Five Things You Should Consider When Choosing Upholstery Fabric

What’s the first thing you consider when choosing fabric for a lounge suite, sofa, or armchair?  Colour? Print or pattern? Texture? Chintz or no? (The answer is ‘No!’) Aesthetics are important, of course – you’ve got to like the look and feel of the furniture in your home – but there are a few practicalities you should also give serious thought to when deciding on the type of upholstery that’s best suited your home and lifestyle.

A great-looking piece is of no use if it isn’t practical. You’re better off investing in an expensive artwork and hanging it on the wall. Once you’ve got the practical stuff sorted, then you can get into the fun stuff – colours, textures, and patterns!

So, to help you consider ‘the practicals’ when it comes to choosing upholstery fabric, we’ve compiled a list five questions you should ask before deciding if a bold, floral print is really the right look for your lounge room.

1.  Who’s going to use the item?

This one’s a no brainer but needs to be asked. If it’s a family lounge, particularly one used by small children, then perhaps that gorgeous eggshell linen is not the best choice. You want a robust, easy-to-clean fabric, preferably in a darker shade, that’s going to take sticky fingers, muddy shoe prints and biscuit crumbs in its stride – something, shall we say, that ‘hides (and endures) the dirt’.

Do Zeus and Miffy have free range of the furniture? Then, again, you want a durable fabric that’s both stain resistant and easy to clean. You also want to avoid fabrics with a loose weave or knobbly texture, as they can too easily snag on nails and claws, which inevitably leads to unsightly loose threads. Loose-weave fabrics also tend to trap more pet hair and dander, making it harder to eliminate allergens when cleaning.

Are you partial to a glass of red wine as you binge the latest Netflix series? Even if children are not a consideration, red wine, cheese platters, and chocolate may pose an ever-present threat to pristine white linen, so think carefully about your own couch habits as well. Darker or highly textured fabrics are beaut little stain hiders.


 2. Is it a high-traffic item?

This question is related to the first one, but some furniture will always experience more traffic than others. Everyday furniture used by the whole family naturally takes a beating. Man-made fabrics that use a blend of synthetic and natural fibres stand up well to just about anything the modern Australian family can throw at it. Talk about an Aussie battler: these are the fabrics you want for the family sofa in front of the telly – tough, durable, and tightly woven. It almost goes without saying, but avoid delicate fabrics such as linen or silk, which wear thin with lots of use and tend to pill.

For an item that receives only moderate wear – a sofa, armchair or ottoman in a bedroom or hallway, for example – then a less durable fabric is fine. These are the furniture items where indulging your taste for soft velvets and delicate silks is strongly encouraged! Plush teal velvet was meant for that reading chair in your study!

3. Is it a large item?

Size and colour go hand in hand when considering how an item will set the tone of a room. A neutral colour is best for a large item, such as the family lounge, to ensure it doesn’t dominate or limit the colour choices for the whole room. Textures and patterns work best with smaller items, which can be easily changed to freshen the look of a room or keep up with the latest trends. Neutral colours don’t date as quickly either. Did we mention chintz earlier?


4. Does the item receive a lot of sun?

Sunlight, that is, ultraviolet light, is basically a bleaching agent. It breaks down the chemical bonds in fabric dyes that give them their colour. And it’s not just the colours that fade, the breakdown of chemical bonds in dye also makes fabric brittle, which will eventually cause it to disintegrate.

For furniture that receives a lot of sunlight, whether it’s near a window or out on a patio, then you absolutely want an indoor/outdoor UV-treated fabric. These fabrics have come a long way in the last few years to keep up with the Aussie lifestyle. And they don’t just come in sensible neutrals either: you can get UV-protected fabrics in a range of gorgeous textures and pattens. Even UV-protected velvet is a thing now! They’re also extremely durable, making them a good choice for families with children and pets.

A good trick, too, is to flip and rotate sun-exposed cushions to even out exposure and extend the life the upholstery.


5. Do you follow the maintenance guides or are you a set and forget kind of person?

Okay, be honest here – do you read the maintenance guide when you get a brand-spanking-new piece of furniture? Do you take careful note on how to remove stains? Cleaning instructions? If good maintenance and furniture care is a way of life, then natural fibres like cottons and linens were meant for you. Go be the envy of your friends and neighbours. If, however, you’re more a ‘set and forget’ person (like us!) and fabric maintenance is very low on your priority list, then you’re much better off with man-made (human-made!) fibres or a blend of natural and synthetic, which will do the hard yards for you.

Martindale Test: How to Read the Numbers

If you’ve answered the above questions, you’re probably thinking, what next? How do I know if a fabric is durable? How is that even measured? That’s when the Martindale test, also known as the ‘rub test’, comes in and most upholstery fabrics come with a Martindale number that can be used to interpret its durability. The ‘uses’ are categorised as: Decorative, Light Domestic, General Domestic, Heavy Duty, and Commercial. Each category is assigned a number range, which you can use to decide if a fabric is the right fit for a particular furniture item and its likely use.

 For the rub test, fabric is stretched taut over the plates of the Martindale machine. Small discs of worsted wool or wire mesh are then rubbed in a continuous circular motion against the fabric. The fabric is inspected at regular intervals for wear and tear. The test ends when two yarns break or there is a noticeable change in the appearance of the fabric. The results are based on the number of rubs or cycles the fabric endured before breakage. You can interpret the results as follows:

How to read Martindale test results?

Decorative use: 6000–10,000 rubs. Recommended for decorative accessories and is not suitable for general use.

Light Domestic use: 10,000–15,000 rubs. The fabric has been made of delicate yarns and is suitable for occasional items that are likely to need dry cleaning.

General Domestic use: 15,000–25,000 rubs. Suitable for everyday use, but is not recommended for motion furniture, such as sofa beds and recliners.

Heavy Duty use: 25,000–30,000 rubs. Best suited for furniture that will incur everyday high-traffic use. Also suitable for motion furniture.

Commercial use: 30,000+ rubs.


If you see the + (plus) sign at the end of the Martindale number, this means it was tested to that rub number, but not to the fabric’s breaking point.

Talk to us about the right fabric choice for your new  furniture piece.