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Tips for Picking Upholstery Fabric

This post was originally based on my experience choosing fabric for my vintage teak chair, but it has been updated with information gleaned from choosing fabric for the chair lovingly referred to as “the garbage chair”.  Frankly, these tips aren’t specific to upholstery fabric, but upholstery fabric – because it’s such a commitment – warrants a more thoughtful process than, say, curtain or pillow fabric (which can be easily swapped out).  I compiled a list of tips that helped me through the process, and hope you’ll add your own in the comments! 

It helps to have a starting point because a good fabric store will have an unruly selection.  Flipping through all of the samples and books can take days, but a starting point will narrow down the work.  Sometimes a starting point can be really specific: for the teak dining chairs above, I knew I wanted black and white houndstooth, but that still yielded dozens of samples.  Sometimes a starting point is a bit more broad: for the garbage chair, I knew I wanted teal or turquoise – I thought tweed, but was open to other suggestions.

I always bring a photo of the room I think the upholstered piece will be going into, as well as a photo of the furniture piece in question.  When I chose fabric for the teak chair in our townhouse guest room, I kept misremembering the shades of green in the room.  Having a photo of the room handy (on my phone) not only helped me remember, but also helped the salespeople pinpoint my style.  Bringing in paint swatches and samples of other design elements (especially other textiles in the room) is also helpful.

I play fast and loose with the samples I bring home.  What I have fallen in love with in the store has been blah at home and what has seemed garish under their bright lighting has looked much more mellow in my space, so I’m always greedy and bring home dozens of fabric samples – anything that catch my eye and tugs at my heart, whispering “I could be the one”.

I try to get as big a sample as possible.  Some companies provide stores with large samples, often on a hanger, but others provide smaller ones in a book.  Some companies provide different sizes so, when possible, I snag the bigger samples because they are always more helpful when it comes to envisioning the finished piece: 

I try out the fabrics in evening and day light.  What looks super cute in the sunlight can read really dull at night.  Lighting can play a major role in how good a fabric looks so I make sure to test out the swatch where the furniture will be and I make sure I take a look under various lighting conditions.  The photos below are of the same velvet, taken with the same camera, but taken in different light and at different angles.

I check the prices right away.  I don’t want to fall in love with something that’s out of the question.  I also let the store clerks know so they won’t show my teasingly expensive swatches either.  (If I do accidentally fall in love with a pricey print, I know I can always order a small piece for a pillow or save it for a special small piece, like a footstool).

I’m upfront and specific about my style so salespeople can help understand what I’m looking for, BUT, I also make sure to keep an open mind.  When I brought home samples for the mint chair, the prints I was fixated on were horrible once I got them home, but the print the salesperson had pushed on me – she MADE me it take home – was the one that I ended up choosing.  She knew my style better than me, after looking at photos of the room and chair.  You can see more photos of the minty chair and fabric in this post.     

When in doubt, I choose a textured solid, like tweed or velvet, or a timeless pattern like houndstooth.  A piece of furniture can always be freshened up with a patterned throw pillow but it can be pricey to overhaul a piece completely if I grow weary of the pattern.  A solid is also a good choice if the final home of a piece is undetermined.

It helps to see a fabric in action so I compile a list of inspiration photos.  I hadn’t even been thinking velvet when the garbage chair makeover began but after it was suggested to me I rounded up a bunch of photos featuring velvet chairs and this helped me realize it was the right choice.  That’s what Pinterest is for!

I’m always tense about shopping for bigger ticket items.  I can’t afford to re-do a large purchase or makeover if I don’t like what I bought or did.  But, the best advice (for me, especially) has to be this:  I just relax and go with what makes me the most excited.  You can feel it in your heart when you’ve found the right fabric, and you want to wear it like a cape all day long.  The second best advice is to accept help from trusted professionals.  I found a great upholstery place in Ottawa (Kessels) and they were fabulous at helping me choose the perfect fabrics – now that I’ve moved, I don’t know what I’ll do without them! 

What are your tips for choosing fabric? 



  1. Meagan Claire
    December 5, 2014 / 8:10 pm

    I live in a rural area, so most of my fabric shopping is done online. For myself, I won't even venture onto websites that sell fabric above my budget. ( has been my most used source.) That's my number one rule. Second is to always get samples. Since I order online, there's an extra time hassle involved. But it's better then ordering 10 yards of fabric that looks terrible in your living room. I've also had to send back a cut selection THREE times because the fabric that was sent was not the same fabric as my sample. Without the sample, I would have been in the lurch.

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      December 5, 2014 / 10:45 pm

      Yay! I love seeing this old post get a comment – you've totally made my day! PLUS, your tips are stellar. I have yet to order online, but now that I've moved 1600km from my favorite fabric shop, I might have to. I'll definitely heed your advice about the samples, particularly because I never realized how crucial they would be with an incorrect shipment. I'm going to take a look at because our dining room chairs need something cute…

  2. Renov8or
    February 27, 2015 / 1:23 am

    I love the minty fabric. I just love textiles in general and can lose hours in a fabric store. My go to site is for midcentury fabrics. Isn't the garbage chair a famous designer too? Adrian Pearsall, maybe? He did a lot of wood arm tops that were embedded into the fabric like that.

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      February 27, 2015 / 2:08 am

      Me too. I can get lost in a fabric store for hours. I love Tonic too, but I have yet to order anything. Just a lot of ogling. You know, I didn't think the chair was special. It had no markings but now I'm curious. Will have to do some Googling. Thanks for the info!

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