The Penny Morrison Guide to Performance Fabric

The Penny Morrison Guide to Performance Fabric

While the days of covering the sofa in clear plastic are (predominantly) over, most of us are no less concerned by the longevity of our fabrics than our parents were (and their parents before them). Beautiful pieces deserve to be loved for many, many years, but that’s not to say that they need to look well loved.

For the most part, naturally strong fibres like cotton and linen – when woven tightly together – are strong enough to withstand the daily wear and tear of home life. Even in high traffic areas – the playroom, family room, and kitchen – our range of fabrics has proven to be one of the most reliable (and eco-friendly) of options.

In some areas of the home and garden, however, a little extra is needed. Stain and water resistance, ease of care and maintenance, colour fastness, and resilience are all put under the microscope, and if our pieces are going to continue looking good beyond the first six weeks of summer, our demands need to be very high.

When we are approached about these types of projects, performance fabrics will inevitably be the first (and only) port of call for us.

What is a Performance Fabric?

Broadly, the term applies to any fabric that is easy to look after, and capable of withstanding heavier use. Consider the sorts of fabric that would be suitable for use in an outdoor seating area, where, with the best will in the world, rain and mud will inevitably reach your soft furnishings from time to time.

There are many different types of performance fabric out there, and some are certainly better than others. These days, strong and hard-wearing fabrics needn’t feel particularly strong or hardwearing, which no doubt comes as great news to anyone who spent the summer holidays sitting on their grandmother’s plastic-coated sofa, or sticking to the uncomfortable, sweaty plastic deck chair cushions out in the garden.

But, despite the substantial variety of fabric types out there, they tend to be united by the following characteristics:

  • Stain resistance

Particularly useful in the playroom, where the rate of annual drink spills and food drops is significantly higher than it is in the rest of the home. Also, in the garden, where mud, soot from the firepit or barbeque, melted ice cream and dust tend to find their way onto the furniture.

Also, consider liminal spaces in the home. The mudroom, hallway, and any soft furnishings in the master bathroom are all a little more vulnerable to stains and watermarks. Speaking of which…

  • Water resistance

It’s never a brilliant idea to leave the garden furniture out in a rainstorm, but the British weather has a way of turning on even the most enjoyable of garden sessions during those first few weeks (or, perhaps, months) of summer, so water resistance is obviously a key factor here.

  • Mildew resistance

Where there’s moisture and humidity (perhaps where garden furniture is stored in the off-season, and where there are washing machines and tumble dryers whirring) there is bound to be the risk of mildew, and many a cushion has been ruined by the onset of mildew.

While most parts of the house are quite safe from the risk of mildew, performance fabrics offer a much more promising alternative where organic materials, like linen and cotton, are on the line. 

  • Lightfastness

When a fabric is described as lightfast, it means that the dyes used to create it are capable of being exposed to bright lights. Some fabrics will, inevitably, begin to lose their vividity through continued exposure to sunlight – the reason many chairs are routinely given a few months away from the window, and why some people prefer to draw the blinds during the brightest part of the day. These days, that’s often not necessary (and is, perhaps, going the way of the plastic-wrapped sofa), but some fabrics are much more susceptible to light than others.

Most of us would prefer not to see our lawn furniture fading from a bold red to an insipid, a stunning yellow to a watery tea-stain colour, and that’s why lightfastness is key.

  • Flame retardancy

If your furniture is destined to be drawn up around the firepit then, for obvious reasons, you’ll want it to be safe for use. Performance fabrics are the much safer choice if there are going to be any open flames (consider everything, from sparklers in November to tiki torches in the height of summer).

But, as with virtually anything else we’ve mentioned thus far, some fabrics are far better treated for flame retardancy than others. Trevira CS is permanently flame retardant, meaning that no matter how many times it is washed, wiped, or subjected to the elements, it retains the ability to prevent ignition when exposed to open flames.

  • Machine washability

So important. Think of the things traipsed into the mudroom – not just by your day-to-day comings and goings, but by the dogs and the cats, the muddy welly boots, the riding gear, the gardening gloves and fistfuls of damp conkers left unthinkingly on the bench while the perpetrator takes off their shoes. Then there’s the football or rugby boots, the dripping rain coats, the blackberry-stained fingers, the wet shopping bags, the grass stains and goosegrass and drinks spilled as they cross from the house to the garden. And that’s just the mudroom.

From the playroom to the garden, where you place your performance fabrics will almost always correlate with the areas of the home most in need of a regular clean. As you can imagine, it makes life significantly easier to be able to toss these fabrics straight into the machine.

Obviously, you’ll want to talk to your upholsterer about making easy-to-remove slipcovers and pillowcases for your furniture. You will thank yourself later, when giving the furniture set a spring clean takes mere moments.

  • A high Martindale rub count

The Martindale rub test is a vital step in quality assurance and tells you virtually everything you need to know about your fabric’s ability to last through years and years of wear and tear.

The Martindale rub test subjects the fabric in question to thousands and thousands of ‘rubs’ from a special machine, which generally uses a gently abrasive substance like wool or wire mesh. The machine will rub the fabric in spurts of 5,000 and, at the first sign of wear, the test is stopped and the ‘rub count’ – or, in other words, how many rubs the fabric withstood before showing signs of damage – is recorded.

It’s a clever way of condensing hundreds of separate uses into a single test (meaning it doesn’t take decades to determine the fabric’s rub count.

Generally, any fabric that scores below 10,000 will be considered far too fragile for anything but decorative use, while fabrics with a rub count between 10,000 and 20,000 will be a little more useable (though still not robust enough for upholstery). 20,000+ is fine for furniture throughout the home, although it’s worth considering how much use the piece will see, and whether you ought to go for a higher rub count.

Our Trevira CS performance fabrics have a Martindale rub count of approximately 40,000, making them an incredibly durable, heavy-duty option for the home, garden (or even public/commercial spaces). 40,000 rubs equates to years and years’ worth of use, which makes them a strong investment for the garden.

Performance Fabrics and the Environment

At Penny Morrison, a big part of who we are stems from our concern for the environment, and our passion for prioritising sustainability and eco-friendliness over quick, cheap manufacturing. Our decision to use Trevira CS in our performance fabrics is, of course, a part of that philosophy.

Some cheaper performance fabrics are made using synthetic components, like polyester and Lycra, to create an effective, waterproof finish and durable weave, but these leave a not insignificant mark on the environment during production.

Our Trevira CS fabrics carry all of the properties listed above, in addition to containing no environmentally harmful coating or finishing. They are also quick to wash at low temperatures, saving you water and energy in the process. Plus, being designed for water resistance, they’re quick to dry.

Around the Home

Performance fabrics needn’t feel uncomfortable to sit on. With the right choice, they can be just as welcoming, and feel just as high quality, as the rest of the fabrics you have dotted about the home. Variety and texture are two of the reasons why people will choose a selection of performance and non-performance fabrics, rather than sticking to just the one category, but there’s no reason why performance fabrics can’t be used in plenty of rooms around the home.

In many cases, they’ll prove to be strong choices.

  • The playroom
    We have put together a more comprehensive guide to choosing your fabrics for the playroom, and making sure you fill it with comfortable (but durable) textiles. Food and drink, paints and felt tip pens, sand and slime and plasticine, all take their toll on the soft furnishings, but performance fabrics are equipped to deal with the onslaught – and make cleaning up easier.
  • The bathroom
    Aside from the towels and flannels, the bathroom doesn’t see a great deal of fabric pass through its doors but, if you have the space, a chair by the bath never goes amiss – particularly if you’re still in the phase of leaning over the side of the bath, scrubbing behind small ears and between small toes.
    Steam and splashes will almost inevitably pose a problem to less durable fabrics, but performance fabrics are ideal here. 
  • The summerhouse
    When we mentioned ‘liminal spaces’, we focused primarily on the mudroom and entryway, where the muddy boots and wet coats tend to end up, and anyone dipping in and out of the garden will inevitably leave the most mess.
    The summerhouse is, however, another liminal space. Not quite indoors, not quite outdoors, it sees its fair share of shoes, outerwear, dust and leaves, and certainly stands to benefit from a more durable selection of soft furnishings.
  • The kitchen
    Where else in the home sees more hazards passing through than the kitchen? The chairs and benches at your breakfast table are subjected to several rounds of crumbs, spills, and fidgety diners a day, and being able to remove the slipcovers and put them on a quick wash whenever needed is a true lifeline.
  • Where the pets like to spend their time
    If there’s a bigger menace to your linens than the children, it’s the pets. It’s highly unlikely you’ll manage to instil in them the need to wipe their feet at the front door or chew their way through a dental stick with the utmost care, so it’s best practice to accommodate their less-than-polite ways with some clever fabric choices.
    Equipping their favourite spaces with performance fabrics is not akin to covering their favourite seat with a plastic sheet, and, for reasons of beauty and of comfort, you’ll both be grateful for that.
  • And, of course, the garden
    We won’t remind you of the importance of furnishing your garden with durable pieces, but we will direct you to our more comprehensive guide to furnishing the patio and creating a beautiful space in the great outdoors. Many people assume that they have to sacrifice style and comfort for longevity when fitting out their gardens, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Performance fabrics are a wonderful trick to keep up your sleeve. While they’re certainly not needed in every single room of the home, they are the ideal option for so many areas. There is nothing worse than redecorating a space and fearing that, in six months to a year, it will start to fade, stain, tear and look generally less-than, so knowing when (and how) to use this range of fabric is the perfect solution.

You can take a look at our full collection of Trevira CS performance fabrics here.

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