A quick check of outdoor living catalogues and stores confirms that solid colors and awning stripes dominate the world of outdoor fabrics at the retail level.
But a revolution is underway among makers of wholesale or "to the trade" fabrics. Renowned manufacturers such as Stroheim & Romann, Scalamandre and Brunschwig & Fils are rolling out all-weather fabrics in refined patterns that would be more expected on silk jacquard. Indeed, some of the motifs came straight from popular indoor fabrics.
Scalamandre was one of the first fabric houses to launch an outdoor line. Its Island Cloth collection, released in 2000, features bold patterns such as green frogs leaping on a pink background, a riot of turtles, and a big plaid that reverses to a stripe. The biggest seller in that line, said design director Donna May Woods, is Neptune's Treasure, a stylized seashell motif.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that clients willing to pay $250 per yard for Neptune's Treasure printed on silk would snap it up at $79 per yard in acrylic. But the decision to add outdoor fabrics was difficult for the company. "They had a hard time with the idea of weaving and selling acrylic. It was anathema to them," Woods said.
The company has been "very surprised" at how successful the outdoor fabrics have been, Woods said. "So far, nothing has bombed."
The magic of woven acrylic lies in the way it is dyed in a liquid form before it is extruded. The fibers absorb the dye, so the color is an inherent part of the thread. That quality makes it amazingly resistant to fading.
Designers say fade-resistance varies somewhat among colors. But even the least fade-resistant colors (blues, greens and purples) can take five to seven years of sun before showing significant fading.
Meanwhile, because of stricter government guidelines about toxicity in dyes, indoor fabrics have become less and less sunproof.
"There's no more shabby fading," said Woods. "If you expose today's interior fabrics to the sun, the color vanishes completely."
The increased vulnerability of conventional fabrics to fading is causing a "crossover effect" -- the new, stylish outdoor fabrics are moving back indoors, , according to Vicki Enteen of Stroheim & Romann.
"So many homes, old and new, have large expanses of windows," said Enteen. "Lots of people have sunrooms or conservatories."
Stroheim & Romann's first outdoor collection, which launched three years ago, focused on "sophisticated neutral colors," Enteen said. But the newer Home & Patio II line features some bright colors, a large reversible polka dot and abstract florals.
In addition, Stroheim & Romann distribute fabrics by German maker JAB, which just introduced a 2005 Patio collection with patterns that mix and match.
"That's a growing area of the market," said Enteen.
Woods said she began thinking about outdoor designs 15 years ago because of a lack she perceived in the marketplace.
"People were buying these fabulously expensive fabrics for indoors, but there was only stuff available at the retail level for outdoors," she said. "As soon as you start seeing the price of outdoor grills and realize this is guy land, you know there won't be any balking at the price for what's on the chairs on the terrace."
For Laura Gendron of Plattsburg, Mo., the decision to have cushions for a porch swing made in Sunbrella fabric was more about practicality than high style. The pattern she chose is a fairly traditional awning stripe, but she wanted the durability and clean lines of a custom-made box cushion filled with good-quality foam.
"In 1990, I had some outdoor cushions made with Sunbrella when they only made awning fabric. It has worn like iron," Gendron said. When she returned to Kansas City Upholstery, which had done the cushions, to choose fabric for the swing, she saw how much Sunbrella had changed.
"They looked like they were for inside," she said. "They come in really bright colors and feel like cotton. They're a lot more comfortable to sit on."
Even though the swing cost only $100, Gendron didn't mind spending around $475 for a box cushion and a round accent pillow.
"I know it will last forever," she said. "The ones from [some retail stores] are filled with fluffy stuff that shifts and gets lumpy, and the fabric fades and the seams fall apart. Some people keep buying new cushions each year. I'd rather buy one and have it last."