As a homeowner, it’s always tempting to opt for the “WOW factor” when selecting fabrics to impress family and friends. Unfortunately, “WOW” can quickly turn into “WHAT NOW?” when a fabric doesn’t perform well and those 25 yards of rayon velvet on your family room sectional goes from eye-catching to eyesore. Choosing the most sustainable fabrics involves much more than just color and texture; it requires careful consideration of factors such as durability, maintenance, and longevity.
Fiber-Seal has been helping homeowners maintain their fabrics for over 50 years, and we’ve learned a thing or two about which fabrics are the most sustainable and user-friendly. Though each of our picks for most sustainable fabrics were carefully selected based on decades of experience in maintaining high-end fabrics, it is important to disclaim that there is no single fabric that is perfect for every installation—and no fabric is bulletproof!
What Makes a Fabric Servicable?
The key to a long-lasting and serviceable upholstery fabric is its ability to withstand wet cleaning. Let’s be real, spills happen, and fabrics that are dry clean only make both everyday care and overall cleaning challenging. Most spills are water-based and can only be removed with water-based cleaners. Therefore, many stains remain uncleanable if only dry-cleaning solvents can be used. Wet cleaning is far superior to dry cleaning for maintaining upholstery fabrics, so the ability to withstand at least some degree of wet cleaning is a hallmark of a more serviceable fabric.
It is important to note that when a fabric is a blend of two or more fibers, it is usually necessary to maintain the fabric according to the weakest fiber. For example, if a fabric is cotton blended with rayon, you should treat the fabric as if it were 100% rayon.
Our Ranking of the Most Cleanable and Most Sustainable Fabrics - Best to Worst
Protein Fibers: Alpaca, Mohair, and Wool
Alpaca and Mohair are both elegant and surprisingly cleanable. They both make great velvet which doesn’t suffer from the serious nap issues that plague fibers like rayon.
Wool, although not used as often in residential upholstery fabrics, is another natural fiber that holds up extremely well. It is safe to say that these three fibers are very serviceable as well as sustainable.
Manmade non-cellulosic fibers like nylon, acrylic, olefin, and polyester are generally durable and easy to maintain. Innovations in fiber chemistry have made them more attractive, colorful, and increasingly similar to natural fibers. They are often seen in short pile constructions also known as “Synthetic Suedes,” including Ultrasuede, Crypton Suede, and Sunbrella Suede, which are among the most forgiving fabrics— offering a soft, smooth feel that tends to clean well.
This group of fibers are the most serviceable of them all. The drawbacks of these fibers are they come from petroleum and are not landfill friendly which makes them less sustainable than natural fibers. Despite the environmental impact from production, the superior stain and fade resistance that these fabrics possess gives them a longer useful life than other fabrics.
Cellulosic Fabrics: Cotton And Linen
Cotton and linen fibers become 20% stronger when wet. In contrast, rayon is 50-80% weaker when wet. These fabrics are better than average performers and offer excellent cleanability. If these fabrics are in a natural state, (un-bleached or un-dyed) wet cleaning can be a bit more complicated by the potential of cellulosic browning, but most professional cleaners know how to navigate around those problems. Cotton and linen fabrics have a natural appearance that has stood the test of time. Along with extremely serviceable, cellulosic fabrics are one of the most sustainable fabrics.
Protein Fiber: Silk
Silk is generally much more serviceable than rayon, a fact that comes as a surprise to many homeowners. While many rayon upholstery fabrics are dry clean only, silk is more resilient and can usually be wet cleaned by professionals. The biggest downside to silk is its vulnerability to sun fading of dyed silk and yellowing of white silk known as the patina of silk. It is serviceable and sustainable.
Manmade Cellulosic Fabrics: Rayon, Acetate, & Triacetate
Rayon was originally created to imitate silk. Today’s rayon fabrics have the same luster and feel of their silk counterparts. Unfortunately, it is a dry-clean only fabric and is very difficult to clean especially when used in a pile construction. The production of this fiber can be very detrimental to the environment thus making it unserviceable and unsustainable. Learn more about the downfalls of rayon here.
Acetate and Triacetate, while slightly more serviceable, are regenerated cellulosic fibers like rayon which are among the worst offenders to our ecosystem and are the least serviceable and least sustainable of all fibers.
In conclusion, when selecting fabrics, it’s important to consider sustainability and serviceability, in addition to color and texture. By choosing sustainable fabrics that offer greater serviceability and cleaning options, homeowners can enjoy their fabrics for years to come without any headaches or eyesores.
Fiber-Seal is Here to Help!
Fiber-Seal has been studying, testing, and maintaining fine fabrics for over a half-century and we are always here as a resource to help you choose between one fabric or another, particularly regarding cleanability and sustainability.