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How To Choose Appropriate Fabrics For Your Custom Furnishings


It is very important to choose the appropriate fabrics for window treatments, upholstery, and other home furnishings. If you choose a fabric that is not designed for the use you have in mind, you will probably find that your custom window treatments don't look very good or that your custom upholstered sofa starts developing worn areas within a year.

Before you spend money (often a lot of money) on custom labor, make sure you have chosen the correct materials. Otherwise, you may just be throwing money away on custom labor that will only have to be redone (with the correct materials) within a very short time.

There is a clear and systematic way to choose the right fabrics for your home. You will consider fiber, weave, and weight when making your decision. Check out our Fiber information page and also the Weave information page...

Use these qualities to determine the appropriate fabrics to use for your custom furnishings. For instance, if you are having the family sofa upholstered, you will want to choose a heavyweight fabric (such as a heavy boucle') in a durable weave (such as twill) made from a durable fiber that doesn't have to be dry cleaned (such as wool). If you are having softly flowing draperies made, you will want to choose a lightweight fabric that drapes nicely (such as sateen) in a drapeable weave (such as sateen weave) made from a fading-resistant fiber (such as cotton). And so on.

Fabric types categorized by the best ways to use them. Everything from antique satin to velvet.

The following list of fabric types, categorized by weight, includes all of the fabrics you are likely to find when shopping, with the exception of some the extremely expensive "fantasy fabrics" discussed later in this chapter. A few fabrics will appear in more than one weight category (chintz, for instance).

Weight, in the fabric industry, refers to the thickness of the fabric. Very lightweight fabrics are usually extremely delicate and transparent. Lightweight fabrics are still quite thin but not transparent, like fabrics used for shirts and blouses. Mediumweight fabrics are a bit thicker still, like the fabrics used for pants and trousers. Heavyweight fabrics are the thickest and most durable, like the fabrics used on most family room couches (as opposed to the living room sofa that no one who actually lives in the house dares sit on).

Fiber contents are not discussed in many of the listings below because they can vary widely on many fabrics. For example, a certain chintz fabric might be 20% cotton/80% polyester, 30% cotton/70% polyester, 50% cotton/50% polyester, 100% cotton, or some other combination of fibers. Ask the fabric dealer for the exact fiber content of the specific fabrics you are interested in purchasing. Often, this information is printed on the price tag or showroom sample.

Very lightweight fabrics:

These fabrics are all very lightweight laces and sheers. All are trans-parent or semi-sheer. They are all well suited for many types of window treatments, particularly those that drape softly. They are not well suited for window treatments that have a highly structured style, such as hobbled Roman shades. These fabrics can be used for some bed treatments, pillow, and tablecloths, if they are properly lined. They should never be used for any kind of upholstery, lined or not, including small seat cushions.

Many of these fabrics contain a combination of nylon, acetate, rayon, glass, and/or polyester. A few contain silk or cotton.

Be careful about color when you buy these fabrics. Many of these fabrics, especially those with pastel tints, can appear to change color dramatically between the showroom and your house. I have seen samples of tinted sheers that look pink in the showroom appear to turn peach in a customer's home, for instance.

This color shift occurs because showroom and retail store lights are usually fluorescent, and the lighting in most homes is a combination of incandescent lighting and daylight. This color shift occurs with some other fabrics, too, but the effect seems to be the most pronounced with the very lightweight fabrics. So always get a sample to try out in your home before you buy.

You should also fold these fabrics several times or bunch them up in your hands when evaluating the color. When these fabrics are made up into your furnishings, they will usually be pleated or ruffled, not stretched out flat. This ruffling of the fabric makes the colors appear darker and more vivid. You should evaluate the colors as they will actually appear when your furnishings are made up, not stretched out flat on a showroom sample.

  • Batiste --
  • Very delicate semi-sheer plain weave, usually made of cotton or polyester. Often has a printed or embroidered design. Available in white, ecru, and a variety of pale pastels.

  • Bobbinet --
  • Fine lace with hexagonal meshes. Available in white, ecru, and pale pastel tints.

  • Boucle' marquisette --
  • Open leno woven fabric with scattered loops. Available in white, ecru, and pale pastels. Pronounced "boo-clay".

  • Casements --
  • Plain open weaves in a variety of fibers. Relatively thick threads in a variety of colors and color combinations.

  • Dimity --
  • Thin twisted vertical cords woven with plain horizontal threads to form a vertical striped pattern. Sometimes woven with twisted horizontal cords to form a plaid pattern. Available in white, ecru, and pastels.

  • Dotted Swiss --
  • Semi-sheer cotton plain weave with a crisp finish (see "organdy" below) embroidered with dots or other patterns. Available in a variety of colors. Dots and embroidery may or may not be in contrasting colors.

  • Fiberglass --
  • Sometimes referred to as "glass curtains". Glass fibers in a variety of woven patterns: filet, marquisette, etc. Thickness ranges from sheer to nearly opaque. Available in a variety of solid colors and printed patterns.

  • Filet --
  • Lace with square meshes and knots at each intersecting corner. Available in a variety of colors. Pronounced just like "fillet" of fish.

  • French tergal --
  • Very delicate sheer silky material. Usually made of silk, rayon, or nylon. It is sometimes also referred to as "ninon". Available in a variety of solid colors and tone-on-tone woven vertical stripes. Some ninon fabrics have embroidered borders.

  • Lace --
  • Open woven fabric in a wide variety of decorative patterns. Available in a variety of colors.

  • Marquisette --
  • Open leno woven fabric. Available in white, ecru, and pale pastels.

  • Muslin --
  • Soft plain cotton weave. Thickness ranges from semi-sheer to nearly opaque. Available in a variety of solid colors and printed patterns.

  • Net --
  • Lace with regular meshes of any geometric shape. Bobbinet and filet are both examples of net. Available in a variety of colors.

  • Ninon --
  • Very delicate sheer silky material. Usually made of silk, rayon, or nylon. It is sometimes also referred to as "French tergal". Available in a variety of solid colors and tone-on-tone woven vertical stripes. Some ninon fabrics have embroidered borders. Pronounced "nee-no".

  • Organdy --
  • Delicate semi-sheer cotton plain weave, treated to make it slightly crisp. Available in a variety of solid colors and some printed or embroidered patterns.

  • Osnaburg --
  • Open plain weave made from thick coarse nubby cotton yarn. Available in a variety of solid colors and printed patterns.

  • Point d'esprit --
  • Very fine bobbinet with scattered woven dots. Available in white, ecru, and a variety of pastels. Pronounced "pwaa-de-spree".

  • Silk gauze --
  • Delicate plain woven silk. Threads usually have slight slubs. Available in a variety of colors.

  • Theatrical gauze --
  • Open weave with a crisp shiny finish. Usually made of cotton or linen. Available in a variety of solid colors and two-tone color combinations.

  • Voile --
  • Plain sheer open weave. May have nubby threads or contrasting vertical threads (for a striped effect) woven into the fabric. Available in a variety of solid colors and color combinations. Pronounced "voil" or "vwall" - either is correct.

Lightweight fabrics:

These are all lightweight fabrics suitable for many window treatments, bed treatments, tablecloths, and decorative pillows. They should not be used for any upholstery, including seat cushions. They also should not be used in areas exposed to excessive wear or staining.

These fabrics are made of a variety of natural and man-made fibers in many different combinations. Some of these fabrics are also available in heavier-weight versions, which we will discuss later in the chapter.

Antique satin Satin with horizontal slubs. The name has nothing to do with the age of the fabric. This is just a common name for satin that has horizontal slubs. May be a solid color or have a variety of contrasting color horizontal threads woven in. Available in a variety of colors and color combinations.

  • Antique taffeta --
  • Close plain woven silk with horizontal slubs and a smooth crisp finish. This is just a common name for taffeta that has horizontal slubs - the term has nothing to do with the age of the fabric. Usually made from wild silk, but some newer fabrics are made from cotton or synthetics. Also referred to as "tussah silk", "pongee", or "doupioni silk". Available in a variety of colors.

  • Boucle' --
  • Close plain woven fabric with many small loops. Usually made from silk, acetate, and/or rayon. Available in a heavyweight version. Pronounced "boo-clay".

  • Broadcloth --
  • Close plain woven fabric in a variety of fibers and fiber combinations. Typically has a dull finish. Available in a variety of colors.

  • Brocade --
  • Jacquard woven fabric with intricate raised woven designs, often made with many colors of thread and depicting complex patterns and scenes, and a shiny finish. Usually made from silk and/or rayon. Available in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Pronounced "broke-ade".

  • Calico --
  • Cotton broadcloth with tiny printed patterns. Usually brightly colored, although there are also some pastel calicos. Available in a variety of patterns and color combinations.

  • Challis --
  • Close plain woven fabric with a soft finish. Usually made of cotton, wool, or synthetics. Available in a variety of printed patterns and a few solid colors. Pronounced "shalley".

  • Chambray --
  • Close plain woven fabric with a white frosted finish. Usually made of cotton or linen. Available in a wide variety of colors. Pronounced "sham-bray".

  • Chintz --
  • Close plain woven cotton/polyester blend with a crisp shiny finish. Normally available in solid colors only. Chintzes that have printed patterns are normally mediumweight, although there are a very few, very cheap, very poor-quality lightweight patterned chintzes.

    Lightweight chintz is visibly thinner and usually has a much higher polyester content than mediumweight chintz. Chintzes that have 20% cotton/80% polyester or 30% cotton/70% polyester fiber contents are normally lightweight. Chintzes that have at least 50% cotton fiber content are normally mediumweight.

    Lightweight chintz is generally a very poor-quality substitute for mediumweight chintz. It looks cheap, too - hold up samples of light and mediumweight chintz next to each other when you are in a fabric store or showroom and look at the difference. Spend the extra dollar or two per yard and buy a nice mediumweight chintz, especially if you are investing money in custom labor.

  • Cotton sheeting --
  • Close plain woven cotton with a smooth finish. This is the material used in most standard cotton sheets. Available in a variety of solid colors and printed patterns.

  • Damask --
  • Jacquard woven fabric with complex woven patterns, usually florals, and a shiny finish. Usually made from linen, silk, and/or rayon. Similar to brocade, except that the patterns are not raised. Available in a mediumweight version. Many damasks are monochromatic, although some do use contrasting colored threads. Available in a wide variety of colors and patterns.

  • Doupioni silk --
  • Close plain woven silk with horizontal slubs and a smooth crisp finish. Usually made from wild silk, but some newer fabrics are made from cotton or synthetics. Also referred to as "tussah silk", "antique taffeta", or "pongee". Available in a variety of colors. Pronounced "doop-ee-o-ni".

  • Drill --
  • Twill woven cotton. Available in a limited variety of colors.

  • Faille --
  • Rib woven fabric with flattened horizontal ribs. Usually made from silk, rayon, or cotton. Available in a wide variety of colors. Pronounced "file".

  • Gingham --
  • Close plain woven cotton and/or synthetics in three specific woven patterns - checks, stripes, or plaids. Available in a variety of bright colors and pastels against a white or ecru background.

  • Homespun --
  • Close plain woven fabric made up of threads in varying thicknesses. Usually made of linen, wool, cotton, or rayon. Has a crude homemade appearance. Available in a variety of colors.

  • India print --
  • Close plain woven cotton fabric printed with ethnic or floral patterns. Dyes are usually primitive vegetable dyes and are prone to fading, although the fabrics are still very attractive in their slightly faded state. Available in a variety of colors.

  • Indian Head --
  • Brand name for a particular close plain woven cotton fabric that has been pre-shrunk and treated to be colorfast (non-fading). Available in a variety of colors.

  • Jaspe' --
  • Plain woven fabric made of thick irregular yarns. Usually made with vertical yarns of contrasting colors to create woven stripes. Available in a variety of color combinations, most monochromatic. Pronounced "zhaspay", where the "zh" is pronounced like the "zs" in "Zsa Zsa".

  • Linen --
  • Close plain woven linen fibers. Available in a variety of colors and printed patterns.

  • Moire' --
  • Rib woven fabric with a permanent wavy watermarked pattern and a crisp shiny finish. Usually made of cotton, acetate, silk, and/or rayon. Lightweight moire' tends to have mostly synthetic fibers and silk. Mediumweight moire' generally has a higher cotton content. Available in a wide variety of colors. Pronounced "moray".

  • Oxford cloth --
  • Close plain or twill woven cotton fabric. You've probably seen it in oxford shirts. Available in a variety of pastel colors.

  • Pique' --
  • Close plain woven fabric with spaced horizontal ribs. Usually made of cotton, rayon, and/or silk. Available in a variety of colors. Pronounced "pikay".

  • Pongee --
  • Close plain woven silk with horizontal slubs and a smooth crisp finish. Usually made from wild silk, but some newer fabrics are made from cotton or synthetics. Also referred to as "tussah silk", "antique taffeta", or "doupioni silk". Available in a variety of colors.

  • Poplin --
  • Close plain woven cotton or synthetic fabric with small rounded horizontal ribs. Available in a variety of colors.

  • Sateen --
  • Sateen woven cotton/polyester blend with a soft finish. Medium-weight sateen is normally 100% cotton. Approximately one-quarter of the fabrics you will find from fabric dealers are light or mediumweight sateen. Available in a wide variety of colors and printed patterns.

  • Satin --
  • Satin woven silk, rayon, and/or acetate with a slippery, shiny finish. Available in a wide variety of colors.

  • Shantung --
  • Close plain woven silk with elongated horizontal slubs and a smooth crisp finish. Available in a wide variety of colors.

  • Taffeta --
  • Close plain woven silk with very few small horizontal slubs and a smooth crisp finish. Available in a wide variety of colors.

  • Tussah silk --
  • Close plain woven silk with horizontal slubs and a smooth crisp finish. Usually made from wild silk, but some newer fabrics are made from cotton or synthetics. Also referred to as "pongee", "antique taffeta", or "doupioni silk". Available in a variety of colors.

  • Waffle pique' --
  • Close plain woven fabric with spaced horizontal and vertical ribs forming a box pattern like on a waffle. Usually made of cotton, rayon, and/or silk. Available in a variety of colors. Pronounced "pikay".

Mediumweight fabrics:

These fabrics are thicker and more durable than the lightweight fabrics and are usually made with more durable fibers: cotton, linen, and wool. Many do contain less durable synthetic fibers, but in smaller quantities. Some are also available in lightweight versions.

These fabrics are suitable for crisp structured window treatments, decorative pillows, some bed treatments, seat cushions, slipcovers, and light upholstery. They are not suitable for window treatments that should drape softly or upholstery that will receive heavy wear.

  • Bark cloth --
  • Close plain woven fabric with a rough texture created by using yarns of irregular thickness. Available in a variety of colors and printed patterns.

  • Brocade --
  • Jacquard woven fabric with intricate raised woven designs, often made with many colors of thread and depicting complex patterns and scenes, and a shiny finish. Usually made from cotton. Available in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Pronounced "broke-ade".

  • Brocatelle --
  • Specific type of brocade that has large patterns in high relief. The high relief gives the decorative pattern a puffy appearance, as opposed to most other brocades on which the pattern is not so highly raised. It is normally used on large furnishings, such as sofas and wing chairs. Pronounced "brock-ah-tell".

  • Burlap --
  • Open plain woven fabric made from jute or hemp fibers. Also called "hopsacking". It is available in a few colors.

  • Canvas --
  • Close plain woven cotton fabric with relatively large threads. Also referred to as "duck" and "sailcloth". Available in a variety of colors, stripes, and a few printed designs.

  • Chintz --
  • Close plain woven cotton/polyester blend with a crisp shiny finish. Usually has at least 50% cotton. The best chintz is 100% cotton. Available in a wide variety of solid colors and printed patterns. About half of the fabrics you will find from fabric dealers are mediumweight chintzes.

  • Crash --
  • Close plain woven fabric with a rough texture created by using threads of irregular thicknesses. Usually made from linen, rayon, cotton, and/or jute. Available in a variety of colors and printed patterns.

  • Cretonne --
  • Close plain woven cotton fabric very similar to chintz but lacking the crisp shiny finish. Available in a variety of printed patterns.

  • Crewel --
  • Close plain woven cotton or linen fabric with large embroidered patterns. Available in a wide variety of embroidered designs and a limited variety of base fabric colors. Nearly all crewel fabric consists of embroidery on an ecru base fabric.

  • Damask --
  • Jacquard woven fabric with complex woven patterns, usually florals, and a shiny finish. Usually made from cotton. Similar to brocade, except that the patterns are not raised. Available in lightweight versions. Most damasks are monochromatic, although some do use contrasting colored threads. Available in a wide variety of colors and patterns.

  • Denim --
  • Twill woven cotton. Available in a narrow variety of colors. Yes, this is exactly the same fabric used for blue jeans. Denim often costs less in fabric stores that specialize in clothing fabrics than it does in stores that specialize in home decorative fabrics.

  • Duck --
  • Close plain woven cotton fabric with relatively large threads. Also referred to as "canvas" and "sailcloth". Available in a variety of colors, stripes, and a few printed designs.

  • Gingham --
  • Close plain woven cotton in three specific woven patterns - checks, stripes, or plaids. Available in a variety of bright colors and pastels against a white or ecru background.

  • Hopsacking --
  • Open plain woven fabric made from jute or hemp fibers. Also called "burlap". Available in a few colors.
  • Moire' --
  • Rib woven fabric with a permanent wavy watermarked pattern and a crisp shiny finish. Usually made of cotton and or/acetate. Available in a wide variety of colors. Pronounced "moray".

  • Pique' --
  • Close plain woven fabric with spaced horizontal ribs. Usually made of cotton. Available in a variety of colors. Pronounced "pikay".

  • Repp --
  • Rib woven fabric with large horizontal ribs. Usually made of cotton, but may also contain synthetics. Available in a variety of colors.

  • Sailcloth --
  • Close plain woven cotton fabric with relatively large threads. Also referred to as "duck" and "canvas". Available in a variety of colors, stripes, and a few printed designs.

  • Sateen --
  • Sateen woven cotton with a soft finish. Approximately one-quarter of the fabrics you will find from fabric dealers are light or mediumweight sateen. Available in a wide variety of colors and printed patterns.

  • Seersucker --
  • Close plain woven cotton with woven puckered stripes. The puckered effect is formed by varying the tension on the threads during the weaving process. Available in a variety of stripe colors against a white or ecru background.

  • Sunbrella --
  • Specific brand of sailcloth that has been treated in a way that makes it highly resistant to sun-fading and mildew. Usually used for patio cushions and awnings. Available in a few colors, stripes, and a limited variety of printed patterns.

  • Terrycloth --
  • Pile woven cotton with loops instead of cut pile. Often used for patio cushions. Available in a few colors.

  • Textilene --
  • Specific brand of open plain woven fabric made from plastic-coated threads. Used for patio furniture cushions because it dries quickly and does not fade. Available in a variety of solid colors and woven striped designs.

  • Ticking --
  • Twill woven cotton or linen with narrow woven stripes. Available in a variety of colors against a white or ecru background.

  • Waffle pique' --
  • Close plain woven fabric with spaced horizontal and vertical ribs forming a box pattern like a waffle. Usually made of cotton. Available in a variety of colors. Pronounced "pikay".

Heavyweight fabrics:

These fabrics are primarily used for upholstery, seat cushions, and decorative pillows. They are generally not used for window treatments, although rarely some of these fabrics are used for flat structured window treatments such as pelmets and cornice boards.

  • Boucle' --
  • Close plain or twill woven fabric with many small loops. Usually made from wool and/or synthetics. Available in a lightweight version. Pronounced "boo-clay".

  • Corduroy --
  • Pile woven cotton and/or synthetics with raised vertical stripes of pile (called "wales"). Corduroy is also used for clothing, although clothing corduroy usually has narrower stripes and is thinner than upholstery corduroy. Available in a variety of colors.

  • Cotton moire' --
  • Close Jacquard woven cotton fabric with a raised woven pattern that imitates the wavy watermarked pattern of moire'. It is not a true moire'. Available in a wide variety of colors. Pronounced "moray".

  • Frieze --
  • Pile woven nylon and/or wool with the pile cut to form stripes or patterns. Available in a variety of colors and woven patterns. Pronounced "freeze".

  • Matelasse' --
  • Jacquard woven fabric made of two layers of cotton and/or rayon fabric quilted together. Usually has a raised floral or geometric pattern. Available in a variety of colors and woven patterns. Pronounced "mad-eh-luh-say".

  • Needlepoint --
  • Jacquard woven fabric made of wool, cotton, rayon, and/or acetate woven in discrete stitches on an open grid made of hemp or jute. The stitches vary in color to form patterns, usually florals. The Jacquard weaving method allows needlepoint to be mechanically mass-produced - formerly, all needlepoint was hand-stitched.

    Stitches are of equal length and range in size from very tiny (called "petit-point", pronounced "petty-point") to quite large (called "gros-point", pronounced "grow-point"). Petit-point is much more attractive, and much more expensive, than gros-point. Available in a limited variety of colors and patterns.

  • Plush --
  • Pile woven cotton fabric with long cut pile made from cotton, silk, and/or rayon. Very much like velvet but with longer pile. Pile may be even or have sculptured patterns cut into it. Available in a wide variety of colors.

  • Repp --
  • Rib woven fabric with large horizontal ribs. Usually made of wool, but may also contain synthetics. Available in a variety of colors.

  • Tapestry --
  • Jacquard woven cotton, wool, linen, and/or silk with woven patterns or scenes.

  • Velvet --
  • Pile woven cotton fabric with short cut pile made from cotton, silk, and/or rayon. Very much like plush but with shorter pile. Pile may be even or "crushed" (permanently compressed in places to form a random pattern). A few velvets have woven multicolored patterns or stripes, although this is rare today. Available in a wide variety of colors.

 
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