Office fabrics - what to look for

Image courtesy of Rhubarb Chairs

When choosing a new piece of furniture, fabric selection is one of the most important choices you’ll need to make. With so many options available it can become a bit overwhelming. Aside from colour(s) and pattern, you need to consider the right type of fabric for your application.

Office fabrics

Fabrics can be divided into two main categories: natural and synthetic.

Natural threads, such as cotton, linen and wool are made by taking very fine fibres and twisting them together. Wool is recognised for its sturdiness and durability; it is naturally flame-resistant and hypoallergenic, making it a perennial favourite.

Synthetic fabrics used to be constructed of just one thick fibre - hence the often shiny and rather ‘flat’ appearance - but today most synthetics are woven from very fine threads just like natural materials. This method of construction, combined with the chemicals used (often derived from alcohol, coal or petroleum) creates fibres that can be very strong and more hardwearing than their natural equivalent.

Many ‘blends’ are also available, mixing natural and synthetic fibres to achieve the right balance of technical qualities, appearance and cost.


Cleaning

Cleaning

Synthetic materials are often stain-resistant; liquids will tend to sit on the surface of the fabric rather than be absorbed. By contrast, wool is hygroscopic i.e. it tends to absorb moisture. It can be easier to remove stains from synthetic materials because they are also stable and not prone to shrinkage after contact with water.

For any piece of furniture, stains should be removed as soon as they are evident. If possible, steam-clean annually to kill bacteria, remove stains and lift scuffs and marks. Most soft furnishings come with a tab or tag – check this to determine the best cleaning solution for your item - and don’t forget to spot test any cleaning solution in an inconspicuous spot before use!

Cost

Cost

The price of any given piece of soft furniture can vary considerably, depending on the fabric specified. Synthetics and blends tend to be at the lower cost levels, but such fabrics can lack the ‘elasticity’ required to upholster a piece of furniture without loose pockets or creases. As a rule of thumb, manufacturers will offer a choice of ‘standard’ fabrics that have already been applied, and it’s generally best to follow their recommendations.

Most manufacturers offer ‘COM’ – or ‘Customer’s own material’ as an option. However, this approach can increase manufacturing time and invalidate the warranties usually provided with ‘standard’ materials.

Environmental

Synthetic fabrics are less readily disposable than natural fabrics, but many synthetics are produced using 100% recycled materials. Camira Fabrics helpfully categorise their ranges to assist in selection.

However, one must question the reality of furniture disposal at end of life; ‘recyclable’ does not necessarily mean that the individual elements will be recycled, and a better environmental contribution may be achieved by selecting fabrics with a long lifecycle.

Durability

Durability

The Martindale abrasion rub test is a measurement of the durability of fabric according to the amount of times discs can oscillate a worsted fabric across the test material before it starts to show distress. The rub test score is internationally recognised and standardised; almost every fabric supplied will have a Martindale score.

The results of a Martindale test give a good indication of how much wear and tear a fabric will take before there is a noticeable change in appearance. The higher the score, the more durable the fabric is. However, it should be noted that in practice fabrics wear less when backed by soft foam; arm rests and piping details are particularly susceptible to wear and tear.

Categorisation

Martindale Cycles

Light Duty (Domestic use) 10,000 – 15,000
Medium Duty (Domestic use) 15,000 – 20,000
Heavy Duty (Commercial use) 20,000 – 35,000
General Contract 20,000+
Heavy Contract 40,000+
Safety

Safety

The most commonly recognised test for resistance to spread of flame is CRIB 5, otherwise known as Ignition Source 5 (BS 7176). Passing this test does not make an item entirely fireproof, but dramatically reduces the risk of ignition.

Importantly, this test is applied to fabric fitted over a foam substrate; not just to the fabric in isolation. If an item of furniture is manufactured using an adhesive to ‘bond’ the fabric to a foam substrate, this adhesive should not contribute to flammability. Some fabrics will require a felt Crib 5 ‘Interliner’ or a chemical treatment to be applied in order to pass Crib 5.

Office fabric safety pass
Office fabric safety fail

Crib 5 Pass & Fail - Courtesy of The Contract Chair Co

It is worth noting that Offices and education environments (As opposed to ‘hospitality environments’ including hotels, restaurants and bars) are regarded as ‘Low Hazard’ so legally, fabrics used in offices only need to meet the requirements of two specific tests:

BS EN 1021-1:2006 (Cigarette)
BS EN 1021-2:2006 (Match)

Perhaps more importantly, CMHR (Combustion Modified High Resilient) foams must be used for the manufacture of furniture for ‘Hospitality’ environments. These are not always provided as ‘standard’, so it’s a point worth checking, particularly if the furnishings originated outside the UK.

The Interion team is ready to answer any further questions you may have regarding selection of suitable fabrics. Please don’t hesitate to Contact Us.

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