of threads to create a mixed material that's appropriate for upholstery.

Watch the video to learn about the difference between natural fabrics and synthetic fabrics.

Decorative Details

Embossing: Embossing is the creation of decorative relief patterns on leather and fabrics (usually synthetic fabrics). These patterns are stamped onto the fabric by passing it through engraved calendering rollers.

Gimp: A stitched or glued ornamental trim used to decorate seams or cover tack heads. Gimp is typically a narrow flat braid, but can also be a rounded cord of fabric and metal wire.

Nailhead Trim: Metal tacks that secure leather or fabric to the furniture frame, usually in the form of straight-lined trim. Nailhead trim is also used to create decorative patterns on upholstered headboards or drawer fronts. Popularly associated with Southwestern or Spanish furnishings, it now adorns just about any style.

Piping: A narrow tube or strip of fabric used to trim upholstery. Piping trim often encloses a cord, and is also known as cording or welting. Contrasting or matching piping provides decorative emphasis while protecting seams and edges against wear.

Tufting: A tuft is a cluster of threads that’s tightly drawn through upholstery to compress, secure, and strengthen the padding. The sewn fabric is folded into a diamond, square, or rectangular shape. With deep tufts, aka button tufting, a button is used to distribute the pulling weight of the thread.

Upholstery Anatomy

Boxed cushion

A seat cushion or chair back with a boxed shape. These cushions feature a bordered edge of “boxing” fabric sewn between the back and front (or top and bottom) fabric faces; they may have plain seams or decorative piping.

Padding

The inner padding component of furniture upholstery. Traditionally, upholsterers used horse hair or cotton batting. Contemporary furniture is usually padded with foam or polyester fiberfill of varying density and firmness.

Dustcover

The material used on the bottom of furniture pieces to protect against dust and conceal interior upholstery elements such as springs and webbing. Also known as bottom cloth or cambric, the name of a common dustcover fabric.

Webbing

Webbing provides structural support for the padding and upholstery, particularly the seat and back springs. Upholstery webbing is most often made from jute, though rubber webbing is more common in European-style furniture.

Scrim

Scrim is a loosely woven fabric used to cover springs and keep the upholstery padding molded and held in place. Burlap, jute, and synthetic fibers are common scrim materials. Scrim is sometimes called Hessian, a historic reference to the coarse-fabric uniforms of soldiers from the German state of Hesse.

Springs

Springs enhance the comfort and durability of upholstered seats and backs. Upholstery springs are known by type and gauge, including coil springs and sinuous or zig zag springs.

Tight back/seat

A sofa or chair with a tight back and/or seat is upholstered with permanently attached padding and fabric, i.e. no loose cushion(s). This gives the piece a neater, more streamlined appearance, which can always be supplemented with throw pillows or bolster pillows as needed.

Loose back/seat

Also known as loose cushion, this refers to a furniture piece with a loose back and/or seat, i.e. removable cushions. This is a more casual style than tight back/seat furniture, and it allows you to flip the cushions front to back as needed.