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Guides and Insights

Upholstery fabrics in tartan and tweed

Upholstery fabrics in tartan and tweed
By Nick Fiddes

Upholstered bench in Royal Stewart tartan

This week I've been upholstering a bench cushion in tartan for the kitchen. While sewing it, I was reflecting just how often people ask us what weight or finish of fabrics is best for the upholstery of chairs, sofas etc. We sell about as much tartan and tweed material for furniture projects as for clothing. So I thought it could be helpful to write up our usual advice for projects throughout your home (or car, boat, caravan, etc.)

Picking the right fabric for upholstery depends on several questions. These include the level of duty the item you're upholstering will see - whether it will suffer heavy abrasion or only see light use. And you might need your fabric to match an existing material it's replacing, or fit the colour scheme of other fabrics in your project. You should also ask yourself if stains, moisture, or cleaning are likely to be an issue, especially for kitchens and bathrooms. Then there's trims and piping to consider, where tartans tweeds can add real distinction. And the size of the furniture piece you're upholstering may affect the scale of the tartan or tweed pattern you choose. Let's quickly drill down a little deeper into each of these questions.

What weight of tweed or tartan fabric is best for upholstering?

Tartans and tweeds are both superb upholstery materials for home furnishings, wool being naturally robust, fire-retardant, resistant to wrinkles and stains, and not liable to fade in sunlight. And, of course, we've by far the largest tartan & tweed choice on earth!

Each home improvement or interior design project of course brings its own unique issues and challenges. But broadly you should consider three broad types of application.

Heavy or commercial use

We recommend: Heavyweight 15-17oz / 450+ GSM pure new wool

This is for upholstering furniture or fittings which will see constant or regular use, such as tweed or tartan chairs and sofas in public waiting areas or business premises. Classified by the trade as 'heavy commercial', fabrics used here have to be robust and durable. Testing is important both for rubbing and for seam slippage, and also stain resistence. Only materials passing the most stringent tests are suitable.

Heavy duty tartans and tweeds can also of course be used in domestic settings where wear and tear may not be quite so great. It's typically thicker and stiffer makes it particularly suitable for curtains where heat retention is valued. It's also great for car seats which can be subject to more stresses.

For upholstery where durability matters, we'd normally recommend a tightly woven pure new wool fabric, perhaps with a Teflon or anti-stain coating applied. This can be done at the mill for volume orders, or with a spray can at home. Incidentally, while wool is naturally fire-resistant, it can also be treated to meet commercial fire standards. We especially recommend both DC Dalgliesh lightweight (11oz) and heavyweight (16oz) wools have been passed tests to 50,000 rubs (which is when textile laboratories stop testing) which, to put this in context, makes both twice as robust as the Martingale test results for the heavyweight fabric of another leading mill.

The heavier fabric provides a slightly rougher texture, which gives character but feels coarser to the touch than the smoother lightweight wools. We'd recommend ordering a touch sample swatch if you're uncertain.

Middling / domestic use

We recommend: Medium weight 13-14 oz / 330-450 GSM pure new wool

These tartans and tweeds are highly versatile for upholstery, suitable even for quite well-used family furniture and light commercial settings. With a slightly nicer handle than the heaviest fabrics for upholstering chairs, settees, bolsters, and also for curtain-making in the living room or bedrooms, a mediumweight wool should prove amply robust for most purposes.

In fact, even some lightweight materials are perfect for domestic upholstery. For example, although it's classed as a lighter fabric at 11oz weight, DC Dalgliesh's lightweight wool is woven at such a firm set that it's easily hardy enough for almost any use.

Light use & interiors accessories

We recommend: Light weight 9oz-12oz / 250-325 GSM pure new wool or Spring weight 3oz-8oz / 100-150 GSM pure new wool or 5oz silk

This is for upholstering chairs and sofas are only in occasional use, as well as accessories such as cushions or lampshades, and lightweight curtains where heat retention is less of an issue. In these cases more delicate tweeds and tartans may be perfectly suitable for your furniture. Even silk is worth considering, depending on the actual use.

Matching colours and patterns to an existing tartan or tweed

We recommend: our online tartan designer, or expert tartan design service

One of our strongest specialities is helping customers to identify or create tartan fabrics that will replicate or closely match materials they're replacing in craft or restoration projects, such as restoring the seats of classic cars. But our capacity to weave custom plaids even in precise colour shades to order can be equally important simply to exacting interior design projects where it's important to coordinate closely with other pieces.

In fact this is a process you can largely control yourself... and even have fun doing so! Our unique online tartan designer lets you pick yarn shades from DC Dalgliesh's stock colour range for wools, and then create or recreate any plaid you like. You can even design rectangular (oblong) patterns which aren't technically tartans but may help you match an existing look.

Alternatively, you can just send us a sample of your material either digitally or in the post and ask our expert in-house designers to reproduce it for you, as a chargeable service. If you're very particular about the shade, we can even dye yarns specially using spectroscopic analysis to get a close match. Amazingly, this service is quite affordable - in the hundreds rather than thousands for a shortish woven piece.

Upholstery fabrics for messy or high moisture rooms

We recommend: Light weight 8oz / 250 GSM Polyviscose

Tartan upholstered chairs

Some rooms in the home such as kitchens and bathrooms are of course more likely to suffer spills and stains. So it's worth taking this into account when choosing a tweed or tartan upholstery fabric for furniture there.

In fact pure new wool fabrics may be perfectly suitable, especially when stain-proofed with a spray-on coating (indeed that's what's covering my dining room chairs in the image, amusingly covered in an eclectic assortment of random tartans), despite the risk of food and drink mishaps.

But if you can find a tartan you like in the largish but still limited range available, our go-to fabric recommendation for these more stressful environments is polyviscose (or poly viscose). Though actually a part-natural product (from sources like bamboo or pine), polyviscose is hard wearing and machine washable, and will be less liable to organic degradation such as mould or mildew, for example in high-moisure rooms like shower or bathrooms. It's also a popular pick for vehicle restoration upholstery due to its hard-wearing qualities.

Tartan and tweed trims or piping

You'll be aware that sometimes upholstery projects can look fabulous when piped with a contrasting trim. So whilst your chair or sofa itself might be upholstered in a favourite tartan, it can be a beautiful finishing touch to pipe it with a matching or contrasting plain fabric, maybe even a velvet.

But don't forget you can also do it the other way round. Tartan or tweed piping can highlight and add a very unusual distinction to a piece of furniture upholstered in any other fabric. It's down to your eye what will look right.

Picking a good upholstery pattern for the size of chair or sofa being covered

Finally, the question of pattern is worth mentioning, even though in most cases the normal repeat size of most tartans and tweeds will be absolutely fine for most furniture. But bear it in mind, and check the pattern size if in doubt. An extra large pattern covering a particularly small chair or sofa may look odd (or stylish!) Vice versa, a small sett on a large settee or curtains can look less interesting (or stylish!)

And remember that with tartans, the heavier the fabric, the larger the sett (repeat). So conversely, in lightweight fabrics the pattern size tends to be smaller. But in the end, there are no hard and fast rules here. It's down to your craft, your design style, and your taste. So have fun!

A final word...

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