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Selecting the perfect fabric for your life

Whether it's silk, cotton or velvet, just make sure it fits the way you live

By Dennis Hockman, Chesapeake Home + Living

2:49 PM EDT, April 1, 2011

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Thousands of years of textile manufacturing have resulted in limitless options for personalizing your home with custom upholstery, window treatments, pillows, and bedding.

What's important about selecting fabrics is determining which ones work in different situations. To find out what materials are best for sofas and chairs vs. windows and dining areas, I talked with a few interior designers in the region to get some expert advice.

I've organized that advice into three categories: upholstery, window treatments and trends.

No matter where you intend to use fabrics, the selection process begins with how you live.

"In general, when selecting fabrics the most important factors are who, how and where," says Baltimore interior designer Brandy de Vries. "A young active family with four kids will have different needs than an empty nester who is downsizing."

Upholstery Sofas, chairs, ottomans, and loveseats are made for sitting, so the fabrics need to be durable and resistant to abrasion.

"The Weisenbeck rating of fabrics indicates how durable they are," says Baltimore interior designer Michael Hall. He recommends a 25,000 double rub — the number of rubs until the fabric is worn through — Weisenbeck rating for residential applications, but notes that some fabrics for commercial applications rate at up to 100,000 double rubs.

"Density of the weave is also an important factor," says Hall. "Avoid something loosely woven that will catch and pull."

Heavier textured fabrics like boucles, chenilles, matelasses, Ottoman ribs and velvets are durable and good at masking wear. Boucles have a knotted or looped surface, chenille is fuzzy and ottoman rib is characterized by a continuous horizontal rib.

For younger families or high-use areas, de Vries suggests darker tones that will help hide dirt. "I often recommend blended fabrics like a cotton/polyester blend, something that has a tight stable weave."

Notwithstanding the utility of blends, Easton interior designer Fiona Newell Weeks tends to favor natural fibers like cotton, linen, wool and silk.

"I am not crazy about polyester or other synthetics, but they do hold up better and can work as a blend," she says. "Be careful with silk, though, because it stains easily, and when it's on upholstery you can't send it out to be cleaned."

"Fabric selection depends on where it will be used — if it's a family room or sunroom or someplace that gets a lot of sunlight, you may want to go with an outdoor fabric."

Outdoor fabrics made of solution-dyed acrylic by companies like Perennials, Sunbrella, and Crypton have come a long way from the stiff, scratchy materials you may remember from childhood. Now a viable option for indoor upholstery, not only do these fabrics resist fading, they are very easy to clean.

"Seating in dining areas takes a lot of abuse," says de Vries. "It is the first catch after the napkin is gone. Outdoor fabrics are great for anywhere you might be worried about staining. There are so many great options now, chenilles, velvets — you would never know they are made for the outdoors."

Window treatments Because drapes and blinds experience less wear than seating, they can be made from a wide variety of fabrics and need not be as durable. Window treatments do, however, need to withstand the harsh rays of the sun.

"For valances you can use pretty much anything, but for longevity I recommend fabrics that won't deteriorate or fade quickly," says de Vries. "For panels, look for something that will drape beautifully."

"Avoid … chenille-like fabrics for drapes, but otherwise almost any fabric can work," says Hall. "I have even used upholstery-weight fabrics.

"Dimensional stability is a major consideration for drapery," Hall continues. "Silks and linens will shrink as they absorb humidity and expand when it is drier — if you want silk drapes and like to open your windows in the summer, you may want to make them a little longer."

And while just about any fabric can work, proceed with caution.

"Silk is one of the most beautiful fabrics for drapery, but it needs to be lined and interlined for protection from the sun," says Weeks. "Because sunlight deteriorates the silk fiber, you may want to avoid it on south-facing windows."

You also may want to consider synthetics, suggests Hall. "These days, companies like Duralee and Architex are bringing out some great polyester fabrics for draperies."

Trends While you shouldn't buy a fabric just because it's in vogue, the latest trend can be an inspiration for pumping new life into your décor.

According to de Vries, eco-friendly decor is the current major trend. "Organic, natural fabrics are big … all of the manufacturers are making green products now."

Hall also notes the trend toward going green and suggests it doesn't come with the tradeoffs it once did.

"There are fabrics made from bamboo fiber that are very soft and durable, and some manufacturers are even recycling plastic soda bottles to create really soft and amazing fabrics."

The color green is popular, too.

"Green is the new neutral," says de Vries, "and the strong yellows, like mustard and citrus colors mixed with grays are popular. Color trends are borrowing from the palette popular in the '50s, and we are also seeing lots of geometrics on the windows, large-scale two-color patterns — white with aqua, white with orange."

Many of these geometric patterns are popping up on embroidered fabrics.

"I'm seeing beautiful embroidered quatrefoils, chevrons, and herringbones and sheers with embroidered florals. Duralee, Fabricut, Lee Jofa and Taffard Fabrics are bringing out some really pretty embroidered designs," says Weeks.

Worried about being too trendy and want to avoid a look that might be dated in just a few years? Accessories and decorative pillows are a great way to embrace today's hip colors and motifs.

"Because you don't need much yardage, you can splurge on a more expensive fabric for pillows or accent your decor with something trendy like a strong graphic pattern for punch," says Hall. "A little bit of something great can go a long way to make a space special."

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@chesapeakehome.com.