Considerations when picking an upholstery fabric

"To achieve long-lasting and practical results, serious consideration needs to take place before you shell out any of your hard-earned money"

When it comes to choosing an upholstery fabric, it’s not just grabbing the best-looking fabric on the shelf and Bob’s your uncle.  To achieve long-lasting and practical results, serious consideration needs to take place before you shell out any of your hard-earned money.

If you have read any of our previous journal articles, you will know that we highly advise educating yourself first and researching the ins and outs of several types of fabrics - the way they are constructed as well as how they behave under certain conditions.

In today’s article, we provide a high-level overview of the key considerations as part of your upholstery fabric selection.

Learn more about our upholstery fabric range here.

What we have found is that consumers and designers put a particular emphasis on a fabric’s rub rating – i.e. the Martindale or Wyzenbeek test results and use this result as the determining factor in the selection of their fabric. We also find the rub test numbers can be misunderstood for residential applications. The impression that 100,000 must be better than 20,000 is not always the case – 20,000 is more than enough for 90% of residential upholstery applications.

Martindale Rub Rating Scale

1,000 - 5,000: is considered occasional use - a feature chair in a bedroom covered in silk that is rarely used.

6,000 - 9,000: is considered light duty residential use - chairs, headboards, and cushions.

10,000 - 19,000: is considered medium duty residential use – a lot of patterns (printed and woven) are in this group as they are decorative and complex constructions, perfect for feature pieces such as dining chairs or ottomans.

20,000 - 29,000: is considered heavy duty residential use - there are a lot of stunning, complicated decorative constructions in this group. These are the best options for a family room situation.

30,000 plus: is considered heavy duty commercial use - velvets achieve an excellent Martindale rating and are in this group.

Martindale, while a useful test, is a test of failure - it only measures how many rubs it takes to break the fibres. During this test the fabric may pill and lose its colour or pattern, but these are not part of the test so are ignored. Pilling, stretching, colourfastness and fade resistance are separate tests which need to be considered when selecting your fabric.


Learn more about abrasion resistance here.


While these tests do deliver useful information about how many ‘wears’ or rubs the fabric can handle before it breaks down, it’s not the be all and end all to whether the fabric will last or is appropriate for your project.

First things first – we can guarantee that your upholstered piece of furniture (or curtains) WILL get dirty. It’s inevitable. Whether you have pets, children, a lot of visitors – or none of the above – everyday grime and dust builds up before our eyes. General pollution, fly dirt, dust, and mildew are things that are hard to control.


Most importantly, since we know your fabric will attract dust and dirt, of utmost importance to your fabric selection would have to be cleanability.

Can I clean the fabric myself or, do I have to get a professional in if someone spills something, and how hard is this fabric to clean?

Accompanying each fabric from the James Dunlop Textiles offering is information about how it should be cleaned and cared for. However, not all fabrics can be cleaned easily. An easy clean fabric is one that repels stains and spills, wicks when exposed to liquid, resists mold and mildew, and can be effortlessly put in the wash. Moreover, a straightforward way to keep fabrics looking their best is regular vacuuming – just like your carpet – suck out dust and don’t let it settle and turn into anything more.

Examples of excellent fabrics with cleanability attributes are: Our inherently stain resistant fabrics with FibreGuard protection. Explore our FibreGuard range here.


Following cleanability, you need to think about where your upholstery fabric will be located within your home. Is it a chair or sofa in a sunny north facing spot? For curtains, do the sun’s rays beat down through the glass and damage your fabric? Thinking about how much sun a room receives, and therefore your soft furnishings and upholstered furniture, means you need to consider how well your fabric choice will resist fading in the sun’s powerful UV rays.

Check for the colourfastness to light test which measures a fabric’s resistance to colour loss in UV light. Here at James Dunlop Textiles we publish the result of UV #/# Blue Scale. The blue scale is a testing card of 8 standard blue wool swatches which are placed in the same light conditions as our “test” sample. The amount the sample fades is assessed in comparison to the original colour, against the blue swatches and their original swatch shade.

A rating between 0 and 8 is given by identifying which one of the eight strips on the blue wool standard card has faded to the same extent as our “test” sample. 

James Dunlop offers fabrics that are appropriate for different UV conditions. This information is readily available and can be found under the product details on our website, or ask our team which designs perform well in the sun and we can help with your selection.


Learn more about applying SPF to your interior here.

Learn more about colourfastness here.


Thirdly, and somewhat importantly, is the LOVE factor. How much do you love the fabric? If you really adore a textile you will, in most cases, do anything to have it or you will accept the fact that it may pill after a year or two – but at least you have the chance to enjoy it in your home. At the end of the day you need to be surrounded by textiles and interiors and that inspire, so ensure you love the fabric you select as well as other more technical factors.

And, if you really want to make sure you have found the best fabric for your project, the following information will also be helpful to you.

Other factors to consider


You know those little balls of matted fibres that love to appear in the most prominent of places, like sofa seat cushions, that’s called pilling. Pilling is not a product failure, it is just loose fibres shedding and balling up. In the way that fresh carpet can fluff up until it has been lived on for a while, freshly milled fabric can do the same. A quick trim with a de-pilling or de-linting machine can remove any pilling and it should settle down after one or two trims. Pilling is often triggered by abrasion on the surface of the fabric but may also be a result of other fibres from our clothes or pets matting up in the fabric weave.

Smooth, tightly woven fabrics and those made from tightly twisted yarns are less likely to pill because the fibres are held firmly in the cloth. A pilling test will measure and determine how resistant fabrics are to pilling or fuzzing.

Using the same machine as the Martindale abrasion test, but instead of the test fabric being rubbed against a standard abradant, the test fabric is rubbed against another piece of the same fabric. The swatches are rubbed together in a figure eight motion for a number of cycles, after which their surface appearance is compared to a series of standardised images to determine the test result. The result is measured against a scale of 1-5; one representing severe pilling; five representing no pilling. 


Learn more about fabric pilling here.

Learn more about pilling testing here.


Environmental pilling through a contamination fibre, such as loose fluff from a rug or carpet being tracked onto the couch, is also incredibly common. It is best to maintain your couch by regularly using a lint trimmer to keep the weave looking fuzz free and fresh.


Seam slippage

The separation or pulling apart of yarns in a fabric, usually along a sewn seam or join, is what we call seam slippage. Often the yarns don’t actually break they just separate and leave an unattractive gap along the fabric join. This is not what you want for a long-lasting piece of furniture. Selecting the wrong fabric will cause this to happen and it is difficult to repair once it has begun. In almost all instance it will require the furniture to be reupholstered. Luckily for you, there is a test for this as well.

The seam slippage test measures how resistant a fabric is to yarns separating/slipping under pressure along a seam line.


Learn more about seam slippage here.

An example of a fabric that has been well used in a heavy commercial situation is shown here on a dining/occasional chair at a hotel in Hamilton, it was upholstered 15 years ago and is still going strong. This upholstery fabric has a Martindale rating of 33,000.

An example of a fabric that has been well used in a heavy commercial situation is shown here on a dining/occasional chair at a hotel in Hamilton, it was upholstered 15 years ago and is still going strong. This upholstery fabric has a Martindale rating of 33,000.

Gone are the days when the lounge was positioned at the front of the home, down the hallway and away from the kitchen and dining areas. This historical division of space kept furniture and furnishings in immaculate condition for any drop-in visitors. In contrast, in today’s homes we see open plan schemes merging the kitchen, dining, and living into one – the ferrying of food, people and pets from one space to another enables the rapid deterioration of our beloved upholstery fabrics.

Perhaps, looking to the past in terms of room layout is the way forward if we are to keep our furniture and furnishings looking brand new. OR it’s a case of instigating some hard and fast rules about no food, no shoes, and no liquids in said space!


See more on Caring for Upholstery Fabrics here.   



An insight into viscose

Tips & How To

Viscose, or Rayon, was the first regenerated fibre to be manufactured for commercial production in the early 1900s. 

As a fabric, it is able to emulate the extremely soft handle and subtle sheen of natural fibres, whilst being more cost effective to produce. Therefore resulting in the continued popularity of viscose in fashion and soft furnishings.

Although viscose begins as a natural fibre, it is different from products like linen and cotton because it undergoes a manufacturing process. During this process, wood pulp is dissolved in alkali to make the solution called viscose, which is then squeezed through a nozzle or spinneret into an acid bath to create filaments called regenerated cellulose, and finally spun into yarn.

As with all natural fibres, viscose has a unique personality and requires special care. In this article we will discuss the characteristics of this versatile fabric, whether it is the right choice for your next project, and its unexpected enemy – H2O.