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.
The bonded sherpa will be a little thicker than is recommended for this pattern, but since we take only a 1/4" seam allowance, even with the added density, it should fit well.  Also, you will need to take the required seam allowance for the zipper, which will impact overall size.

Let's get started

The pattern I made was Simplicity 3958, but any one of these patterns can be used. They all allow for bonded sherpa, are without buttons down the front, and most without pockets.  The pattern I followed did have pockets, but I left them off.  Not one of these patterns should take you longer than an hour and a half to make, from cutting to finishing.  The sewing shouldn't be any more than a half an hour.   Sadly, Simplicity 1758 is the only one still active, although all the others can be purchased on the internet.  

In working with sherpa, fur or upholstery fabric, you will be challenged with three problems not normally faced when sewing.  They are, thickness, a denser-tougher surface, and in the case of upholstery fabric, fraying.  Anyone of these patterns are very simple to do, and will teach you the techniques used in sewing thicker fabric.

What you need

Of course you will want to gather what is indicated as needed on the pattern, but all projects will require:

Upholstery thread
Denim or upholstery needle
Craft needles
Sharp pair of 8-12" fabric scissors
Chalk or remove-able fabric marker
A couple of words about the list.  

Upholstery thread is available in limited colors, you can use heavy duty polyester which comes in more colors, but you will still need the denim or upholstery needle.  I prefer the upholstery thread because it is made of nylon, and will not fade, wear or break.

Selecting your thread color may become your next problem since there are limited colors.  I always go with the slightly darker thread to the fabric, if I have a choice.  But, usually I just go with what is in the family tin.  We have at home a very large tin, which has a variety of threads, quite literally passed down from grandmother to granddaughter.  Would you believe some of the spools are actually made of wood-- and hold mercerized cotton thread.   We throw nothing out.  My grandmother, an accomplished home decorator and seamstress, divided her sewing world into black and white, only occasional venturing out into other colors, if top stitching was required.   This may be a slight exaggeration, but if you cannot find the exact color of thread to your fabric, all is not lost, just go with the closest.  If top stitching is required, go with a neutral color that develops the look of the clothing.  For instance, with a white wool, you could  use a brown or black to define the lines of the coat.  Alternately, go with a color that blends with most of the clothes colors you wear.  Do you wear a lot a green--blue?-- then, top stitch your white coat with green or blue thread.  This is your project, your coat, unlike the mass produced items that have to conform to the majority's tastes and color tones.  

Remember, the seams are not suppose to be seen, only if you are top stitching does thread color become anything of a real concern.

Upholstery or denim needle--The stronger needle is needed to work with the stronger thread, otherwise your stitches will go wonky, and the sewing machine will keep jamming.  Also, the bonded sherpa has a skin, of sorts, which needs a strong needle to penetrate.  

IMPORTANT:  Before starting to sew, check through your sewing machine's manual regarding adjusting tension for a thicker thread.  Since you probably don't sew with thick thread often, it is easy to forget things.  For instance, I have a tension adjustment on my bobbin as well as the machine.  More times than I care to count, I have started sewing, only to end up having to rip out a lump of matted thread that was suppose to be a seam.  

ALSO IMPORTANT:  You will want to raise the pressure foot because of the thickness.  A pressure foot that is too tight against the fabric will slow and pucker the fabric as the feeder moves the fabric passed the needle.  

Craft pins--I use craft pins for the heavier thicker fabrics.  Craft pins are found along the notions wall, and are longer and thicker than the regular ones.  Their ball ends come in multi colors which make them easier to find when you accidentally drop one on the floor.  The longer pin can easily go through the thicker layers without bending, holding your fabric flat.

Long scissors--Again, because of the thickness of the fabric, you will want a sharp pair of longer scissors.  In cutting the fabric, you will not be doing fine cutting, but volume cutting, so the long blade will allow you to cut further with each slice.  Also, the heavier scissor will help you make a more stable cut straight up and down.

Calk--Having chalk available for most projects is good, but winter coats usually require marking pocket placement and buttons, etc.

Cutting out your fur or sherpa fabric

Nap is very subtle, but you will notice rubbed one way the fabric looks light.

Cutting sherpa or fur fabric is where I take a little more time than usual.  In fact, I do not double over the fabric, but cut it piece by piece, except of course where the pattern calls for a cut on the fold.  There are two main reasons for this.  Because of the thickness, as you cut, if your scissors are not straight up and down, but at even the slightest of angle, you can actually cut the lower piece shorter or longer than your upper piece.  You would be surprised at what even a 1/4" difference can do to the fitting of your coat.  

Cutting through the thickness,even with a good pair of scissors, can tire the hand.  As a crafter, who likes working with her hands, I eliminate situations that would over tax them, and cause long term injury.   Any one of the winter coats suggested have no more than  9 pieces, two sleeves, two cuffs, one back, two collar pieces and two front pieces, it really is no effort to cut them out individually, and in the long run, can save you grief.
I took a 1/4 inch seem allowance to eliminate bulk at the seams

So then... how do you do this?  First, because my bonded sherpa is so dense, I treated it as if it where real sheep skin, and sewed only a 1/4" seam allowance.  The fabric does not fray, so you can avoid a bulky seam by sewing close to the end.  Therefore, happily for me, although the pattern was  only XL, it fits without my having to make any alterations, because of the narrow seam allowance. 
Second, with this in mind, decide what size you will use given the seam allowance,  cut your fabric to the proper size.  

Third, as you will be cutting the fabric out in individual pieces, start with the least flexible or largest piece to cut.  All the other pieces you can place, with certain limits, anywhere on the fabric.  The back doesn't have that flexibility, so get that one done before moving on to the other pieces.  
Yet rubbed the opposite way, it looks darker.

 The back of course is the largest piece and the only one that must be cut on a fold.  Therefore, lay your fabric full out, with the "skin" bonded side down and the sherpa  side up.  Now,  fold your fabric sherpa side to sherpa with bonded side up and on the surface. 
  In order to save fabric, I will fold my fabric only to the width needed to cut the back, which is usually less than half of the width of the fabric. 

Place your back pattern piece onto the bonded side of the fabric.  
Whether you put the pattern piece upside or downside (i.e. the arrow of the grain going up toward the beginning of your fabric or down toward the center of the fabric, every piece cut will need the arrow going in the same direction, because of the nap.  See the above photos for help in determining nap.  Pin your back and cut, marking where appropriate.

Flip over your fabric so the bonded side is up, and position your patterns to cut the fabric.

I always cut to minimize waste, for that "just in case."  "Just in case," I mess up and have to recut, I like to make sure I have enough.

IMPORTANT:  One of the pieces must always be a mirror reflection of the other.  Therefore, if you cut out one piece where you can see the writing on the pattern.  Flip the pattern piece over, so that you can't read the writing before cutting the second piece.  From now on, you will need to cut out both a left and right side.

AGAIN TO REMIND YOU, whether it is a right side or left side, remember your nap, all pieces must be cut with the grain arrow going in the same direction.

Remember to mark where appropriate, and I will see you next week to sew up and finish your coat.

Copyright 2014-2015 by Anne A. Sears