What Is Upholstery And How Do You Choose The Best Fabric for Your Sofa?

The upholstery fabric for a new sofa or armchair is a big investment—you don’t want to be second-guessing it a few months after the piece arrives on your doorstep. Choose the wrong material and you’ll find yourself battling snags and stains. Make a mistake on the color or pattern, and the whole room suffers (or you’ll wind up splurging to have the piece reupholstered). So before you pick your new upholstery fabric, read on to find out what you should consider in terms of durability, comfort, and style. Here’s how to zero in on a fabric choice you’ll be happy to live with for years.

What is Upholstery, Anyway?

Upholstery is the materials—which include fabric, padding, webbing, and springs—that make up the soft coverings of chairs, sofas, and other furniture. The process began in the Middle Ages and grew in popularity during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Over the years, a wide variety of materials have been used, from hay to horsehair to wool. Modern upholstered items use metal springs and foam for greater durability. While the interior materials may not be visible, they make a big difference in whether the piece is comfortable . While fabric can always be changed—and may need to be depending on wear and tear, choosing high-quality inner layers will help make sure the piece will last for years to come.

How To Choose The Best Upholstery Fabric for Your Sofa (Or chair, or headboard…)

As you shop for an upholstery fabric, let your practical needs lead, advise Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams, cofounders of the eponymous home-furnishings company. “First, consider how you live and who will use the piece,” says Williams. “This will help guide you on the type of material to choose.” You may love the look of that silk velvet, but it will quickly get destroyed in a house with kids or pets. Pieces in high-traffic areas, such as family or living rooms, will need durable fabrics, while furniture that doesn’t get as much wear and tear, such as a bedroom settee or headboard, can sport any type of textile.

A big mistake people make, Williams says, is not considering how a fabric or leather may age over time. Check the label and ask questions at the showroom to find out about the material’s content and cleaning needs, then think about how much maintenance you’re prepared to do to protect your selection. “How will it look in five years?” asks Williams. “Will you still love the leather as it develops a nice patina from everyday living? Will you vacuum the upholstery fabric regularly? Will you close the drapes when away or not using a room to avoid some of the fading that naturally occurs from exposure to sunlight?”

The Best Upholstery Fabrics for Homes with Kids and Pets

“Growing up, my brother and I weren’t allowed in the living room; it was for company only,” says Gold. Today, though, there are plenty of upholstery materials that match good looks with durability. “For children and pets—and maybe red-wine lovers—we like the easy care of a faux suede or the durability of a Sunbrella indoor-outdoor fabric,” he says. “We’re also big fans of slipcovered upholstery. And distressed leather is great—you don’t have to worry about the occasional scuff or scratch.” If you have a busy household, stay away from delicate or textured options, like silk, which could pull and aren’t as forgiving stainwise.

How to Pick a Luxurious Upholstery Material

If messy children and pets aren’t a worry, “you can really flaunt your freedom,” says Gold. His top decadent picks: fluffy Tibetan wool (“it feels so indulgent, but it’s not a great place to eat peanut-butter crackers”) and Belgian linen. “While linen is very durable, in lighter colors it doesn’t offer the level of stain resistance that a kid-friendly household might need and may not have a crisp wrinkle-free look after a lot of lounging,” he says. If you’re worried about upkeep (or cost), you can always use these luxe fabrics on pillows, which can be swapped out once they’ve seen better days or a new trend comes along.

Don’t Forget to Consider the Piece Itself

Take the shape of the furniture into consideration when you’re choosing a fabric. (Your upholsterer will thank you.) If you’re upholstering a curvaceous piece, Williams recommends sticking to solid-colored fabrics. “Patterns or textures with a distinctive direction may not upholster well.” A pattern that looks great on a bolt of fabric may not look great once it is chopped up and put back together on your sofa, particularly if it’s a tricky, ornate shape. Take the size of the furniture into account, too. “We like larger pieces, such as a sofa, in a rich solid color or classic neutral so you won’t tire of it over time,” says Williams. “Liven things up with smaller pieces—for instance, a great statement chair in a bolder shade or pattern.” Think about the other furnishings in the room as well—especially the other upholstered pieces. You’ll want to make sure the colors, textures, and patterns work well together.

Try Before You Buy

“The easiest way to be sure you’ll like an upholstery material on a certain frame—and like how it feels when you sit on it—is by going with something you see in the store,” says Williams. If you fall in love with a fabric that’s not shown on the floor, ask for a swatch you can drape over a furnishing to get a better idea of how it will look. If you go with a custom option, make sure you see a large swatch of any patterned fabrics so you see the full motif and it’s complete color palette. A little due diligence will help you avoid a big (and disappointing) surprise once the piece arrives.

Think Outside the Swatch

You’re not limited to the fabrics in the store, especially if you have a great upholsterer in your Rolodex (or some serious DIY skills.) Consider unconventional materials such as vintage blankets or kilim rugs. Bonus points if you pair a bold choice of fabric on a traditional piece such as a wingback chair or camel back sofa.