Top tips for choosing an upholstery fabric for French furniture

Frenchfinds French corbeille bed covered in Designers' Guild material

Frenchfinds French corbeille bed covered in Designers' Guild material

There is a veritable feast of fantastic fabrics available out there with temptingly luscious colours and endless  possibilities for revitalising antique furniture or making a bold statement within a room.

At Frenchfinds we have seen how the simple, sublime and explosively colourful can all work exceptionally well with French antique and vintage furniture.

But before getting lost in the heady maze of suppliers, fabric websites and inspirational interior design blogs, we suggest it is worth ticking off some simple check points.


Top tips for choosing a fabric

1. Ensure the fabric is upholstery weight

French antique Corbeille bed upholstered in Galicia fabric by Sanderson

French antique Corbeille bed upholstered in Galicia fabric by Sanderson

In almost all circumstances the fabric needs to be an upholstery weight. Thin fabrics are highly unlikely to tolerate daily or occasional wear from your use. The upholstery process can be a tough one and a thin fabric will be less likely to provide a successful finish. Despite the shiny shiny colours, do not be tempted by thin ‘curtain’ or ‘cushion’ material without talking to the fabric suppliers and upholsterers first.

As a note – unlike tights there is not a defined thickness for measuring fabric thickness! Suffice to say fabric designed to be upholstery friendly is pretty much always indicated as such by the manufacturer or retailer.

2. Swatch out!

Lee Jofa Shindig Embroided Upholstery Fabric

Lee Jofa Shindig Embroided Upholstery Fabric

Where possible always get a swatch or get a feel of the fabric before you buy it. A lot of the time a photo/online picture can look great but the actual product does not match your expectations whereas others you thought looked more like a limp lettuce leaf turn out to be the delicious inspiration you were after all along.

Comments we often hear are that the quality, finish or the real colour of a fabric in normal light, as opposed to the one from the photographer’s studio/supplier’s website, just do not match (for better or for worse). According to our customers experiences, we would also recommend that if the fabric you are after has a large pattern on it, like a traditional French toile fabric, it is worth goading suppliers into providing a larger than standard swatch to get a real feel of the piece.

3. Stretch yourself, just a little

Anna French chaise longue in purple velvet

Anna French chaise longue in purple velvet

If you are covering something with curves, like a French capitone style bed or a French chaise longue, choose a fabric with a little give/elasticity. It does not have to stretch as much as French elastic but a little give greatly helps the final fit avoiding any unnecessary loose fitting or the need for pleating.

4. Embroidery and silk are very tempting…

Frenchfinds' French Corbeille bed upholstered with Sandersons' fabric

Frenchfinds' French Corbeille bed upholstered with Sandersons' fabric

Silk materials are fantastically alluring fabrics and can give a sumptuous finish to a piece of furniture. An embroidered pattern or fabric can be a beautiful centrepiece for a bed. But beware of both, (this is really a double check of point one) as you need to make sure the fabric you have set your heart on is one which is suitable for upholstery.   If the fabric is not made for the rigors of being stretched to cover a piece of furniture, the pattern or stitching may end up with distortions. Like everything else double check with your supplier or upholsterer.

5. Double check dimensions & express your ideas French Tub Chair upholstered in plush purple velvet French Tub Chair upholstered in plush purple velvet

Double check the dimensions, both of the bed and of the fabric!

It sounds obvious but it can make a big difference. Quite often a French double bed or French kingsize (let alone an English or American one) whether it is an antique bed or not, may need more than one width of fabric to cover it.

Upholstery fabrics are usually between 54 inches (137 cm) and 60 inches (152 cm) wide, it is sometimes impossible to cut the fabric in one continuous piece to cover the furniture, you may need three pieces to cover one headboard.

Give the upholsterer as much detail as possible about the furniture and the fabric you intend to use and they will be able to tell you the amount of fabric you will need to order.

The fabric pattern can also make a big difference to how the material is fitted together to create an apparently seamless join. Stripes, patterns, complex designs will all have a ‘repeat’ width which indicates how far across the material it begins before the pattern starts again, or ‘repeats’. This is an important piece of information to know. To make an expert job of ensuring the pattern looks centred when finished the upholsterer really benefits from having this information. If you want to use an embroided panel as a centrepiece this can have knock on effects for the way the material is pieced together.

Essentially, express what you want to do to the upholsterers and suppliers before you buy the material, they will be able to confirm that the super-sassy French boudoir vision you have will really work.

6. Small and more is best when you want to go deep (buttoned)

Deep buttoned French chaise longue

Deep buttoned French chaise longue

If the piece of furniture you want to cover is deep buttoned, it requires more material to finish. This is for the simple reason that it has to be fastened into the button holes.

You also have to take this into account when choosing the fabric too. The buttons will distort any patterns, so large designs or striped fabric can end up wonky. Small patterns, simple polka dots, stripes or just solid colour works the best.

The buttons can work as a design aid though, a recent deep buttoned chair we had reupholstered for a child’s bedroom had small cotton roses worked into the buttons to give it a decorative feel, which gave it that girly pretty feel.

7. Finish it off with a trim


Scroll gimp! Absolutely not something from Pulp Fiction!

Last but not least think about the trim you finish with. Like fabrics there are hundreds of colours and options to choose from. The main types are as follows:

  • Lace/scroll gimp (ribbon) – available in as many colours as you can imagine
  • Piping – available in single, double or even triple piping. A small pipe is run around the edge with the upholstery fabric covering it to provide a finish that’s in keeping with the rest of the piece.
  • Scroll tacks – imitation metal tacks on a roll similar to antique style individual tacks but much cheaper in cost including labour time of the upholsterer. Come in a variety of colours
  • Individual tacks – metal tacks which have to be individually pushed into the furniture piece. Come in a variety of metal finishes. Per piece these cost more per metre and for the upholsterer’s time.
  • Fringe – Like a gimp but with a fabric fringe dangling from the edge available in many different sizes, lengths and colours.
  • Tassles – Like a fringe but the fabric is grouped free hanging fan shapes
  • Onion/ball trim – Very similar to tassles but fabric grouped into a larger ball/onion shape
  • Beaded trim – like tassles or gimp but with decorative beads!

8. If in doubt – always ask

Frenchfinds Antique French Capitone Kingsize Upholstered Bed

Frenchfinds Antique French Capitone Kingsize Upholstered Bed

There is nothing like the excitement of designing your own piece with a fabric that really inspires you.

The best source of information to help you are the people that have the experience, the fabric suppliers/retailers and the upholsterers – ultimately if in doubt just ask!