Dealing With Difficult Fabrics

Have you ever had an upholstery project that simply had you stumped? Fabric that was gorgeous but IMPOSSIBLE to work with, right? Not all upholstery fabrics are easy to sew, staple, or otherwise attach to furniture when upholstering. 

Dealing with difficult fabrics takes a special skill, and while there are some great upholstery hacks for these fabrics that I’m about to share, you may need the services of a professional company to help you win the fight.

What Makes for a Difficult Upholstery Fabric? 

There are several different types of fabric that are difficult to process and turn into beautiful upholstery. That said, these fabrics often make for the most amazing upholstered pieces, so the fight is worth it. 

Fabrics That Are Slippery

Depending on the texture of the fabric, you may have a slippery customer. Fabrics like vinyl, silk, crushed taffeta, some velvet weaves, and crushed fabrics may be really difficult to cut, pin, sew, and stretch. 

The quality of these fabrics makes them less tactile, so they will slip from under the sewing machine’s sewing foot and potentially pull against the pins that secure edges for sewing. 

Fabrics That Are Thin

Most upholstery fabrics are fairly thick, but you may also want to use a thin fabric like genuine silk to create that special fabric piece. Since the fabric is thin, it may cause problems with the tension of your sewing machine. Some special help is needed such as serging the fabric edges (overlocking). 

Fabrics With Extra Embellishments 

Usually, upholstery fabric isn’t too overly embellished. Since the fabric needs to stand up to some washing and vacuuming, it may not be ideal to have too many frilly and glittery bits. 

However, if you choose a fabric that does have some extra glittery sections or additional threading to create a surface pattern, it is necessary to work with extra care, protecting the work with butcher’s paper.

Fabrics That Stretch or Are Crushed

Crushed velvet is especially popular for drapery and upholstery. Yet, there is some skill required to successfully sew crushed or stretched fabrics to ensure there is no additional bagginess when done. 

When the crushed fabric is folded flat or cut, it may “reveal” the crushed pattern, which makes jagged edges. This can be a problem when placing seams together, and you may end up with a strange (and not straight) edge when you have sewn the seams. 

Using a supportive paper is a good idea here. 

Thicker Than Usual Fabrics

Thick fabrics such as leathers, linens, and woven fabrics are often a real challenge to sew. If you only need to staple them to the frame and create a great upholstered piece, it’s no problem, but when it comes to joining the sections to upholster a larger item, you may be really stuck.

Sewing these fabrics together may require that you outsource some of your work to someone who has a larger or more heavy-duty sewing machine that can adequately sew the seams. 

However, if you really have to muscle through, then be sure to iron all seams that need sewing before you sew them. A crinkled fabric will easily damage your sewing machine. Really steam the seams flat, making it as easy as possible for your machine to get in there and sew. 

Overlocking edges can really help since there is no fraying that can interfere with the seam sewing. 

Techniques for Dealing With Difficult Fabrics

Luckily, you can make any fabric into upholstery. Even spider silk has been considered a viable option for future manufacturing processes. In 2009, a large woven tapestry-like fabric was created by milking millions of Madagascar spiders for their silk. 

So it is no stretch to then make fabric out of anything durable. Dealing with some fabric types is a challenge if you don’t have the right techniques. 

Here are a few great ways to resolve challenges: 

Serging or Overlocking Edges

If the fabric is really delicate and you struggle to sew two sections together for a seam, overlock or serge the edge of each layer of fabric to give it more structure and create a hard edge that won’t unravel. 

Fray-Stop Glue

If you don’t have access to an overlocker machine, you can always opt for an artificial solution by rubbing in some fray-stopping glue to the edges of the fabric and allowing it to dry. 

The glue will create a harder edge that can sew easier. However, take care not to overdo the glue as it can bleed through to the edge of the seam, making an ugly line that will show on the upholstery. 

For really slippery fabrics, you can even apply several layers of glue. You can even get the aerosol kind you spray to the back of the fabric to stiffen it somewhat before you work with it. 

Laminate a Backing Fabric to the Upholstery Fabric

If glue and overlocking won’t cut it, then you can turn to a custom laminated finish. Special machines are used to add a second more robust fabric to the back of your difficult fabric, creating a stronger fabric you can easily sew, staple, and finish. 

Linen, cotton, and blended fabrics like polycotton are popular choices for laminating to the back of thinner or more fragile fabrics. The process is sometimes called knit-backing, and it needs to be done by a professional company that does fabric laminating to ensure an even finish. 

Work With a Mock-Up First

Difficult fabric is often notoriously expensive too, so it is worth trying out a small piece first. If you intend to add pleats, seams, or ruffles, first try out smaller sample pieces to track how the material sews, what challenges you can expect, and find solutions BEFORE you cut up several hundred dollars worth of fabric for upholstery panels.  

A Few Last Tips

There are other valuable tips to working with difficult fabrics you may also try. Some of these tips use chemicals, so be sure to first test the chemical on a bit of extra fabric before you accidentally ruin your bolt of upholstery fabric. 

  • Tissue Paper Reinforcing

If you have slippery fabric like vinyl, you can place two sheets of tissue paper or butcher’s paper at the front and back of the two layers of vinyl to help limit slippage on the sewing machine. 

  • Hairspray Stay

For delicate fabric that simply collapses under the machine, spray a coat of hairspray to help bolster the fabric somewhat. It’s best to do this on the wrong side of the fabric. 

  • Wash the Fabric

Some fabric types are so thin and airy that handling them is like trying to wrap a chair in a spider’s web. While you may not think of organza as being a great upholstery choice, it can provide an interesting overlay element for a decorative chair. To help make the sewing or nailing process easier, simply wet the organza and then layer it in place while it is still slightly wet. 

To help limit the amount of water that may contact the furniture padding and frame, use a layer of butcher’s paper or tissue paper over the organza. The paper acts as a water-absorbent layer. When the upholstery is done, simply pull the paper off. 

  • Fabric Tape

If you want to keep the layers of fabric together but struggle to seat pins in the fabric, consider adding some fabric tape. Once you have successfully sewn the seams, you can pick off the tape for a clean finish. 

Fabric tape can also help you when you are stapling or nailing the fabric to the frame of a chair. Simply tape the fabric edge, which provides you with a more resilient and sturdy edge to grip and hold in place. Also, use the tape to fold over the fabric edge before you staple or nail the fabric down. Then remove the fabric tape that’s visible for a neat result. 

The Final Fabric Slip

Just because a fabric is difficult to work with doesn’t mean you should choose something else. For feature items in your home, you may well want to opt for a different fabric type to achieve a particular look. Don’t let practicality stand in your way. You can work with difficult fabrics by solving the problems of softness, lack of body, slipperiness, thickness, and embellishments. You can also source upholstery fabric from the most unlikely places, as in our article on finding cheap fabric, so don’t let the level of difficulty of a great fabric stop you from being creative.

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