Expert designer answers on need-to-know questions about home decor fabric.
When interior designer and textile expert Jamie Gibbs teaches his class on interior fabrics at Parsons The New School for Design in NYC, he asks each student to bring in a fabric sample. Then he does a virtuoso “show and tell,” identifying and discussing fibers, weaving, printing, finishing, use and “the hand” or flexibility and feel of each piece of cloth his students put on the table. It’s the beginning of a long process of understanding how textiles are manufactured, why their cost is so high, and how to select the proper textile for anything from upholstery to accessories. Gibbs is a showman but his printed materials on fabrics show his encyclopedia knowledge and benefit from his many years of experience in the home décor trade.
My student offering was this cutting of Pierre Deux Campano red cotton [above] that I had been considering for the reupholstery of an old sofa. Jamie smiled as he picked it up, crinkled and pulled at it. “This is a calico,” he said, “a type of swirly floral printed cotton that originated in Calcutta, India hundreds of years ago. These have been around forever and they don’t go out of style. With a printed fabric like this you want to be sure that the design is always in register and that the colors are in the outlines, not off.”
Feeling confident, I ordered the fabric but when the cutting came for approval I noticed the very thing Jamie had described – the printing was not properly lined up and some colors were doing a little mambo on the pattern. I made another choice. Fabrics are expensive. Who needs a costly mistake?
Information about textiles is essential for DIY home decorators whether you’re redoing upholstered furniture, buying or making draperies or choosing fabric for accessories. Still, it’s hard to access outside the trade. That’s why we invited Jamie for a Q&A and we are honored to have him as a guest. His experience as a designer, creator of silk fabric collections, elegant trim collection for d’Kei, makes him an oracle of information.
Brunschwig & Fils “Chinese Leopard” fabric is 100% cotton and a variation on the French toile de jouy design where there is usually a complex repeated pattern that includes a pastoral scene.
Atticmag: When fabric is marked 100% cotton, or 100% linen, how do I verify the content?
JG: The “pull and twist” test is easy. 100% cottons and linens should have very little give and definitely a little “spring.” Pull the textiles diagonally (on the bias). They should not stretch. You will quickly find out that most fabrics will have some spring. That’s because elastomizers are added to most fabrics. When these are less than 5% of the fiber content, they do not need to be label-identified. Most cotton T-shirts and brief are great examples of this. Don’t worry, a little elastomizer (which could be latex or a synthetic) is a good thing. Another way to tell fiber content is to know what a fabric should smell like when you burn it. Linen smells like wood because it is actually a bark. Cotton smells like burning leaves. Sorry if you have never had a fireplace or lived in a community that allows burning of fall leaves! When you burn 100% natural fiber textiles they should burn clean and create ash. If you ignite the textile (please be careful) and the burning area beads up (like melting plastic), then I guarantee that the fabric has a synthetic content.
Atticmag: What are the three most practical textiles to consider when choosing upholstery for a sofa that must withstand use by a family that includes children and pets?
JG: Corduroy [chocolate color corduroy, above] , for the ribs, which are made by cords that run in the warp and show on the face of the cloth.
A nubby woven textile, for the textural interest. This could be a chenille — like this Kravet Majestic checkered chenille — which can have a net or latex backing.
A doubleweave, for the quilted effect. A doubleweave, such as this Donghia Neruda cotton geometric matelassé, offers weight and good strength in back.
Atticmag: How do you judge the quality of pre-made silk drapery panels? Can silk panels be cleaned? How?
JG: I look at the country of fabric origin. India, Thailand or China is okay but not Egypt. I also look at the basic price point. Silk is a luxury textile. Silk drapery panels should be sewn with cotton or polyester thread, not clear monofilament. That is an easy indicator of quality. Silk panels should be lined with cotton or poly-cotton lining fabric. Better ready-made panels also have interlining (this looks like a blanket). Silk drapery panels rarely clean well. Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum both the face and lining often. If you have a spill or water stain, take the wet panels to your dry cleaner. DO NOT attempt to clean them yourself. If you create stains using water, they will never come out. Most soap removes the color from silk.
Atticmag: Are fabrics rated? Where can I find the rating for a fabric I’m considering before I purchase it?
JG: Yes, fabrics are “rated” in two categories: wear and fire retardance. The wear rating is called a “rub” test and the results of a rub test will determine whether a fabric is considered light, medium, heavy or contract (commercial use) weight. Fire retardance (Universal Flammability Code or UFC) ratings can be determined by fiber content or by post-weave finishing processes that increase a fabric’s resistance to flame. Fire retardant means that the fabric will hinder flames from spreading. It infers that the fabric is slow to catch fire or may actually never ignite. This Kravet Design Crypton Green-Blue, 10% rayon, 40% polyester, Heavy Duty, Stain Repellent finish, Furniture Grade, Flammabiity UFAC Class 1 is an example.
Many residential fabrics are not fire rated because this is done by an independent lab and it costs money. Contract fabrics do require rating. Some fabrics are designed to bridge the two markets. You can usually get this information from the hang tag on a showroom wing sample or by asking for the manufacturer’s specifications on the fabric. Contract textiles have these ratings as part of the information.
Atticmag: When purchasing fabrics online, how do I know whether I am buying first-run goods or seconds? Are seconds OK to buy? What’s the difference in price?
JG: Be aware of how to spot a second. While these textiles should be considerably lower priced, there is a huge quality tradeoff. Things to watch for include:
An incomplete registration mark with boxes that are not filled with color for print textiles. Also, a registration mark that has colors that “blend” outside the boxes or do not completely fill every box (again, for printed textiles). In the example [above] he top row of marks are out of register. The bottom row are in register.
Frayed selvedge, oil stains, fabric that does not lay on the bolt smoothly and incomplete print details are also indicators that a fabric stopped short of the complete finishing process. The normal selvedge of a Brunschwig & Fils fabric [above] shows small ends of fill yarn.
If you can’t see the edges, registration mark or a large sample of the fabric, look for colors that bleed outside pattern lines which are narrow dark guidelines for the printing that usually help to define shapes. If colors bleed outside the lines (remember nursery school?), it fails.
Any of these defects are good indications that the fabric is a second. This means that the fabric did not complete the finishing processes associated with most textiles. These include fiber sealing or calendaring, the method used by textile mills and finishing plants to “size” the textiles. That requires bolts to be fed under tension between heated copper rollers. This fixes the rectangular shape and insures horizontal match should be perfect for prints. Other finishing processes are removal of excess dyes, and dye sealing. I highly recommend not buying seconds, since pattern-match and laundering will basically be impossible. Do not confuse a “second” with end lots or discontinued runs because these are “first” goods.
Atticmag: Does price or brand really guarantee fabric quality or is it only marketing? How do I know if an inexpensive fabric is good or an expensive fabric is not a good value?
JG: Price should be determined by the quality of the fibers, difficulty of the weave, finishing processes performed, distance it has had to travel, etc. Does this hold true in today’s market? No. All of the aforementioned have a place in pricing, but a lot of the cost today is based on paying for branded labels and the illusion of exclusivity. There are really great fabrics out there that are well-priced. The trick in most cases is to source fabrics from as close to the finishing mill as possible. The fewer the middlemen, the better the price. Jamie recommends: Donghia Fabrics like this “Go Fish” silk embroidered on cotton fabric and Plumridge Silks in this regard.
Atticmag: What are the greenest fabrics to use at home and how do you verify that a fabric does not contain harmful chemicals?
JG: The greenest fibers are natural, although the processes used to create finished textiles using natural (even organic) fibers usually negate the “green” aspects. All the finishing steps require water that contains chemicals. The harmful chemicals that you need to watch for are in the dyes and the protective coatings, such as formaldehyde and acidic solvents in traditionally finished fabrics. Green cottons are dull looking and they are not white because they aren’t bleached. The same is true for linen. Synthetic fibers, especially those made using recycled polyester, nylon, and rayon are definitely greener. The U.S. Green Buildings Council rates many textile manufacturers and you can check out fabrics on their website. Enviro Textiles Natural Romanian hemp fabric [L, above] and Natural/Bleached Hemp [R, above] are made of one of the most durable natural fibers.
(Sources: donghia.com, pierredeux.com, kravet.com, glamorousfabrics.com, envirotextile.com, brunschwig.com, fabrics.com)
For information on creating a fabric scheme for any room see Fabric Schemes 1,2,3
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