Fabrics and textiles are used in multiple ways in architecture and interior design. In commercial buildings, textiles are typically specified for upholstery, window treatments, and flooring. They are also specified for tensile structures on an exterior application.

Textile vs. Fabric

Although the terms textile and fabric are used interchangeably, there are subtle differences that differentiate the two.

A textile is typically produced by weaving, but also includes other construction methods, such as knitting, felting, and tufting. Textiles are formed from a wide range of materials, from fibers and filaments to polymers and plastics. Finished products are considered textiles and are used as carpeting, walk-off mats, window shades, wallcovering, and more. Tenting, canopies, and tensile fabrics, which are large draped expanses of fabric connected to cables or cords, are some architectural uses for textiles.

Fabrics are made of natural or manmade fibers woven, knitted, crocheted, or bonded together to form a cloth. Fabric is a type of textile, but all textiles are not fabrics. Upholstery, drapery, bedding, and linens are all uses for fabrics in commercial design.

Fabric swatches used during the design process
Fabric swatches used during the design process

Fabrics are made from natural fibers or synthetic fibers.

Natural Fibers

Natural fibers are animal or plant-based and include wool, leather, silk, cotton, linen, ramie, jute, and hemp. General characteristics of natural fibers are the ability to take dyes well, they are biodegradable, sustainable, and most are durable.

Wool

Wool is an animal-based fiber that comes from a variety of sources, such as goats, sheep, lamb, and alpacas.

Wool is a durable material and has inherent water-resistance due to the oils in the animals’ skin. It is naturally hypoallergenic, flame retardant, and has self-extinguishing properties.

Conversely, wool is also susceptible to damage from insects and requires proper cleaning to avoid permanent damage to the material. Excessive exposure to sunlight can bleach or yellow the pigment in the fabric, causing it to look prematurely worn. Wool fabrics are expensive and typically price themselves out of a traditional budget.

Consider using wool blends to achieve a high-end effect in a more cost-effective way. If you are specifying wool on a project, consider using it in a low-traffic, high visibility area to get the maximum benefit from your investment. We suggest strategically placing it in a zone not affected by direct or indirect daylight. Upholstery and bedding are the typical uses for wool on a commercial project.

You may also consider synthetic wool substitutes like acrylic.

Leather

Leather is a natural fabric made from animal hides. Cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, and other animal skins are removed and preserved to begin the tanning process. Most commercial-grade leathers are tanned, which is a process of cleaning, processing, conditioning, and finishing the hides for use.

Leather is hypoallergenic, durable, and is relatively easy to clean. If done properly, leather can be refinished to like-new condition.

Leather is not a cost-effective material and can be extremely expensive to use in a commercial project. Since hide sizes are limited to the size of the animal, leather is sold by the square foot, not the square yard. If this difference is not accounted for properly in the budget, it can create a costly overrun on the project. Other downfalls of leather are it is prone to cracking, thinning, and fading over time; its surface temperature is directly related to the surrounding environmental conditions, and it cannot withstand prolonged direct or indirect sunlight. Some leather manufacturers also use questionable harvesting practices, which can be considered unethical and inhumane.

Common commercial uses for leather are headboards, upholstery, and decorative throw pillows in hospitality projects; wall panels, seating, and bar fronts in restaurant and retail design; and upholstered flooring and seating in high-end corporate offices.

An alternative to real leather is faux leather, which is traditionally made of vinyl or polyolefin. These materials are discussed later in this article.

Silk

Silk comes from the silkworm, the larvae stage of a silkworm moth. When the moth reaches the pupa stage, it creates a cocoon of a single strand of silk, about 1000 feet long. Once the cocoons are made, the cocoon is boiled, steamed, or heated to kill the pupa inside. This is done to keep the moth from emerging and destroying the single strand of silk. The remaining cocoon is softened and unraveled to form the silk fiber.

Silk is shiny, soft, and has a natural luster. It is delicate and expensive. It can be easily damaged, stained, snagged, and torn. We suggest using it sparingly in low traffic areas where contact will be limited. Consider using an alternative if budget or wear and tear is a concern.

It is typically used in high-end commercial design as wallcovering, decorative upholstery, drapery, or sheers.

Cotton

Cotton is by far the most abundantly utilized fabric in commercial design. Cotton fiber comes from the boll of the cotton plant, which is grown in warm climates. The fiber is harvested, processed, and made into yarns. The yarn is made into a multitude of products, including carpet and rugs, upholstery fabric, wallcovering, backing, lampshades, draperies, and more.

Cotton fibers are soft, strong, flexible, and durable. Its absorbent nature allows it to take dyes well, but color washes out easily. The porous quality allows for breathability, but it also creates moisture retention issues, i.e. mold and mildew, if not treated prior to use. Cotton is prone to damage from insects, such as moths and worms, that feed on the fibers. Other issues are fading and degrading in prolonged sunlight, shrinking, staining, and wrinkling. The majority of downfalls of cotton can be alleviated by blending with other fibers or treating the material prior to production.

Due to its abundance and resilience, products made with cotton or cotton blends are ideal for use on most commercial projects. The material location, amount of traffic, and cleaning methods should be taken into consideration to ensure the treatment of the material is appropriate for its intended use.

Linen

Linen is another plant-based fiber. Linen comes from the flax plant, which has rigid fibers that soften over time. Once the fibers have softened, they can be weaved into fabric that is durable, breathable, lightweight, and absorbent.

The natural stiffness of linen lends itself to commercial wallcoverings, window treatments, lampshades, and drapery applications. The softness and quick drying time of linen are ideal for use in commercial bedding, sheets, towels, and tablecloths. Consider utilizing a linen blend in high visibility applications, as the material is easily wrinkled.

The cost of linen is typically higher than cotton but is generally affordable within a modest budget.

Hemp, Jute, and Ramie

Hemp, jute, and ramie are all types of highly sustainable, rapidly renewable plant-based fibers.

Of these, hemp is the most water-resistant. Industrial hemp is harvested from the outer casing, or bast, of the stem of the Cannabis Sativa plant. The fibers are similar to canvas in texture and durability, but wrinkle easily. Hemp fabric is strong, but fibers will weaken over time with repeated use. Hemp is typically used for linens and bedding in commercial applications.

Jute is from the bark of the jute plant. The fiber is extremely strong and versatile. Some commercial uses for jute are geotextiles to inhibit soil erosion, material for rope, and as backing for wallcovering and flooring. Despite its natural sheen, jute is typically only used in upholstery if blended with another fiber.

Ramie, also known as grasscloth, comes from the stalks of various perennial plants grown in east Asia. Ramie fibers are stronger than cotton, linen, and wool. Fabrics are naturally mildew resistant, moisture absorbent, and do not shrink. It is one of the few natural fibers that can withstand prolonged daylight without bleaching. Despite these advantages, ramie is rarely used in commercial applications because it is expensive to produce, brittle, and inflexible. The most common use for ramie is industrial thread and in fiber blends.

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic fibers are manmade materials, specifically designed to replicate natural fibers. Examples of these are polyester, nylon, rayon, acrylic and modacrylic, acetate and triacetate, olefin, and vinyl. Synthetic fibers tend to be less expensive, readily available, stain-resistant, and water-resistant.

Synthetic fibers are created from scientifically engineered polymers with high melting points. These are melted down and extracted through small holes called spinnerets. The resulting fiber cools and solidifies for use in various capacities in commercial design.

Most synthetic fibers are designed to accept dyes after production (piece dyed) or have color infused in them prior to extraction (solution-dyed).

Polyester

Polyester is made from a chemical reaction with petroleum. It is strong, stretchy, flexible, and readily available. It is a hydrophobic material and repels water. Due to it being a product of the petroleum industry, it is not sustainable or biodegradable.

In commercial applications, it can be specified in upholstery, wallcovering, backing, carpets, and flooring. The inherent flame retardance of the material and resistance to wrinkling is ideal for use in draperies and window treatments.

Nylon

Nylon was originally a brand name for hexamethylene diamine, the original fiber produced in 1935. Today it is used as a generic term to define a family of synthetic fibers that are exceptionally strong and durable. Characteristics of nylon include abrasion resistance, flame resistance, and elasticity. Nylon is not heat resistant and will melt in high temperatures. Nylon fabrics are lightweight and soft, however, they also fade and degrade when exposed to prolonged sunlight.

In commercial applications, nylons are commonly used in carpet fibers and rugs in moderate to high traffic locations.

Rayon

Rayon is manufactured mainly from the pulp of wood cellulose fiber. Depending on the process, it can serve as a less expensive alternative to silk. Rayon is absorbent, relatively heat resistant, and has excellent static-resistance. Rayon is flammable and wrinkles easily; the material must be treated to be utilized in a drapery application. For upholstery, we suggest limiting use to low traffic locations.

Acrylic

Acrylics come from acrylonitrile monomers, which are colorless volatile liquids that form from chemical reactions between nitrogen, hydrogen, and carbon. Acrylic is made as a filament and then cut into smaller pieces to resemble wool fibers. These are made into yarns, which are blended with natural fibers or used as cost-saving alternatives to wool.

Acrylic fabrics are soft, lightweight, and resilient. They are hypoallergenic, colorfast, and extremely resistant to sunlight. Its ability to withstand direct daylight lends itself for use as awnings, tensile structures, and outdoor upholstery in commercial environments. Its low resistance to flame limits its ability to be used as drapery or wallcoverings without additional coatings.

Modacrylics

Modacrylics are similar to acrylics in production and performance. The major difference is modacrylics are extremely flame resistant and do not burn. Modacrylics are not susceptible to damage from insects and do not mold or mildew. It is less durable than acrylic but is still suitable for use in outdoor furniture, awnings, and tensile structures in a commercial application.

Acetate and Triacetate

Acetate and triacetate are created when cellulose fiber is treated with acetic acid and extracted.

Acetate is formed when at least 76% of the cellulose is treated. Acetate fibers are mixed with acetone and extruded. They form a silky fiber that can only be dyed with special chemicals.

Triacetate is formed when 92% of the cellulose is treated. Triacetate fibers are extruded with alcohol and methylene chloride. Both types of acetates have similar characteristics. They have low heat resistance, low abrasion resistance, low durability, and low resistance to daylight.

Acetate and triacetate are typically blended with rayon for stability and better performance. Commercial uses include upholstery backing and lining.

Polyolefin

Polyolefin, or olefin, is made from polypropylene or polyethylene. The chemical properties have been adjusted over time to create an extremely strong, stable, and lightweight fiber.

Polyolefins are colorfast, stain resistant, mildew resistant, and static-resistant. They also have poor absorbency, wrinkle resistance, and heat resistance.

Traditionally, polyolefins are found in commercial carpets, backings, upholstery webbing, wallcoverings, and as alternatives to vinyl upholstery.

Vinyl

Vinyl, also known as vinyon or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is made from vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate. It is flame retardant, chemically resistant, and durable.

Despite these attributes, it is being phased out of the industry because of toxic chemicals emitted during and after the manufacturing process. Carcinogens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) linked to vinyl off-gassing within the finished environment are also a major concern.

In a commercial space, vinyl is utilized in upholstery, wallcovering, and exterior fabrics. We strongly suggest utilizing vinyl alternatives on a project, such as polyolefins and biobased products containing low or no VOCs.

Textile and Fabric Selection

When specifying fabrics and textiles on a commercial project, it is imperative to choose appropriate materials for the application. In addition to appearance, the durability, absorbency, elasticity, and acoustical properties must be taken into consideration for a successful project.

Appearance

A materials’ appearance is subjective and relative to the proposed space. Luster, hand, texture, color, and pilling are as important as the desired aesthetic of a material.

Luster or sheen is primarily determined by fiber type, light reflectance, and applied finish. Synthetic fibers can be engineered with varying degrees of sheen, while natural fiber luster is determined by the source.

Hand is the touch and feel of the material against the skin. This is purely subjective, as no scientific method has been proven to determine a material’s quality by touch. Gauging a textile’s hand is common when selecting upholstery, bedding, drapery, wallcovering, and window treatments a user may come in contact with on a daily basis.

Texture is the tactile construction of a fabric or material. Textures range from smooth to rough. Texture preference is contingent upon the use, product, and project type. Generally speaking, heavily textured products tend to disguise imperfections in the substrate or construction. For example, a heavily textured wallcovering will hide wall defects much better than a smooth product that would be subject to telegraphing. Considerations should also be taken when using a textured upholstery. Smoother materials can be subject to scratches and stains, while rougher textures are more prone to snags and runs.

The color of a textile is determined by its dyeing method. Solution-dyed colors are dyed prior to the extraction process and permeate through the entire fiber. This is often referred to as the “carrot” method because the color goes all the way through, similar to the vegetable. Piece or yarn-dyed fibers are traditionally dipped into a solution after they are made into fibers. This is called the “radish” method, as the color is on the outside and the original white fiber remains on the inside.

Historically, solution-dyed materials are colorfast and will hold up to bleach and heavy-duty cleaners. Piece-dyed tend to be brighter and may discolor when subjected to bleach. Solution-dyed materials are suitable for carpets and heavy-duty use, while piece-dyed tend to be found in upholstery and wallcovering.

Pilling refers to fibers of a material that break away and form a ball, or pill, on the surface. Pilling typically occurs in areas of heavy use, such as seats or arms of a chair, or in walkways on a carpet. Pills can be removed by trimming the fibers attached to the pill, however, this does not guarantee they will not return. The is the industry standard test for fabric. Fabrics are rated from 5 (no pilling) to 1 (severe pilling).

Durability

There are two methods for testing fabric durability: the Wyzenbeek method and the Martindale method.

, known as the Wyzenbeek abrasion method, is the most common test for fabric durability in North America. Fabrics are abraded using the oscillatory cylinder method and the amount of passes it takes to show wear is recorded. This number is recorded in double-rubs. Fabrics of 40,000 double-rubs or less are suitable for low traffic areas; 40,000 - 75,000 double-rubs are considered medium-duty, and 75,000+ are typically utilized for heavy-duty applications. Some commercial applications consider 100,000 double-rubs as the minimum suitable for heavy-duty use.

The Martindale method, tested by , tests more of a natural wear pattern on fabric. This method considers results over 40,000 double rubs as heavy-duty and suitable for commercial applications.

With development of new testing, the double-rub count has become less of a factor in determining a fabrics’ durability. The fiber, weave, texture, treatment, and cleaning methods of a fabric must also be taken into consideration.

The , or TARR, was developed by the to indicate how well a carpet will withstand commercial use. TARR ratings of moderate and heavy are traditionally specified for offices and schools, while severe ratings are appropriate for airports and government buildings.

Absorbency

tests the absorbency of fabric. Not all manufacturers utilize or report this test, so knowledge of fiber types and attributes is important when selecting a fabric.

Elasticity

Elasticity is the amount of give a fabric has when pressed or pulled. Fabrics with high elasticity regain their original shape, while fabrics with lower elasticity tend to pool or puddle.

Consider the fabric type and fiber characteristics when specifying fabrics for upholstery. Most manufacturers provide data regarding tested and approved fabrics on a specific item.

Acoustics

Fabrics can help control sound in a room to improve the acoustic environment for occupants. Acoustical properties of materials are measured by . The Noise Reduction Coefficient, or NRC, is established by rating the material between 0 and 1. A material with an NRC of 0 would be completely reflective, while an NRC of 1 would be completely absorptive. Most fabrics fall within a percentage of this range. An average level of absorption has an NRC of about 0.55.

Acoustically transparent fabrics allow sound to pass through them to an absorptive material behind. These are often used in wall panels to alleviate sound reverberation around a room. An average NRC of an acoustically transparent fabric would be 0.10 or less.

Fabric Finishing

The term finishing typically refers to coatings or treatments added to a fabric to achieve the desired result. Common types of finishing are stain resistance/cleanability, moisture resistance, chemical resistance, fire resistance, flammability, flame spread and smoke developed, flame retardant, antimicrobial treatment, and anti-static treatments.

Stain resistance is the most common instance of fabric finishing. Chemical treatments are added to the fabric to add resistance to soils or stains and allow for easier cleaning. Common brands of stain treatments are Alta, Crypton, and Nanotex.

Stain resistance is inherent to some fabrics, such as polyolefins, and no additional stain treatment is necessary. Not all fabrics will accept stain treatments. Review the manufacturer’s information carefully to ensure the fabric is compatible. Stain resistant treatments can add expense to the final cost of the fabric, so consider the end-use and level of traffic before specifying on your project.

Moisture resistance adds a layer of protection underneath a fabric to block moisture from seeping into the substrate below. This is typically addressed with a moisture barrier added to the fabric post-production. The barrier is often a proprietary coating applied directly to the fabric or comes as a separate membrane that is fused to the fabric.

Utilize moisture barriers in healthcare or senior living applications where biological fluids pose a hazard to the upholstery. A moisture barrier will add cost to your project; consider their use carefully prior to specifying.

Chemical resistance and bleach cleanability are inherent to the fiber and rarely provided in a topical coating. A bleach cleanable fabric will not fade or degrade when cleaned with harsh chemicals, such as bleach and alcohol. Solution-dyed synthetic fibers like nylon, polyolefin, and acrylic will withstand diluted bleach. While topical coatings are available, these are not appropriate for most fabrics and will typically wash out after repeated use.

Fire resistance, flame spread and smoke developed, flammability, and flame retardants all apply to the burn characteristics of a fiber or fabric in a fire. measures fire resistance of a specific fabric. A piece of fabric is placed in a chamber and ignited. It either passes or fails depending on the established metrics. If the fabric passes, it is considered FR or flame retardant.

Fibers that are intrinsically flame retardant, like polyester, keep the FR designation throughout their life cycle. These are acceptable for use as window treatments and draperies. FR treated fabrics are only flame retardant for the life of the treatment, which can be removed with repeated cleaning. FR treated fabrics are becoming obsolete, as they contain toxins linked to cancer, thyroid problems, neurological problems, and other detriments to human health.

is the North American standard for flame spread and smoke developed. Material is tested to gauge how fast a flame spreads across a material within a given amount of time. The test also measures how much smoke is developed during the same period. The distances are measured and rated according to the calculated speed.

  • Class I or A rating is given to a flame spread of 0-25
  • Class II or B is 26-75
  • Class III or C is 76-200

All class I, II, and III ratings have smoke developed ratings of less than 450. Two additional classes (D and E) are noted in the Life Safety Code, but are rarely specified for commercial projects.

ASTM E84 typically applies to wallcoverings and acoustical fabrics utilized on a wall assembly. Classes A and B tend to be preferred, but class C can also be acceptable in certain applications. The life safety code and desired wall assembly rating should be taken into consideration when selecting a finish material.

California Technical Bulletin 117 (CAL 117) and California Technical Bulletin 133 (CAL 133) are flammability tests administered on furniture components and full furniture assemblies. Of these, CAL 117 is the only test in use today. ()was designed to test upholstery components in a fire, measuring open flame and smoldering. The test simulates ignition by cigarette, which was more common in the mid-1970s when the test was invented. tested furniture for public areas, and was set up to measure flame spread of an entire piece of furniture. Many manufacturers could not produce passing products without adding toxic flame retardants and other chemicals, .

Example CAL 117 Label that appears on upholstered items
Example CAL 117 Label that appears on upholstered items

Similar to stain resistance, antimicrobial treatment can be added to a material or fabric to combat mold, mildew, and microorganisms. Antimicrobials combat a variety of issues, such as odor, fungus, or bacteria. Antimicrobial treatment can be sprayed or saturated into a fiber post-production, or can be engineered as part of the fiber itself. Minerals like zinc, silver, and copper are being infused into products for their natural antimicrobial properties.

Arguments can be made against using antimicrobial treatments because scientific findings supporting them are mixed. It is also an added cost on the project, which should be considered prior to specification.

Specifying Fabrics

When specifying fabrics for upholstery, drapery, or sheers, it is imperative to select the correct type of fabric for your application. We discussed the various fabric types and finishes above, but there are a few more things to consider when specifying fabric.

Fabric Widths and Lengths

Upholstery and drapery fabrics usually come in 52” - 54” wide bolts and are measured by the yard. Drapery fabrics may be available in bolt widths of 118".

Some manufacturers require a minimum yardage purchase to use their product. Typical minimums are 15 or 30 yards. If the minimum yardage is not met, they will institute a “cut charge”, which is a one time fee to cut the specific yardage requested. Lengths are limited to the size of the bolt.

Railroading Fabric

Fabric is generally manufactured “up the bolt”, meaning a patterned fabric runs up the roll. For example, a horizontally striped pattern would be milled with the horizontal stripe running parallel to the bolt.

Railroading means the pattern runs across the bolt. If we railroaded the stripe pattern from the previous example, the pattern would run perpendicular to the bolt. This would allow a large piece of furniture to be upholstered with fewer seams and pattern matches. Not all fabric can be railroaded; we strongly suggest reviewing manufacturers’ recommendations prior to railroading a fabric.

Vertical stripes achieved by
Vertical stripes achieved by "Railroading" the fabric - note that the bolt width limits the railroaded height

Special Drapery Considerations

Drapery fabrics should be FR rated and meet NFPA 701. If your drapery requires room darkening qualities, specify a 2 pass (semi-opaque) or 3 pass (opaque) liner. Sheers come in single width or double width, up to 118” wide. Length is limited to the size of the bolt.

Contributors:
  • Amber Gentry, LEED AP, NCIDQ