Anyone considering a slipcover project should pay close attention to the selection of the fabric. If you're making your own slipcover, you'll be spending a lot of energy on cutting and sewing; and if you're hiring someone, you'll have the additional expense of labor costs. Since you'll be investing quite a bit of time and money on the project, it's important to choose a high-quality fabric. You'll want a fabric that will not only look great, but last through repeated washings.
There can be a big difference in quality between fabrics that look nearly the same; better quality cotton fibers are longer and stronger, so the fabrics will wear much better. Cheaper cottons use shorter fibers, which weaken and ravel much more quickly. We've all had the experience of buying a four-dollar T-shirt that looks awful after a couple of washings - it shrinks too much, pills, or fades. It would have been better to buy the expensive T- shirt, which would have looked nice for several seasons. The same applies to home textiles - Egyptian cotton sheets are superior to bargain brands because of the long-staple cotton fibers, and consumers in the know are willing to pay a bit more up front for long-lasting quality.
The stability of the fabric also matters with slipcovers - some types of cotton duck will grow and shrink by several inches with use, even if they have been preshrunk. After a few washings, a cotton duck slipcover that continues to shrink will no longer fit. Fabrics come in different weights as well - one that is too light will wear out quickly, and one that is too heavy will make for a bulky, unattractive slipcover. While it may be tempting to use a non-cotton, upholstery weight fabric, they often have a rubber-type backing for stability, and are far too bulky and stiff. Just like with clothing, you’ll want a fabric that has natural drape. A cotton or linen, with its natural stretch, will cling to the curves of the furniture piece and hang softly along the back and sides. Fabric needs a bit of give to be able to make cording that will curve nicely around corners.
Should you pre-shrink your fabric? Since many people who order slipcovers are looking to protect their furniture from kids and pets, washability is a great plus. It can be expensive to dryclean a slipcover, and may not get all stains out. Tossing it in the laundry is faster, more efficient and costs very little, so we recommend pre-shrinking fabric for a washable slipcover. Some fabrics, intended for a dressier look, must be drycleaned to retain their crispness – such as a tailored linen or silk. Usually, we’d use these fabrics in a low-traffic spot such as a bedroom, or living room occasional chair where the look is important and they are used primarily by guests.
The wear and tear a piece of furniture gets can really be the deciding factor in choosing your slipcover fabric. For a family room sofa that gets daily wear, a soft Shabby Chic washed fabric or Slipcover Twill stands up to repeated washings. However, with these casual fabrics you’ll always have a casual look. To dress things up, we like mattelasse’ fabrics, which have a woven pattern and are very substantial. They are excellent for covering a dark fabric with a light one, since they are very thick, but they are more prone to surface wear so I don't recommend them for a heavily used sofa.
Pets on furniture are another consideration; if you have a large dog, use a canvas fabric or a slipcover-weight chenille (designed for heavy wear). Outdoor canvas is also excellent as it repels stains and doesn't pick easily. It is important to check the rating of the fabric to see the level of wear it is designed for when dealing with teenagers and pets! Again, two fabrics that look nearly the same can perform very differently over time.
For a crisp, light, look nothing beats linen- it is timeless and always looks chic. You can achieve a very dressy, crisp look by not pre-washing the fabric, but you’ll need to dryclean the slipcover to retain that tailored effect. Linen with a crisply ironed finish is our most formal slipcover fabric, but it is more difficult to maintain since it shows creases and needs drycleaning. If you want to maintain a formal look but need a slipcover to redecorate, a dressy linen is perfect.
For a soft, shabby chic look, washing the linen will remove the sizing (which is like a starch put on at the mill for a crisp finish) and give the linen a very floppy, soft texture. A washed, soft linen slipcover makes your sofa look and feel like a big, soft bed. Depending on your taste, you may love it, or you may think it looks like a suit that’s been slept in!
Should you use a pattern? It is very much the style now to have a room or home full of light colored, neutral slipcovers. Depending on accessories, it can look sophisticated or very cottage-y. Colors are popular too – solids in mattelasse’ or small graphic wovens give textural interest. Butter yellow, warm khaki, or light aqua are current slipcover favorites as they really brighten a room and look great with a scattering of pretty pillows. If an entire room is to be slipcovered, we’ll often use a textured solid color for the sofa, with a stripe or large graphic print for the companion pieces. There are plenty of small stripes woven into heavy cotton that are great for slipcovers. The stripes really help hide spots and add some interest without being too busy.
If you are looking for a large print, you’ll want one that’s printed on a sturdy background fabric, such as a cotton damask or cotton duck. A big print is perfect for furniture that gets dirty from small kids or beach house visitors, as it hides dirt between washings. Many prints in the marketplace are printed on lightweight cotton/linen blends for draperies and bedding, but they are not designed for washing and will not hold up long term, so check with your workroom when choosing.
Beach houses are a special slipcover category – many of our clients want the all-white beach house look, which is gorgeous but requires more frequent washing. Order extra fabric for repairs or replacing stained areas if you want a white slipcover, since sometimes stains just don’t come out. A great option is to use a Sunbrella or outdoor canvas, which looks and feels almost like a cotton canvas but is incredibly stain resistant. Even suntan lotion and red wine come right out in the wash.
Choosing the best slipcover fabric is a process that not only involves color selection, but determining the durability and washability that is needed. The best way to ensure that you’re making the right choice is to purchase your fabric from a professional who makes slipcovers. For the best outcome, have your fabric laundered before sewing it up.
Kerry Ann Dame is an interior designer and owner of Posh Living, an Interior Design shop in coastal South Carolina. ©2011 Posh Living, LLC