Fabric cotton vs. polyester upholstery

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images

Upholstery fabric is used to cover or recover sofas, chairs and any furniture with cloth covers or portions. Many types of fabrics are used in upholstery, from synthetics, such as polyester, to natural fibres, such as cotton, to blends of both.

Knowing the pros and cons of cotton or polyester will allow you to properly care for your upholstery and know what to expect from the fabric.

Identifying an Unknown Fabric

At times, you may acquire furniture with an unknown type of upholstery. By performing a burn test, you can determine if the upholstery is polyester or cotton. Clip a piece of the upholstery from an inconspicuous place, such as under the furniture, from a seam or from a skirt or ruffle hem. Use a match to ignite the sample. If the upholstery melts while burning and produces a sweet scent and black smoke, the upholstery is polyester. When you blow out the flame, the ash from the burnt swatch will be hard, almost like melted plastic. If the upholstery produces a fragrance of burning grasses or leaves, the fabric is cotton. The ash left behind from the burnt swatch will be ashy, and the flame will blow out like you would blow out a candlewick. Other synthetics or natural fibres may have different reactions to a burn test.

Natural Fibers Versus Synthetic Fabric

Differences exist between cotton and polyester upholsteries. Cotton is a plant fibre and grows naturally. Polyester is made from petroleum products, coal, water and air. Often upholstery is a blend of cotton and polyester, and this combination of fabric produces a cloth that is very durable, easy to clean and often contains additives such as stain-resistant properties that allow spills and stains to wipe away from the upholstery with little to no scrubbing. Blends of cotton and polyester are also treated with wrinkle-free solutions; alone, cotton wrinkles easily. Blending cotton with polyester also produces upholstery that retains its dyes for a more vibrant appearance.

Cotton Defined

Cotton is derived from the seed pod of the cotton plant. Because cotton upholstery is 100 per cent natural, the fabric breathes and absorbs moisture, allowing people who sit or touch the fabric to feel comfortable and cool if perspiring. Cotton upholstery is easy to care for and can be washed in the washing machine, dried in the clothes dryer (though this often results in shrinking of the fabric), can be bleached (if white to begin with as bleaching dyed cotton upholstery will result in discolouration or ruin of the colour or print), and the upholstery can be ironed. Cotton resists piling and is durable, which is desirable in an upholstery that will be sat on, manipulated and otherwise touched frequently.

Polyester Defined

Polyester is a synthetic material that, when used in fabric, is often referred to as ethylene terephthalate (PET). Polyester is used in many products aside from fabric, some of which are rope, bottles, carpet and hoses. Polyester fabrics and fibres are used in many products in the sewing and home décor industries. Upholstery made of polyester is essentially waterproof, retains dye well and is impervious to most cleaning solutions. Because of its poor breathe-ability, polyester is often blended with cotton, which allows air to circulate freely. As a synthetic fabric, polyester can withstand temperatures up to 266 degrees Celsius but can be easily scorched when ironed if the iron is held in place too long. Polyester upholstery is a useful outdoor fabric due to its mildew resistance, waterproof capabilities, shrink resistant properties and strength.