Interior fabrics and textiles come in all sorts, shapes, and sizes. And though products such as throw pillows, curtains, and bedding are often considered to be finishing touches in interior design, it pays off to put thought into your fabric and textile choices throughout the design process. In fact, making informed choices can help to enhance the lifespan and performance of your soft furnishings—and making those choices early on in the design process can help you to budget for higher-end options too!
But what fabrics and textiles are best suited for certain spaces, pieces, and lifestyles? Should you opt for natural materials or synthetics? What are the price-points? We answer these questions and more below.
Textiles versus fabrics
The term textile refers to materials that are produced by weaving, knitting, felting, and tufting. Common example of interior textiles include soft furnishings, rugs, and carpeting. The term fabric is much narrower. Fabric is produced by weaving, knitting, and crocheting. Common interior fabrics include soft furnishings, such as bedding, linens, draperies, tapestries, and upholstery. In short, all fabrics are textiles, but not all textiles are fabrics.
Why do your textile and fabric choices matter?
Fabrics and textiles can bring a sense of depth and dimensionality to a space. These types of materials tend to have distinctive texture and a natural movement to them, which can help to break up the starkness of hard furnishings and flat color.
But beyond the aesthetic component, fabrics and textiles lend a level of livability to a space—not only because soft furnishings allude to comfort, but also because individual fabrics and textiles have such a range of practical properties. We get into the properties of 14 types of natural and synthetic materials below.
TIP:Fabrics and textiles can be used as a jumping off point in interior design. If you're designing a space from scratch, the colors, textures, or even the mood evoked from a textile swatch or a singular soft furnishing that you've fallen in love with can be used to inspire other decorative choices.
Natural vs synthetic materials
Cotton yarns are harvested from cotton plants. Cotton is lightweight, breathable, soft, strong, flexible, durable, and tolerates dyes well. But it is also prone to shrinkage, staining, tearing, and fading. Cotton can be used in combination with other natural or synthetic materials to produce velvet, canvas, and flannel. Cotton, cotton blends, and cotton derivatives are readily available and affordable, so they are used widely in interior design. Some common applications include linens, curtains, and upholstery, (amongst more).
Bamboo fabric is derived from the bamboo plant. Bamboo is highly sustainable (due to the bamboo plant's fast-growing nature), breathable, flexible, soft, and durable, much like cotton. With that said, bamboo is generally more expensive than cotton. In the home, bamboo can be used in linens, rugs, window treatments, flooring, and interior panels and screens.
Linen fibers are derived from flax plant. Though linen tend to be coarser than cotton, it is similarly lightweight and durable, and will soften overtime. It is also prone to staining and wrinkling, and is typically more expensive than cotton. Linen can be used in combination with other natural or synthetic materials to produce velvet and canvas. Some common interior design applications for linen and linen blends include bedding, upholsteries, and window treatments.
Leather is an animal-based fabric. While it is durable and hypoallergenic, it is also an expensive material to manufacture and purchase. That said, with proper cleaning and care, a leather item can potentially last for decades. The most common use for leather in the home is upholstery.
Wool is an animal-based fiber. It is durable and naturally water-resistant, hypoallergenic, and flame retardant, but can incur damage via insects and prolonged sun exposure. It is also expensive and delicate. As such, you have to be cautious when you launder wool, as the fibers can become brittle and prone to breakage. Wool can be used in combination with other natural or synthetic materials to produce flannel. In the home, wool and wool derivatives can be used in throws, rugs, upholstery, and bedding—especially if you live in a cool climate.
Hemp is a sustainable and renewable plant-based fiber. It has a texture that's similar to canvas and is similarly thick, strong, and durable. Although hemp starts off stiff, the fibers will soften with use overtime. Hemp is also prone to creasing and wrinkling. Some interior design applications for hemp and hemp blends include linens, throw blankets and pillows, rugs, and upholsteries.
Silk is made from the cocoons of silkworm moths. It is soft, lustrous, and luxurious, but it is also delicate and expensive. Because of its high price-point and fragility, silk is using sparingly and in low-traffic areas in interior design. For example, some people opt to use silk for internal curtain partitions or decorative tapestries. Another common application for silk is bedding, such as pillowcases and bedspreads. Silk can be used in combination with other natural or synthetic materials to produce velvet.
Polyester is derived through a chemical reaction that involves petroleum. Because it is oil-based, polyester is water-repellant, sturdy, flexible, and wrinkle-resistant. It is also relatively inexpensive. These properties make polyester a versatile material that can be used in a variety of interior design applications. Polyester is often a component in inexpensive linens, window treatments, and rugs.
Nylon is a produced through a chemical reaction involving petroleum and coal. It's known for being strong and durable, yet lightweight and soft to the touch. All of these properties make nylon a good material to use in areas of the home that get steady traffic—though, overtime, nylon fibers will fade and deplete in strength. Nylon can be used in combination with other natural or synthetic materials to produce velvet. In the home, nylon is most commonly used in upholsteries and window treatments.
Acrylics are created through a chemical reaction between nitrogen, hydrogen, and carbon. Acrylic fabrics are known for being soft, lightweight, durable, and hypoallergenic. Acrylic fabrics also hold dyes well, won't fade from sun exposure, and are often used as a cost-effective and lightweight alternative to wool. As such, acrylics are commonly used to produce inexpensive throws, rugs, upholstery, and bedding.
Rayon is derived from wood pulp, making it a semi-synthetic fiber, and is often considered a cost-effective alternative to silk. Rayon's properties include dye resistance, heat resistance, and static resistance, but it is also flammable, easily wrinkled, and won't fare well in environments with high humidity. Rayon can be used in combination with other natural or synthetic materials to produce velvet. In the home, the most common applications for rayon include draperies, decorative bedspreads, and lesser-used upholstered furnishings.
12. Acetate and Triacetate
Acetate and triacetate are the products of two different treatments involving wood pulp. Like rayon, these two materials are considered semi-synthetic fibers. Both types of acetates have low heat resistance, low abrasion resistance, low durability, and low resistance to daylight. As such, they are usually used in combination with other materials, such as rayon, to produce upholstery backing and lining.
Polyolefin is produced from polypropylene or polyethylene. Polyolefins are strong, stable, lightweight, stain resistant, mildew resistant, and static resistant. They are not particularly absorbent or resistant to wrinkling and heat. Polyolefins are commonly used in carpeting and upholstery webbing.
Vinyl is produced from vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate. Though it is known as being durable and flame retardant, vinyl's manufacturing process is notorious for producing carcinogens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). So, although vinyl is used in modern interior design—for instance, in fabrics used for upholstery—it is being phased out of the industry. Polyolefins are considered to be a less toxic alternative to vinyl.
5 common applications for interior textiles
Rugs come in a variety of different materials and the right choice for you will depend on your budget and the manner of use. Generally speaking, a wool rug is the frontrunner in terms of longevity and quality. That said, wool won't fare well if it's constantly exposed to weather elements, such as water. So, while a wool rug may reign supreme in your living room or bedroom, a bamboo or hemp rug is a better choice for your mudroom or front entryway due to its moisture-wicking capabilities.
Additionally, natural materials tend to be more expensive than synthetic materials, so if you're looking for a rug that gives the impression of wool, without the hefty price tag, you might want to consider an acrylic, nylon, or polyester rug, with acrylic being the most similar to wool in terms of look and feel.
Throw pillows and blankets
You can find [throw pillows](throw pillows) and blankets in a wide variety of fabrics, including cotton, linen, wool, and various synthetics. Lighter materials, such as cotton and linen (and cotton and linen derivatives, such as canvas and velvet), are a safe bet for pillows and blankets because they are soft, lightweight, and easy to care for, while wool is better suited for colder climates. Again, acrylics are a cost-effective and lightweight alternative to wool.
The main thing to consider when selecting a window covering is how the material will stand up to sun exposure. You should also consider how the material will hang. Pure linen or linen blends are the ideal materials for window draperies because they can handle sun exposure, and are thin enough hang gracefully while being thick enough to block natural light. Cotton blends can also have the same effect, and a thinner fabric can always be supplemented by a second layer of curtain.
With that said, cotton and linen are prone to wrinkling, so if that is a concern, you might want to opt for blends that include a higher percentage of synthetic materials with wrinkle resistant properties, such as rayon and polyester.
Leather, wool, linen, and cotton are the most common natural fabrics used for upholstery, with the linen and wool being the most durable, practical, and hypoallergenic. Cotton and linen are a bit trickier to use for certain upholstered furnishings—for example, sofas and chairs—because they tend to soil and wrinkle easily.
If you like the look and feel of cotton or linen, but need an item to stand up to daily wear and tear, consider a cotton or linen blend that incorporates a synthetic fabric touting durability and stain, wrinkle, and fade resistance as one of its top properties, such as acrylic, nylon, rayon, and polyester. If you like the look of leather but find it too expensive, vinyl is a cost-effective alternative.
Bedding and linens
Cotton is by the far most common type of material used for bedding and linens. But not all cotton is created equal. If you have the budget for it, a higher quality of cotton with a higher thread count will serve you better in terms of comfort and longevity.
Bamboo, linen, and hemp are also common materials for bedding because they are lightweight and breathable, with one drawback of both linen hemp being that they are stiffer than cotton and bamboo, but will soften overtime. Additionally, silk pillowcases have risen in popularity due to the fact that they are naturally hypoallergenic and are gentler on the skin and hair than cotton, linen, and bamboo.