As with any specialist trade, the world of furniture upholstery comes with its own technical terms and specifications. To an outsider, the concept of fabric grades can be mystifying. But we’re here to give you the inside knowledge.
In simplest terms, fabric grades are given by individual manufacturers to rank their products. Usually these grades go from A to F.
The grade ranks the cost of manufacturing the fabric. For instance, a Grade A fabric is cheaper to manufacture than a Grade F fabric.
However, this varies between manufacturers, so one company’s Grade A could be another’s Grade C. Think about it like clothing sizes: there’s no universal size 10 for a shirt.
What a grade can tell you
If fabric grades are just about manufacturing cost, are they important to the average consumer?
Well, yes. While the grades do refer to cost, they also tell you a lot about the fabric. The manufacturing cost of the fabric (and therefore the grade) can tell you a lot about the quality, durability, look and feel of the fabric.
Durability is an important concern when it comes to furniture upholstery. Fabric can easily pill, stretch, stain, rot or become mouldy. Depending on what you’re using the fabric for, you may require a greater or less level of durability.
In the fabric world, the durability of a fabric is measured in double-rubs, sometimes known as abrasion data. The double-rubs score is higher if a fabric is more durable. With a higher double-rubs score, you’re likely to have a higher fabric grade.
For instance, a score of 8,000 to 10,000 double-rubs would not be sufficient for fabric that’s regularly used. You wouldn’t choose this fabric, for example, for your living room sofa.
At the other end of the scale, heavily used fabric needs to be 100,000 to 250,000 double-rubs. This is what you’d find in commercial spaces and you’d expect it to have a higher grade.
For an everyday sofa at home, you’d want something between 10,000 to 30,000 double-rubs. The final number depends on exactly how the fabric will be treated though. For example, you’d want to err on the higher side if you’re upholstering the living room sofa, rather than a decorative bench seat in a hallway.
- Complexity of weave
The patterns on fabric can also affect the cost and grade. This includes how the patterns are added to the fabric (i.e. whether it’s printed on or weaved in) and whether the patterning is simple or intricate. You’d expect a higher grade for fabrics with woven patterns than printed patterns.
To understand this distinction, think about the reverse side of fabric you’d find in rolls at a craft store versus the underside of a woven rug. If the fabric has had the pattern screen-printed on it, you can turn it over and you’ll see that the threads are all the same colour and uniform. With a woven rug, you will see how the threads change colour and may be knotted differently to create a pattern.
While there are benefits to both methods, the grade only really considers cost. You may not need a complex weave for your desired upholstery.
- Type of fibre
The cost, and therefore the grade, of a fabric can go up significantly depending on the type of fibre used. Some fibres, like cotton-blends, are made from easily sourced materials and can be produced relatively cheaply. On the other hand, fabric made using organic silk can be significantly more expensive.
As a consumer, you are more likely to be interested in the texture of the fabric, rather than its composition or manufacturing cost. In this case, the fabric grade may be of little relevance.
- Thread count
If you’ve ever bought sheets, you’ve probably heard the term ‘thread count’. Thread count is a unit of textile measurement that refers to how many threads are woven into a square inch of the fabric. Generally, a higher thread count means the fabric is of better quality and more expensive.
However, you don’t need something with a thousand plus thread count. In reality, it’s almost scientifically impossible to have more than 600 or so threads per square inch.
Manufacturers may use some creative license to claim a higher thread count. They can count the individual strings (known as plies) that make up a thread, instead of just counting the threads themselves. This lets the manufacturer multiply the advertised thread count without actually adding more threads.
Even if this creative license doesn’t really change the fabric, it can increase the price, changing the overall fabric grade.
What grade is right for me?
Choosing the right fabric grade is more about understanding what you want from the fabric, rather than just picking the highest grade.
How durable do you need the fabric to be? This will depend on what you intend to use the upholstered furniture for. If everyone, including the kids and the pets, are going to be regularly sitting on it, you’ll want something with a high double-rubs score.
The style of the fabric, including the colour and patterning, should also influence your decision. When it comes to grades, do you need that higher graded intricate weave or is a screen-printed fabric okay? How well does the fabric hold colour? Are you going to see it fade sooner rather than later?
Texture is also important to take into account. Thread count and the type of fibre used will significantly affect the fabric texture. For instance, wool can be scratchy and expensive, whereas a wool blend can be softer and cheaper.
Certainly take the fabric grade into account when getting any furniture upholstered, but don’t forget to consider your own specific wants and needs. Be ready to go through swatches and ask questions about the fabrics available.