Types of Fabric: A Guide to Uses in Interior Design

From sheets and bath linens to upholstery and drapes, fabric plays a central role in interior design. However, not all types of fabric are created equal. Different types of fabric material are best suited for different roles within a home’s design. What works best as an upholstery fabric, for example, may not work as a curtain panel. Likewise, the fabric you select for table linens is likely to be different from the material you choose for your duvet cover. Adding another layer of complexity to the equation is understanding the type of weave you’re working with as well. Different weaves within a family of fabric have different properties, which means that not all types of a certain fabric may be suited for the same task.

Selecting the best fabric for curtains or the best fabric for sofas begins with a deeper understanding of the natural and synthetic fabrics available, and understanding the differences between those fabrics and their properties. Here, we’re delighted to introduce a new series where we’ll review individual fabrics and designer recommendations for their use. But first, let’s take a broad look at different types of fabric — and what they’re best known for.

Natural Fabrics

Yarn spun for natural fabric

As the name implies, natural fabrics are those woven from fibers found in nature. They may derive from cotton grown in a field, wool sheared from a sheep, or silk produced by a worm, for example. The array of sources for natural fabrics underscores the variety of functions natural fabrics may serve in your home. Natural fabrics are a perfect choice for design elements in just about any room.

Cotton Fabric

General properties: Versatile, breathable
Best for: Bedding, upholstery and slipcovers, window treatments for informal spaces

Cotton’s slogan has been “the fabric of our lives” since the 1980s, and it earns that moniker due to its utility. Generally speaking cotton is a versatile, breathable fabric that accepts dye well. As such, cotton and its many weaves often feature prominently in home decor. While cotton is a widely-used, ubiquitous fabric, stains tend to be difficult to eradicate from cotton weaves, so it’s important to have cotton fabrics professionally treated for stain protection — especially for furnishings in high traffic areas.

As a versatile fabric, there are many different textures to cotton, and different weaves hang quite differently. While some cotton weaves are a wonderful choice for window treatments, not all cotton is a good choice for drapes. With a canvas or twill weave for example, cotton can serve as a solid and lasting slipcover or upholstery fabric for family room furniture. Jacquard cotton is an ornate option that works well for upholstery in a formal space, such as a study or living room.

Higher thread count cotton is perfect for comfortable, cooling bedding. Its adaptability makes it an ideal choice for everything from luxury duvet sets for adults to glow-in-the-dark dinosaur sheets for the budding paleontologist in your family. Cotton works beautifully as informal curtains in a summer home’s kitchen or guest bedroom.

The other significant benefit to cotton is its relative ease of care. It is a machine-washable fabric, making it simple to clean when tiny paws or little hands leave grime behind. No matter your design aesthetic, cotton can feature prominently in your interior spaces.

Cotton Blend Fabric

General properties: Versatile, durable
Best for: Upholstery, high-traffic areas

Cotton blends offer the versatility and brightness of cotton with added durability. Cotton blends consist of cotton woven together with either a synthetic, such as polyester or rayon, or natural linen fibers.

Much like pure cotton, cotton blend fabrics are adaptable and can figure into rooms throughout your home. Cotton blends with a stain-resistant finish are an appealing upholstery option in high-traffic areas. Blends are well-positioned to stand up to, say, little feet on sofas or dribbles of apple sauce on seat cushions.

Linen Fabric

Folded linen fabric

General properties: Lightweight, breathable
Best for: Low-traffic areas, pillow covers, drapery, table linens

Linen fabrics, like cotton, are derived from plants. In the case of linen, the fibers are extracted from flax plants and woven into a lightweight fabric. Linen holds color well and offers even greater breathability than cotton. Unlike cotton, linen is not generally known for its strength. As an upholstery fabric, it is best reserved for use in low-traffic settings like a formal living room.

Linen also tends to wrinkle easily (as anyone who’s worn linen clothing can attest), and so it is perhaps best utilized in more casual spaces or vacation homes. The use of linen fabric is a creative way to lend pops of color to a room through vibrant or patterned throw pillows or lively table linens.

One major caveat with linen fabric is that while some weaves are lightweight and delicate, it doesn’t mean that all linen is lightweight and delicate. Others can be heavyweight and remarkably durable, so always understand the type of weave you’re working with.

Similarly, some linen can be machine-washed, but looser weaves tend to shrink. When caring for table linens and pillow covers, line drying is likely your best bet. To de-wrinkle, try tossing your piece in the dryer at the very end of the cycle to smooth out the creases without causing damage.

Silk Fabric

Ivory silk fabric

General properties: Durable, soft, slight sheen
Best for: Throw pillows, accents in rooms with low sun exposure

Given its soft, smooth feel with a slightly lustrous finish, silk fabric is often associated with luxury. Silk fabric production began in China around 4000 BC. As it spread across the globe, it remained a fabric worn and traded by the aristocracy. While it is undoubtedly more accessible today, silk maintains its distinction as an opulent fabric. Its reputation, however, belies its backbone and versatility.

Like its natural fabric counterparts — cotton and linen — silk is also available in a variety of weaves and types. Much of silk’s durability is, in fact, determined by its weave. A heavy raw silk is quite sturdy and can take significant wear. In fact, many fine Oriental rugs are made with silk, or a silk-wool blend, and are handed down through the generations in families. While silk is best known for its smooth-to-the-touch finish, it’s not a one-size-fits-all fabric. Other weaves like silk taffeta can have a crunchier, more rigid texture.

One concern when working with silk is its susceptibility to sun damage. Overexposure to the sun’s rays can cause discoloration and even result in holes in the fabric. Therefore, it is not a suitable choice for unlined window treatments or upholstery in southern-facing rooms with maximum sun exposure.

Wool Fabric

Folded wool fabric

General properties: Highly durable, warm, easy to spot-clean 
Best for: Carpeting, high-traffic areas, warm bedding layers

Of all natural fibers, wool is one of the most durable. Woven wool fibers can create a fabric that offers warmth and virtual indestructibility. Wool in its pure state provides a sturdy carpeting option in rooms with frequent foot traffic, such as a foyer or den. Wool throw blankets add color and comfort to living spaces during chilly winter months.

When blended with other fabrics, wool is a solid upholstery fabric that spot-cleans well. Wool blends can also be excellent for top-layer bedding, such as duvet covers, quilts, or decorative pillows.

Synthetic Fabrics

In contrast to natural fabrics, synthetic fabrics are woven from fibers created through chemical synthesis. These lab-derived fibers provide flexibility, are long-lasting, and can peacefully coexist with natural fabrics in your design. There are a wide variety of synthetic fabrics that are used, but the two most common synthetic fabrics used in the realm of interior design are acrylic and polyester fabric.

Acrylic Fabric 

General properties: Stain-resistant, durable, water-resistant
Best for: Outdoor living spaces

Acrylic is a workhorse fabric designed to mimic wool. Like its natural fiber counterpart, it is hearty, stain-resistant, and colorfast. The other noteworthy trait of acrylic fabric is its hydrophobic nature, meaning it is resistant to water. Its water resistance, combined with its durability, makes acrylic fabric a natural choice for outdoor dining set upholstery, patio umbrellas, or throw pillows for a poolside chaise lounge.

As a design firm that specializes in creating family-friendly spaces, however, high-performance fabrics — also known as solution-dyed acrylic fabrics — are some of the most powerful tools in our designer toolkit. Solution-dyed acrylic fabric is dyed before the yarn of the fabric is even created, resulting in a colorfast, water-resistant woven fabric without compromising on softness and comfort. These high-performance fabrics enable the durability to withstand years of wear from the littlest residents of a home.

As with natural fabrics we’ve covered, it’s important to understand the attributes of the specific weave of acrylic fabric you’re working with. Depending on the specific weave, some acrylic fabrics tend to pill, but many do not.

Polyester Fabric 

Polyester fabric

General properties: Durable, stain-resistant
Best for: Blended fabrics throughout the home, most spaces where cotton would be used (upholstery, slipcovers, casual window treatments) 

Crafting enthusiasts may be familiar with polyester as a material used to fill pillows or act as batting in homemade quilts. However, when polyester factors into a fabric that is visible in your home, it is seldom used on its own. Cotton/polyester blends are quite popular in interior design.

Most any place in your home where you would use cotton alone, you might consider a cotton/polyester blend. Particularly for those with an active household of children or pets, selecting a polyester blend can provide peace of mind that your fabric will be better positioned to stand the test of time.

While polyester is an incredibly versatile fabric, the one area it is not recommended for is bedding. Leave that to cotton or linen fabrics, which are natural and breathable. Poly-linen blends are wonderful choices for window treatments or anything that needs to drape — where true linen fabric would wrinkle too easily.

Whether you are looking for strength, color, wrinkle-resistance, or an elevated look, there are perfect types of fabric for the job. Understanding how different types of fabric hold up to use and wear, coupled with knowing the attributes of the type of weave you’re working with, is the first step in creating a space that lasts.