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.

Copyright 2014-2015 by Anne A. Sears