The ins and outs of Home décor/upholstery fabric  Part I

Why use: 

Color—because home décor fabric is expected to last many seasons, the colors, although mirror fashion trends, will tend to be less high fashion, and introduce colors in a way that will not make it obsolete in a year.  Further, home décor/upholstery fabric will repeat patterns in a number of color variations, giving you a better chance of finding, texture, pattern, and weight of fabric, in your color tones and style.

Pattern and Texture—for large women, these patterns are great. Our clothes, whether wide or long, are large enough to tell a story--finish a thought.  We will not be swallowed up by the larger bolder patterns and textures available in home decor.

Durability—the thick layered fibers of upholstery fabric makes it virtually indestructible as a wearable fabric, and very warm for winter coats.

Physical characteristics of upholstery fabric.  

This fabric differs from general fashion and home décor fabric, in its primary use.  Designed to cover furniture, upholstery fabric must meet a threshold number of double rubs before it can qualify.  (A single double rub is simply when you rub your hand up the fabric and then back down to original position) But within that category, there are divisions, industrial, heavy duty, light weight etc.  There is no true standard either in the pressure used to rub the fabric or the total number of double rubs required to meet the upholstery threshold, or the various categories within the group.   This determination varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer.   Upholstery fabric is designed to resist stretching, tearing, soiling, and last, but certainly not least, to add comfort and style to the object being covered.

This use affects its characteristics.  The fiber content of upholstery fabric is usually some variation of polyester/cotton blend.  The cotton will soften the fabric, and the polyester will give it strength.  If you see a shiny thread--that is usually rayon.  Rayon is a manmade fiber like polyester, but does not wear as well, it is usually used to add a little “flash.”  Occasionally, in the outdoor or higher end fabrics you will find acrylic and wool.  These fabrics will tend to be a little stiffer, but you can rest assured, will not fade, and will last to the third and fourth generation.

An essential element of upholstery fabric is that it not stretch or tear.  To that end you will find the fibers of the fabric a courser weave.  Style and physical design will also be used to create a denser, tougher, less flexible fabric.  Multi-levels of diagonal weaves or decorative top stitching, all help to stabilize the fabric.  The positive is that you have wonderfully different, interesting and exciting fabric.  The negative is that the fabric is very thick, and unravels much more easily.  If you have a serger, make sure you surge all the cut ends before throwing it into the washer or, after washing, before sewing the seams.  If you don’t have a serger, simply zigzag your ends.   

In addition to a larger fiber and design, manufacturers will sometimes add a plastic, gluey kind of backing or an actual lining.  I have found that the gluey stuff does not wash out.  And, depending on the thickness, it can crust, ball up in chunks after a wash.  With thinner coatings, however, I have found it fine just to line the fabric.    

The fabric with lining?  The lining is usually a polyester cotton combination, but your upholstery fabric may be a different cotton poly blend, resulting in a funky kind of mess.

Chemicals used

In order for the fabric to resist staining, manufacturers will include a Teflon coating--either by treating the fiber or the fabric.  Fabric used for business, cars or boats, as well as outdoor, should be steered away from for a number of reasons.  As they are very stiff and inflexible, you probably will not select them anyway, but their fiber is treated with highly toxic chemicals to ensure durability and stain resistance, which do not easily wash out.  I would be very reluctant to cloth myself with any of these fabrics.   

Because of the chemicals now used on upholstery fabric, I just don’t get anything that can’t be washed.  As the intended purpose of these fabrics is not to be worn close to the skin, it’s just not worth taking a risk.

Washing the fabric

Before cutting the fabric, I throw the whole home decor/upholstery clothe into the wash--and show it no mercy.  I wash it in the hottest setting, and then throw it into the dryer.  Of all the fabrics I have washed, it all has washed beautifully, no fading or bleeding in hot water.  No promises--but I don’t think bleeding will be a problem.  Obviously a silk or 100% cotton may bleed, but even with these fabrics, I have not run into problems.   

But having said this, I do encourage you not to place too many preconceived expectations on the fabric.  How the fabric shrinks could add a very nice texture, softness and warmth to the look and feel of your coat.    
I do not iron the fabric after washing.  I leave the shrink in, and cut to that.  You may find you have a little less fabric to work with, but I have never not had enough.  The shrink is not usually that significant.
This fabric was wash in hot water. 

Notice the wonderful contrast between course bulky fiber and thread, as well as color

Wear and stress  at the seams can increase fraying,  zigzaging or surging the ends before sewing will minimize this.

The back of the of upholstery fabric is often not finished, leaving long threads that can catch on buttons, etc.  This is easily remedied by adding a lining.  

This fabric has been washed, but the plastic backing is still in tact.  The chenille is very soft and flexible, a nice lining will take your skin away from the plastic.

Notice the use of cross weaving, and top stitching, this is very typical of upholstery fabric.  

I love this fabric, the bulky  course weave allows for many possibilities.  This linen weave fabric is very popular, and can be found is a full spectrum of colors.

Get a Sample

 The texture of the weave, the fiber content and type of backing will all impact on how the fabric will shrink when washed. 

Washing your fabric is taking a risk---but fear not, you do not have to gamble your hard earned money on fabric that might end up a wad in your washing machine.  Fortunately, most home décor fabric sellers will give you a sample piece, with which you can test suitability.  Red tags are generally not sampled, but you can have them cut a piece as small as an inch to purchase. 

Next week

Thank you for joining me, next week we will cover traditional patterns and designs available in home décor and upholstery fabric, that make for great coats.
Sewing your coat should take only 1/2 an hour at the most, provided you have followed the precautions I suggested last week.  If not, you will, like me, find yourself fighting for every inch.  First, I had a regular needle in the machine with upholstery thread, which resulted in the machine knotting the  seam and jamming.  Then, I failed to adjust the bobbin, which again resulted in the machine knotting the seam and jamming.  Last, I didn't set the pressure foot properly, which resulted in the the machine clogging from the sherpa, knotting the seam and jamming.

Sewing on top of the sherpa will present its own unique challenge.  Even if your pressure foot isn't too tight against the fabric, your foot can get caught in the fur, and the fur can get caught in the sewing action, causing it to jam.   Depending on the design of your foot, this may or may not happen.  If it does, the solution is quite simple.

Because I'm cheap, I will get copier paper, and put the edge along the sewing edge of the fabric, and sew the fabric.  This of course sews the paper to your fabric.  But, the paper is easily removed, because the sewing action creates a perforation that allows you to tear the paper away.  The paper sold for this purpose is called "stablizer," and comes plain, with a sticky side, wash away,  all for different applications or purposes.   If you sew vinyl, for instance, it will sometimes stick to the metal sewing plate.  I have had success using copier paper.   

Outside of the sherpa, and remembering to sew a 1/4" seam allowance, follow the directions for everything else, remembering that the collar and cuffs are contrasts.

Once sewn you will notice something's not quite right.
Remember to adjust your pressure foot for thicker fabric

Does your bobbin carriage need to be adjusted for the thicker thread?

Copier paper works as a good stablizer when sewing difficult fabric.


The collar is too light and floats, and the bottom of the coat doesn't keep its shape.  This is because there is no hem.  Simplicity sometimes reminds me of those home decor shows that redo a room in two days with paper plates on the ceiling, and tooth paste to decorate the lampshade.  Creative but--how do you live with it.

 Yes, you have a coat--but....   There are several very simple solutions for this also. 

Top stiching

 The  fabric is  too thick for a hem.  But, most sewing machines today have very nice decorative stitching which should work fine with upholstery thread.   It is true that you do not need the thread for strength, as you are not holding heavy pieces together, but, you will find the thicker thread is proportioned better for decorating something as large and bulky as a coat.  Choose a pattern that comes to the edge of the coat like a blanket stitch, and sew all the ends.  

Sewing a decorative border

Purchasing a trim can be expensive,  but is an option.  For a winter coat, I think you will find more interesting options among home decor trims, than the fashion, because of size.  Also, don't forget you can always make your own.  Grosgrain ribbon is a good place to start, then, braiding some hemp and gluing or sewing it  onto the grosgrain could be a fun addition.  Or, run the hemp in wavy, or circular patterns along the ribbon.  I say hemp rope or cord, because its cheap, and would look nice in contrast to the bonded sherpa, but this is an area you can have a lot of fun with, and experiment.  The possibilities are endless.

 If you choose to glue, I suggest fabri-tac glue used in a well ventilated area.  If you sew it on, I suggest a long zigzag stitch to tack the cord.

Hand stitch 

As you can tell, this is the option I went with.  My machine has only one decorative stitch, and that's a zigzag, so I opted to hand stitch. If I had to do it over again, I would have gone with a thinner yarn, but the whole process took no more than an hour.  I used a circular upholstery needle with a large eye.   

I used the circular upholstery needle because when sewing with thicker fabrics, you need to apply greater pressure to the needle.  With a straight needle, the pressure needed to go through the fabric has, believe it or not, caused the needle eye to go through my finger.   Yes, this can be  prevented by using a thimble, but then you're spearing the thing out the other end, ready to pierce through knees, elbows and other unsuspecting extremities.  

The circular needle allows you to control the force and direction of the needle point a little better. The blanket stitch is simple and  an good skill to learn, as its use pops up in a number of crafts.
 There is a helpful youtube instructional video, and I also included a wikihow link on "How to do a blanket stitch."  

You will notice the length of my vertical stitch is longer than both demonstrations.  Length is up to you, but don't go longer than an inch.  Long or short for the vertical stitch, you will not want to go any longer than 1/2" or 3/4" for the horizontal stitch. 
You will find the added weight of the edging makes a difference in how the collar lays, and in fact, how the whole coat sits on you.

Next Week

Thank you for joining me today, next week we will sew a winter coat with upholstery fabric using pattern B 5093  This coat took a little longer to make, about two hours from cutting to finish, but, it can be done in half a day, even for the most deliberate sewer.

Until then, please consider accessorizing you fashions with finely crafted, handmade, american made jewelry by For, Women of Substance.

Simple alterations 

This is B 5959 compare it to the other two B 5993 and B 5819 below.  Why are the coats below more flattering?  What can be done with this coat to make it more flattering?

This section was initially intended as a NOTE, but grew.  It occurs to me that there is a lot of thinking and assessment I do before purchasing a pattern, then, actually cutting and sewing the garment.   

This is principally because the fashion industry cannot be trusted when it comes to clothing large women.  Burda is really the only pattern maker that applies even the most basic of fashion to large women.  Notice B5959--can you believe a string of people were actually paid to produce this cape, and then photograph it?  There is nothing flattering about it, its color, fabric weight, length, style, nor is there anything flattering about the colors the model is clothed in--her posture, and where the cape falls on her hips.  

In fact, the more I think about the comparisons amongst the three photos, showing patterns B5819, B5959 and B5993, the angrier I get.  So--we'll just move on.  

In selecting a pattern, and then altering it, we have to ask ourselves two questions.  What must I do to make this pattern fit well?  What must I do to make this pattern look good?  Weight falls on people differently, and although we can attempt to categorize body types, no one is an exact pear, or hour glass or what ever....  You may have thick arms---thin arms, but thick back, the options are endless.  Measure yourself honestly, and then compare these measurements to those listed on the back of the pattern.    

The patterns today are incredibly simple.  In fact, where a 1940's Vogue pattern would have a minimum of 15 pieces, most patterns today are reduced to 4.  This is not good if you need to finely tailor, but, most of us don't have that skill.  We can add a couple of inches here and there, for which most patterns have provision.  Getting the pattern to fit, with minimal effort is a lot easier with the new pattern systems.   However, getting the garment is fit, is not the end.  Getting it to look good is.  
You also must ask, will this look good on me?--or, how will this look good on me?  

Everyone is different, only you know the colors and styles that compliment your skin tone and personality, but I thought it would be helpful if I shared my reasoning for the alterations made to the sherpa coat.

Adjustment made to the coat

The changes made to the coat look simple enough, but were the difference between wearing the coat or not.

 As the bonded sherpa is double sided, I considered which side to use.  A thick bulky fabric is not necessarily something to steer away from, much depends on the character of the fabric and the style of the pattern.  

Take the two above examples, pattern M 7057--the white coat-- is made of reversed sweatshirt fabric, the leopard, M 4975,  is made of fleece.   Which would you like to be seen in?  If the leopard makes the model look enormous, I can't believe I would look any better.  The problem with the fleece is that it can't keep its structure, and falls like a sack of potatoes. 

Because the bonded sherpa does have its own structure, and because the style is loose, sewing with the sherpa side out, and the cuffs, boarder and collar with the bonded side out, could have been a fun and flattering alteration.  However, the sherpa attracts every particle of dust, and if you own a dog or cat, every wayward hair.  I opted for the bonded side out.
Pattern B 5993 is a more flattering coat.  What do you see that makes a difference?  Also, in wearing the coat, notice the use of color.

B 5819 helps to break up the front through the use of a large collar and side buttons. The weight of the fabric gives the cape body and it doesn't look sloppy. You will notice the cape comes to the model's waist and doesn't fall at her widest point.

This was not the only alteration I considered.  I also thought of cutting up the pattern and contouring the coat using the  texture of the sherpa and contrasting nap of the bonded side.  

A bit too experimental for me--and because the fabric isn't cheap, I whimped out.   But, for the stout of heart,  there is some really fun contouring that can be done through contrasting the sherpa and bonded sides. 
What I changed

First, I did not include the pockets.  I rarely include pockets in my garments...and its not just because I'm lazy--my large hips do not need any additional bulk.  Eliminating pockets helps.  My second alteration is to lengthen the coat.  Because of my height,5'9", the coat comes roughly 3" too short, as all patterns except for Burda are made for persons who are 5"6".  I add an extra inch so that the boarder looks in proportion to the coat.  

My next question is, how the boarder should look.  To just add the bonded side to the coat bottom will look like I'm just trying to lengthen the coat.   However, as the collar is the sherpa side--the cuffs are the sherpa side--putting a boarder sherpa side out helps to finish the coat, especially since the omitted pockets have an ornamental function.  
So, to recap. Because the pattern is too short, I had to lengthen it as its unaltered length landed right at the widest part of my hips.  The pockets are eliminated because they too would have added bulk, and therefore needless attention to my hips.  But, the pockets also serve an ornamental function, bringing the coat look together through the contrasting sherpa, at the collar and cuffs.  By adding the wide boarder to the bottom, and flipping it to the sherpa side, three things are now accomplished.  The coat is lengthened to a more flattering length.  The  dark more textured sherpa pulls the eye away from my hips to a narrower part of my leg.  And last, the coat looks finished.

NOTE: Sleeve length typically also requires alteration, but, in this case, because the seam allowance is reduced to 1/4", I didn't have to alter the cuff.

Next week we will discuss sewing the garment and finishing, until then--thank you for joining me, and I look forward to your visit next week.

Please consider accessorizing your fashions with jewelry from For, Women of Substance.


Copyright 2014-2015 by Anne A. Sears