Fabrics are used everywhere in the home, from carpets to upholstery to bedding and even accessories such as towels, lampshades and cushions. But how much do you actually know about what goes into each one? The simplest way to distinguish between the many types of fabric available is to understand the fibres they’re made from. There are natural plant fibres (for example, linen and cotton), animal-based products (such as wool and leather) and man-made equivalents and blends, all of which have advantages and disadvantages and can be used in different ways. Make sure that you know what each one offers, so you can choose the household fabrics that will best suit your purposes.
This natural fibre is one of the most commonly used worldwide. It’s incredibly versatile, comes in a variety of weights and can be used in anything from a rough canvas to a formal fabric such as a damask. Pure cotton can be classified by thread count, which is the number of threads per inch – roughly speaking, the higher the number, the better the quality. Most experts agree that the best cotton is grown in Egypt, and you can also buy more environmentally friendly organic cotton.
Advantages: Versatile, durable, breathable, easy to clean, drapes well and is relatively cheap.
Disadvantages: It isn't wrinkle-resistant, takes time to dry and is prone to shrinking and stretching if not blended with another fibre.
Best for: Pretty much anything. Egyptian cotton sheets are a luxury worth investing in.
Made from tanned animal hide, leather has a long history of use in the home and is incredibly tough. Although it’s not the cheapest of materials, with proper maintenance it will last you well, making it good value overall. Distressed leather is particularly popular – and on trend right now – as it hides the signs of wear and tear. Leather can also be “tooled”, creating intricate patterns and designs for decorative use. For vegans, vinyl can be used as an alternative, non-animal version of leather.
Advantages: Strong, durable and very easy to clean.
Disadvantages: It can scratch and may stain or fade without treatment.
Best for: Oversized slouchy sofas and luxury detailing on other furniture, for example, writing desks.
Another natural plant fibre, linen is made from flax and is actually a smooth fibre, though it can be used in different weights of fabric, some of which are rougher in texture and may include natural slubs. It can be transformed into a range of household items, from upholstery and bedding to accessories such as napkins.
Advantages: Very strong and relatively easy to clean – it actually gets softer the more you use and wash it.
Disadvantages: Creases incredibly easily, making it less suitable for sitting areas.
Best for: Table linen such as runners and napkins, as well as curtains, thanks to its heavy drape.
This man-made fibre is often used in blends with other fabrics to increase wrinkle-resistance and durability. It will reduce colour-fade when blended with silk, although when added to wool it can actually increase pilling. One hundred per cent polyester is less popular, as it isn’t very breathable, making it unsuitable in hot climates, especially for bedding and upholstery.
Advantages: Dirt resistant, cheap and good at cancelling out the disadvantages of natural fabrics when used in a blend.
Disadvantages: Too much polyester in a blend will make the fabric "sweaty", and it can be stained by the oils in human skin.
Best for: Use in blends, for items such as silk curtains (to reduce colour fade) and cotton bedsheets (to reduce wrinkling).
Sometimes called “art silk”, rayon mimics natural silk in terms of sheen, colour and drape, though it can also be made to look like wool and cotton fabrics. Despite being made from cellulose – a plant fibre – it’s usually manufactured using a chemical viscose process, and is therefore classed as man-made (though not synthetic). Rayon can also add lustre to other fibres when used in a blend, but may need to be dry-cleaned as it’s very absorbent.
Advantages: Versatile, durable, easy to dye and soft to the touch.
Disadvantages: Wrinkles easily so not ideal for lounging on, and can stretch or shrink when wet.
Best for: Creating the look of silk curtains without as much risk of fading.
Silk is the surprisingly strong fibre produced by silkworms when they spin their cocoons. It’s synonymous with luxury, but is also a great hypoallergenic option, as it resists dust mites. Silk has a natural sheen, which is great for reflecting light, especially when woven into a shiny satin fabric, but can be textured with lines and slubs in its raw state. Despite the fibre’s inherent strength, it produces a fabric that isn’t particularly hard-wearing and it will stain, pucker and pull easily.
Advantages: Luxurious, it drapes beautifully and has a natural sheen.
Disadvantages: Not hard-wearing, plus it fades and eventually degrades in direct sunlight.
Best for: Decorative accessories such as lampshades or scatter cushions.
While leather is made from the outer surface of animal skins, suede is made from the softer underside, usually from sheep, goats, calves or deer rather than cows. It has a napped or brushed finish, compared to leather’s more sturdy, shiny surface. There are non-animal equivalents, including sueded silk, sueded cotton and other synthetic versions, which look similar but are less affected by staining, crushing and liquid damage.
Advantages: Softer and more flexible than leather.
Disadvantages: More open pores makes it less durable than leather and harder to clean.
Best for: Suede headboards are a popular choice for adding a touch of luxe to the bedroom.
Harvested from the fleece of sheep or other animals such as alpacas, this warm, soft material is popular for use in both yarn-based products and woven textiles. It can also be blended with synthetic fibres, which reduces the possibility of felting and makes it even more versatile. Specialist wools such as cashmere (from certain goats) and angora (from angora rabbits) each have distinct qualities, such as being particularly soft, light or warm.
Advantages: Warm, soft, durable and versatile, wool also absorbs sound and is relatively dirt-, crease- and, to a degree, even flame-resistant.
Disadvantages: Can be prone to felting and some say it smells unpleasant when damp.
Best for: Cuddly blankets, as well as beautiful and sturdy rugs.