Differences Between Indoor and Outdoor Upholstery Fabric, Which You Should Choose, and Why

While visiting my aunt in the quaint little town she stays in, we went to their local indoor and outdoor upholstery fabric store to look for some fabric to cover their old sofa with. 

I prefer to shop online with a reputable merchant, but I do love the mystery of physically walking between rolls and bolts of fabric. It’s almost like you can smell the patterns and colors. And my fingers ache to touch the different textures. 

Imagine my surprise when the fabric of my dreams appeared, and I instantly wanted to order the sofa fabric from it, only to be told that it was outdoor fabric and not suited for indoor use. I mean, really?! Can outdoor fabric really not be used indoors, and vice versa? 

Indoor and Outdoor Upholstery Fabric: What’s the Difference? 

Initially, fabrics were designed for indoor use. With camping and tent-making, canvas fabrics gained popularity, but it wasn’t until the need for stain-proof, UV-resistant, and water-resistant fabrics emerged that true outdoor fabrics became a thing. 

Indoor fabrics need to be rub-resistant as they will see much wear from being sat on for chairs, reclined on when covering sofas, and even used for ottomans where the indoor fabric needs to hold up to food stains and raised feet while watching TV. 

When selecting your indoor fabrics, you need to match functionality with specific aesthetics for your decor scheme. Longevity for indoor fabrics isn’t so much a matter of surviving the elements as surviving your family (both people and animals). 

The choice of indoor fabric depends on the softness of the upholstery, as well as the texture of the fabric. Colors, patterns, and designs or motifs will also contribute to the best indoor fabrics.

By contrast, outdoor fabrics tend to be quite plain and usually in pale shades to counteract the inevitable bleaching effect of the sun’s UV rays. Outdoor fabrics need to be rip-proof, sun-resistant, and also water-proof. After all, when you’ve upholstered your outdoor sofas and swing seats, you don’t want the fabric to be soggy after a 30-second rainstorm. 

The outdoor fabric also tends to be much thicker and less flexible than indoor fabric. Outdoor furniture is usually fairly plain without too much bolstering, pleating, or tufting as these features would make for dirt trappers on outdoor furniture. Thicker fabric covers plain furniture better. 

Main Differences Between Outdoor and Indoor Fabrics

In a nutshell, outdoor upholstery fabric is:

  • Sun-resistant and UV-resilient
  • Waterproof or water-repellent 
  • Has a firm surface that is rub-resistant and won’t catch or rip
  • Pale colors or pastel colors to minimize any further UV bleaching

Indoor fabrics are:

  • Soft and luxurious 
  • Absorbs water unless it’s a synthetic fabric
  • Stain-proofed to prevent spoiling the fabric
  • Brightly colored or darkly colored as the colors won’t fade indoors

Structural Differences Between Indoor and Outdoor Fabrics

Indoor fabrics may also be made of synthetic fibers, such as polyester, but the fibers are usually fine and therefore softer. Outdoor fabrics have a thicker synthetic fiber that is used to strengthen outdoor fabrics. The result of this is a thicker fabric for outdoor use, which is usually also UV-resistant, fade-proof, and waterproof. 

Outdoor fabrics are often woven around a polyester, acrylic, or polypropylene inner core that results in a thicker and heavyweight fabric that can be used for canopies, umbrella covers, pool chair covers, and awnings. 

Pros and Cons of Indoor Fabric

Indoor fabrics have several pros and cons that make them particularly suitable for use inside the home where there is limited UV exposure. 

Pros of Indoor Fabrics

  • Soft fabrics in lush colors
  • Different textures can be achieved with unique weave patterns and embossing or brocade treatments
  • Available in curtaining and upholstery density fabrics
  • Resilient and rub-resistant with upholstery fabrics being as much as 50,000 rubs proof

Cons of Outdoor Fabrics

  • Can stain easily, but stain proofing sprays like Scotchguard can be used to manage this
  • May fade in strong light
  • Can hook and start pilling if the fabric has a loose texture or weave
  • Not water-resistant or waterproof

Pros and Cons of Outdoor Fabrics

Outdoor fabrics also have a range of features that makes these fabrics better suited to their purpose.

Pros of Outdoor Fabrics 

  • High-density fibers for greater water resistance and even waterproofing
  • UV-resistant; fading takes many, many years 
  • No stretching or piling when used on garden furniture

Cons of Outdoor Fabrics

  • Heavy fabrics that don’t wash easily 
  • Excess heat can melt the internal structure or polyester fibers
  • Mildew proofing is essential to prevent the fibers from forming moldy patches if exposed to water frequently

When May You Use an Outdoor Fabric Indoors?

Truthfully, you can use outdoor fabric indoors in any place where you need a sturdy, highly rub-resistant fabric and don’t mind a plain or pale-colored fabric. Outdoor fabrics are ideal for indoor applications like:

  • Upholstering dining room chairs 
  • Kids room ottomans 
  • Bathroom furniture 
  • Headboards that frequently get used for sitting up against
  • Dog and cat beds or sofa covers
  • Making Roman blinds for window treatments that receive a lot of sun
  • Bathroom curtains that receive a lot of steam 

When Can You Use an Indoor Fabric Outdoors?

Indoor fabrics are much softer and aren’t treated for stain resistance or rip-proofing, so they don’t make ideal outdoor fabrics. Additionally, indoor fabrics are susceptible to UV damage, unless the fabric is a blackout lining used on its own. Regular fabric won’t be sun-proof, but blackout lining is available in several colors and is UV resistant. Therefore, you would have to think carefully about using an indoor fabric outdoors. 

However, there are a few places you can sneakily get away with it, like:

  • Cushions for your porch or patio furniture 
  • Screening curtains such as voile drapes on the porch rails 
  • Drapes for outdoors benches (if the benches have a bench cover for when not in use)

The Final Verdict on Outdoor Vs Indoor Fabrics

So it seems that indoor and outdoor fabrics can be used somewhat interchangeably. However, outdoor fabric has fewer restrictions on being used indoors or outdoors. 

One final consideration is that simple outdoor fabrics tend to have a much higher price tag than the average indoor fabrics do. The price difference is due to the higher production cost of outdoor fabrics. Yet, an outdoor fabric can be the solution to that heavy-use indoor project where regular fabric just doesn’t cut it.

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