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Specifying upholstery

Several factors–all equally important–affect the life expectancy of upholstery. The first is the kind and amount of use. Even within the same room, one chair may be used ten times more than the others. The frequency and thoroughness of cleaning is a factor; so is the amount of light. Generally, fabrics that snag should be avoided, but even more vulnerable are those that slip, that is, in which the warp and weft yarns slide against each other. Even worse is seam slippage, or the gradual displacement of the seam from its correct position, which must be prevented as it cannot be corrected. Backing the fabric with a coating of acrylic or latex will usually avert both slippage and fraying of cloth edges inside the cushion. Adequate seam allowance–at least half an inch, or one and a half centimeters–on an easily frayed fabric is also important.

The result of one surface rubbing against another, abrasion is affected by the form and cushioning of the furniture, the expected use, and the fibers, yarns, construction, and finish of the fabric. Fabric arms are so vulnerable that furniture with upholstered arms may have half the life expectancy of seating without them. The next most vulnerable area is the top of the front cushion, especially if this is welted: like a car bumper, the raised welts take the brunt of abuse.

Fuzzing, caused by fibers working out of the fabric into the surface, may be a problem. The fibers often roll into little balls, called pills. If the fiber is wool or silk, the pills can usually be brushed away. The pilling of certain synthetic fibers is more serious, because they do not break away but cling tenaciously, absorbing dirt.

Specifying flooring

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The fiber industry’s quest for ever more durable carpets is a major one: only the clothing industry uses up a comparable amount of fiber. For those who can afford it, wool continues to be preferred. It gives good service and cleans exceedingly well. The best carpet wools once came from the tough desert sheep of Central Asia. Unfortunately these are now an endangered species–living and breeding as they do in areas of frequent conflict. In the past, wars between Japan and China, civil war in China and the long period of isolation which followed have prevented proper breeding and production from these sheep.

Although wool is not so resistant to abrasion as nylon (in the same construction and density), wool and wool blends (usually 80 percent wool/20 percent nylon) have a larger market segment than a decade ago. These are often selected for executive or residential areas, or, in heavier weights, for lobbies and other public spaces.

At last, nylon carpet yarns have improved. Problems with static electricity and dirt retention have, in most cases, been resolved. The newest generation of nylon is without the terrible “glint” it used to have; and it feels good. As a result, nylon now leads in carpet fibers.

Along with the quality of the fiber, the amount of it is crucial to a carpet’s durability. The depth of the pile is not as important as its face weight–that is, the density of fiber in the pile. If asked, sales staff will disclose (if sometimes reluctantly) the face weight of a carpet. In terms of durability carpets are often divided into four grades. Grade One is intended for residential, or domestic, use; Grade Two, for normal contract (commercial) use; Grade Three, for such public areas as lobbies, where face weight is especially important; and Grade Four, for stairs, offices containing chairs with casters, and institutions. Many Grade Four carpets have uncut loop pile for greater resilience.

Abrasion testing

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The simplest and fastest of the various abrasion testing methods is the Teledyne Taber Abraser 5130, which employs a weight fitted with an emery cloth-abradent which is applied in a circular motion. The test is quick and the equipment so simple that it is widely distributed. The results, however, may have little revelance to actual use. Yet another test, the Wyzenbeek, uses a method of rolling an abradent of either wire mesh or cotton duck back and forth. But because the results may be for either warp or weft they tend to be misleading.

The Martindale Wear and Abrasion Test is the most accurate measure of durability, because it best simulates normal wear caused by friction between clothing (apparel fabric) and upholstery fabric. The Martindale abradent is a wool cloth, foam backed (representing the apparel cloth). Because this abradent is moved against the upholstery fabric in a multidirectional pattern, the method simultaneously tests both warp and weft.

Comparative testing of the Martindale, Wyzenbeek and Taber methods have been done to evaluate the reliability of the Martindale system results. The Martindale method has provided results most consistent with experience. Extensively used in Europe, it is the standard adopted by the International Wool Secretariat.

These tests are useful only if combined with common sense. Because all of us have so much more experience with clothing, we tend to be wiser in our garment selection. We learn to use durable, easily cleaned cloths for active sportswear, but do not limit ourselves to these for evening dress. In other words, there is a time and place, and purpose, for fragile fabrics–even as upholsteries. Loose cushions or pads which can be re-covered without removing the furniture might be one, pillows another, and seldom-used seating or rooms, a third.

Although test for abrasion and pilling is useful and now common practice, it is successful only in reporting structural flaws of the original tested sample. The real criterion is, “Will it age graciously?” Upholstery without holes (or pills or slippage) but battered, soiled, or crushed, is as sadly depressing as that with more serious damage.

Color-fast testing

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The color of all fabrics changes with time. Light (especially sunlight), heat, dust, gas fumes, and abrasion are factors in this change. Some colors soften rather agreeably, some change cast, and a few bleached bast fibers (such as linen, sisal, and coir) and certain leathers may darken.

Crocking, or dye loss through excess dyestuff rubbing off onto another material, is an infrequent problem. Testing for wet and dry crocking is performed by a simple device which rubs white cotton over the surface. Anyone can simulate this test sufficiently to identify this fault. Crocking almost never changes the appearance of the fabric itself, unlike color abrasion, which is the perceptible loss of color through rubbing. The most frequent offenders are fabrics printed with thick or light-colored pigments, and those made from yarns so dense that they resist complete penetration by the dye. When the surface fibers wear off, undyed areas appear. Cloth woven from bast fiber may be problematic; so may edges and welts of such densley woven cottons as canvas and duck.

All the potential faults just described are dwarfed by the major challenge of achieving superior light-fastness–in each production lot and for all applications. Luxury fabrics done in small lots and incorporating innovations beyond the range of standard products are more prone to fading than those that are mass-produced. Intense blues and greens and fuchsia pinks still tend to give the greatest problems. Common sense in selection, sensitive placement, and protection from direct sunlight and intense artificial light remain advisable precautions when using these fabrics.

Most producers frequently check dyed goods for color fastness (although seldom for each dye lot). The standard for Western Europe is the xenon fadeometer, preferrably on a scale of 1-8, rather than that of 1-5 used in the United States. The higher the rating number, the better the light fastness.

Special finishes

Acrylic and latex coatings, which reduce slippage and fraying, are often applied to upholstery fabrics as a part of the production process. Dual-purpose fabrics, especially silk ones, are generally not given a backing, but some fabric houses will do this as a special service, at a slight extra cost. Others will refer their client to a finisher, who will perform the service, then send the fabric on for make-up. Delicate fabrics are sometimes laminated to a cotton muslin or, now more frequently, to a cotton tricot, or “stocking backing.” This provides some stability and abrasion resistance, and helps prevent fraying.

There are now several types of treatment for flame retardance, to meet almost every fire code. The choice of treatment in a given case will depend on the code’s requirements, the fabric selected, and the fabric’s appearance after treatment. Fabrics with high percentages of polyester or modacrylic may be difficult to treat. Some treated silks and most chenille fabrics may change in color or texture. If the seller does not have experience with treated fabrics of this type, a sample should be tested.

Furnishing fabrics are almost always permanently mothproof. The mothproofing treatment should protect against weevil infestation as well. If the label on wool or mohair fabric does not state that the fabric is mothproof, an inquiry should be made. Nowadays the most likely offenders would be exotic hand-weaves and fur fabrics acquired in Third World countries or from craft shops. Often only partially scoured (that is, washed during manufacturing), these cloths contain oily fibers irresistible to insects; they must be treated.

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In climates where mold and mildew are common, an antibacterial protective finish may be desirable. It is readily applied by the same finisher, without affecting the appearance of the cloth.

A number of treatments have been developed to inhibit the ravages of dirt. Silicon treatments to reduce waterborne stains came first, then 3M Scotchgard treatment for oil-borne stains. Most recently, Du Pont’s Teflon protection promises a barrier to both water- and oil-borne stains and soiling from dry atmospheric particles. In addition to these internationally distributed finishing solutions, there are now franchised services for protecting and maintaining all interior fabrics, including carpets and wall coverings.

Without knowing specific requirements, one hesitates to recommend any one of them. Most have considerable strengths, if some weaknesses. Those who have used them claim that some treated fabrics are more difficult to clean thoroughly than those not treated. Other treatments may repel dirt for only a limited time. Perhaps the drawback to such treatments is that they may encourage the use of a too-delicate fabric or too-light color where a firmer darker fabric may be more appropriate.

Flat fabrics sometimes are coated and laminated to make them so impervious to dirt as to require only damp sponging. This treatment multiplies the range of patterns available for the walls of powder rooms, for example, or eating places. Because these surfaces have no porosity, they are not suitable for seating. Such fabrics also can be laminated to rigid sheets of acrylic and so be given all the practicality of plastic laminates. Uses for laminated fabric include wall paneling and cafe table tops.

Although not strictly a finish, quilting is a technique that enhances the durability of fabric, along with its tactile appeal. Machine quilting can be worked to a set repertoire of such existing patterns as stripes, diamonds, and hexagons. Much more costly, single-needle, hand-guided machine quilting can be as intricate as one’s purse can buy. Usually such quilting follows a pattern or is vermicelli, an abstract squiggle pattern. The higher cost of this fabric can be mitigated by using it only in small amounts, such as on the cushions of lounge furniture upholstered in the same fabric.