Gina Wicker scoffs at the notion that her mother called the place in their house with the sofa the “living” room. “We were never allowed to go in there,” she says. “It was off-limits to the kids.” Today’s living rooms justify the name, thanks to the transition of outdoor fabrics to interior aesthetics.
“I think some people, when they hear ‘outdoor fabrics,’ think ‘stiff,’ ‘boardy,’ ‘plasticky.’ They tend to think of fabrics they might have found on outdoor furniture 10 to 15 years ago,” says Jeff Jimison, vice president of sales and marketing for Shuford Mills of Hudson, N.C. Now, “performance” fabrics such as Shuford’s Outdura® are woven just like indoor fabrics, with finishing techniques that create softness and draping. “You really can’t tell the difference,” Jimison says, “between the indoor and outdoor fabric”—except that “outdoor” fabrics are fade-, moisture- and stain-resistant and are easy to clean.
Outdoor fabrics make cleaning furniture easy
“We only use solution-dyed acrylic fibers; the color is locked in, so it can’t be bleached out,” Jimison says, adding that bleaching is rarely necessary. “Even acetone can be used as a cleaning agent without damaging the fabric. We put a water- and additional stain-resistant finish on the fabric, so it repels spills—water, orange juice, wine—those things that normally terrorize people when they get spilled on their sofas.”
Even high-end furniture makers and upholsterers are jumping aboard. “People can spend $12,000 for a sofa and it’s not cleanable,” notes Wicker, design director of Glen Raven Inc., which manufactures solution-died acrylic Sunbrella® in North Carolina. “I think as Sunbrella becomes more prevalent in that market, [furniture makers] are saying, ‘You know, it makes perfect sense if we make that sofa in Sunbrella.’
“Customers are finally understanding our story,” Wicker continues. “It has taken a long, long time with interior designers. Every time we are at [a trade] event, about 50 percent of the designers there have never seen velvet, window treatments and decorative products [made with performance fabrics].”
Expanding and enhancing performance fabric products
Since its debut in 1961, Sunbrella has become well known and respected in boating and coastal communities, where awnings and cushions must withstand the rigors of the sunny, wet and active marine environment. More recently, the fabric sells particularly well in residential areas of the Midwest and New England states. Wicker attributes that development to “the trend toward atrium windows and open floor plans where a lot of light is allowed to penetrate into the house.” In Florida and California, where strong UV rays often pass through glass walls, fade resistance is a key selling point, but that alone doesn’t address the “living” room issue.
“We really sell the story to the customer on cleanability,” Wicker says. Sunbrella warranties its fabric to the worst-case scenario: “three years outside in Phoenix, Arizona. It will last really longer than you want it to in some cases.”
Since developing proprietary pigment technology with Monsanto years ago, Glen Raven has used advancing technology to tap into the interior market in the last few years. “We have taken the same fabrics used in awnings and created chenille and bouclé yarns,” Wicker says. “We have changed our weaving construction to make the fabric less boardy.” Because faded detailing can make an otherwise quality piece of furniture look cheap, Glen Raven recommends upholsterers also use Sunbrella trims and thread that can withstand the elements, as well as bleach.
Shuford’s Outdura began as a line for the casual furniture industry in 2003. Now it comes in more than 1,200 colors and patterns. “We introduce 300 to 400 new styles [combinations of patterns and colors] every fall,” Jimison says. “We have a strong domestic business with traditional residential furniture manufacturers, and we have a growing international customer base. These fabrics are becoming very popular in Europe.”
“We are online right now looking for hot pink outdoor fabric,” says Sarah Hardy, manager of Michael’s Custom Built Inc., an upholsterer in San Rafael, Calif. Performance fabrics have become “a huge trend,” she says. “My collection has more than quadrupled in size.
“I think what happened partly is technology, because it used to be that [outdoor fabric] came in canvas and awning weight in limited colors,” Hardy says. “They came up with a furniture weight that’s softer and more flexible. I have even gotten velvet.
“If I have somebody come in and they’ve got dogs or kids and they can take [the furniture] out and hose if off, that’s pretty major … as opposed to something that’s ‘don’t spill on it; don’t eat around it.’”
Comparing costs of outdoor and indoor fabrics
Although Hardy caters to a high-end clientele in the San Francisco area, she cautions that performance fabrics sometimes cost too much when customers weigh their options. “I have gotten over $100, even close to $200 a yard, so some people will turn back because of the price,” she says.
However, Jimison says performance fabrics are no different from other fabrics when it comes to a range of price points. There are indoor-only fabrics also in the $100 to $200 range. And Wicker notes that furniture manufacturers are recognizing economic value beyond the longevity factor of performance fabrics. For the past few years, she says, they have been buying inexpensive fabric from China, but have to buy more at a time, which results in warehousing expenses, and have been disappointed in quality.
“Several manufacturers have done surveys on whether people would pay a couple hundred dollars more for a sofa with Sunbrella than silk, cotton or linen,” Wicker says. “Overwhelmingly, results show people are willing to pay extra [for furniture that lasts longer].”
Design plays important role in performance fabrics
Consumers aren’t just looking for performance fabrics that have the right look and feel for interior applications. The growth of “outdoor living rooms” has further spurred a focus on designs that create a seamless transition between the indoors and out.
“People don’t want to sit on some outdoor fabric,” says Lance Keziah, executive vice president of fabric sales for Crypton Super Fabrics of West Bloomfield, Mich., which manufacturers In & Out at its North Carolina plant. “There are beautiful fabrics out there, and the hand of the fabrics is such that you don’t know they’re performance fabrics anymore.”
In business for 15 years, Crypton, which also makes dog beds and has partnered with William Wegman and Michael Graves for designs, holds 14 patents on technology and introduced In & Out two years ago. The 200-SKU line includes polyester, solution-died acrylic and polypropylene.
“Every yard of fabric we make is highly cleanable, stain resistant, resistant to mold and mildew and has an integrated moisture barrier,” Keziah says, adding that In & Out is approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as disinfectable and the company has garnered independent certifications for making green products through a green chemical process.
While sunrooms, family rooms and dining rooms comprise the largest segment of the market, performance fabrics are even working their way into bedrooms (especially for children, for obvious reasons) and for window treatments. And manufacturers continue to tap into new applications. Glen Raven, for example, has a line of 118-inch-wide sheers, and Crypton is working on wall-covering applications.
“This is a segment of our business that is rapidly growing, and we are spending a lot of attention and money on the In & Out portion of our business,” Keziah says.
So let the kids be kids, the dogs be dogs, and the living room be the “living” room.
Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.