Luxuriously Immaculate

Beautiful, sumptuous, and nearly indestructible – today’s performance fabrics have it all

Long ago, in family rooms not so far away, fussy aunts and overly tidy neighbors would encase their sofas in zippered sleeves of thick, clear plastic. They weren’t very comfortable, but they sure were stain resistant. Now, modern performance fabrics give you a whole lot more than just great stain resistance, and they won’t even make your sofa stick to your legs on a hot summer day.

“Performance fabrics started in the automotive and activewear industries,” says textile chemist and designer Laurie Jenkins. “The car companies wanted fabrics that wouldn’t fade in sunlight, were durable, and stain resistant. Activewear fabrics need to repel water on the outside, but let moisture escape from the inside. For furniture, we want all of these features plus great comfort, and a wide selection of colors, patterns, and textures.”

“Now, browns are completely just a color choice, no longer a necessity for certain uses.”

For her furniture line with Sunpan Modern Home product designer Kelli Ellis wanted to “create pieces at a really grand scale, in lighter, almost off-white colors. Contrary to what you might think,” says Ellis, “a sofa that really fills the room makes the space look and feel bigger. Just as you would expect, though, a bigger sofa is often just a bigger target for spills.”

“To get the stain resistance and durability I need for these light colored, large scale pieces, I chose the Livesmart line, from Culp Fabrics,” says Ellis. “They stand up so well, I can even upholster my ottomans – and the sides of my tables – in light colors. What really blows me away about Livesmart fabrics, though, is the texture. These are soft, luxurious fabrics with a velvet-like hand that not only feels great but also adds visual interest.”

“The first thing you need to know about performance fabrics is that ‘performance’ isn’t one thing.”

“The American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) lists more than 100 separate test methods for textiles,” says Laurie Jenkins, textile chemist and owner of the textile design firm, Laurie Bell. “For upholstery, we tend to focus on eight properties: oil repellency, water repellency, lightfastness, tensile strength, tear strength, antimicrobial, and bleach cleanability. When you say ‘performance,’ it’s important to know what kind of performance you mean, and what level of performance you want.”

“The specific characteristics you want are highly dependant on the end use.”

When selecting fabrics, Todd Nifong, former president of the International Textile Association, suggests carefully considering the stresses of your intended environment. “Bleach cleanability is a must, if you’re worried about soiling with bodily fluids,” he says, “but it’s also important at poolside, where chlorine is always present. Oil repellency is important by the pool, too, to prevent soiling by sun screens. And indoors, families that eat in the family room will be happier with oil repellent fabrics on their sofas.”

“Whatever you can do indoors, you can do in your outdoor spaces.”

Looking into the future from her seat in the lab, textile chemist Jenkins sees, “More advances in texture on the way, in the form of soft, luxurious fabrics that are exceptionally stain resistant, lightfast, and durable. There will be some new weave effects. Our outdoor rooms will become more comfortable, more colorful, and more liveable. Indoors, we’ll see fewer limitations on our design choices, as any piece, in any color, can be made to clean up quickly and easily.”


Outdura Fabric


Product designer Ellis brought some of the latest advances in texture to a line of cushions for RST Brands. “I chose fabrics from Sunbrella that have a soft, fuzzy, terry-like texture that’s just amazing,” says Ellis. “They’ll perform perfectly on your deck or patio, holding their color and texture through sun and rain, and with stain resistance that stands up to everything your barbeques and summer soirees can dish out.”

“High demand is driving a rush of innovation. It’s like drinking through a fire hose.”

As she considers the design options innovation will make available in the coming years, Ellis sees richer, brighter colors and jewel tones on the horizon, as well as metallics, especially silvers. “Performance fabrics are opening whole new ranges of opportunities for designers,” she says. “We are seeing the end of untouchable spaces. Now, everything can be used, every day.”

Sunbrella Fabric

Sunbrella Fabric

“Don’t forget, though,” says Jenkins, “that sustainability is also an important performance attribute. There is some sophisticated chemistry behind every performance feature. You want to make sure those chemicals are handled safely and responsibly. When you’re specifying a performance fabric, don’t just ask what it does. Ask where it’s made, how it’s made, and what its impact on the environment is.”