Know What to Look for When You Go Shopping for Upholstery Fabric

To work as a professional interior designer, you need to know your fabric.

When I take on a new design job, my client often asks me to reupholster an heirloom piece with beautiful bones but outdated fabric.

If you’re thinking of updating any of your furniture but have never shopped for upholstery fabric before, you might be feeling overwhelmed with your choices. However, once you know what to look for, you can narrow down your options pretty quickly.

Before you think about color and pattern, consider durability. Will your furniture get everyday use? Do you have young children or pets? One easy way to check the durability of a fabric is to look at its rub test score.

Fabric manufacturers test their products by performing a rub test, using a machine to rub the fabric in a back-in-forth motion until it finally shows signs of wear. Fabric with 15,000 double rubs is suitable for infrequent use, like formal dining chairs. Thirty-thousand or more double rubs is heavy-duty, making it suitable for everyday use.

Upholstered mohair chairs provide additional seating in a north Dallas home office.

On the other hand, if you’re buying fabric for a decorative piece that won’t be sat on very often, your options are wide open. Silk, Tibetan wool, and Belgian linen are delicate fabrics that should only be used in low-traffic areas. Bed headboards, decorative pillows, and chairs in formal living rooms are great places to use that delicate fabric that you love.

We as designers recommend choosing a neutral color for your sofa upholstery instead of a bold color or pattern. You can always add more color and personality to your sofa with patterned throw pillows. Also, keep in mind that curvaceous furniture looks best with solid color fabric. If you try to get your curvy furniture upholstered with a pattern, especially a striped pattern, it may look “choppy” and flow poorly over the lines of your piece. 

There’s nothing quite like seeing an old piece of furniture come back from the upholsterer, transformed in its new fabric.

Now that you know what to look for, you’re that much closer to finding the perfect fabric for your project. If you still feel limited by the options you see in the store, designers can connect you with a wider variety of fabrics and know the best upholsterers working in your area.

This bedroom features an upholstered headboard and a bench at the foot of the bed in a striped fabric.

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Margaret Chambers

Margaret Chambers, a registered interior designer (RID) and member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), leads Chambers Interiors and Associates. Her colleague Caitlin Crowley helped edit this column. Find more design advice at

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