A client recently asked me to perform a decorating near-miracle: She wanted enough seating in her small New York apartment living room to accommodate her three 20-something kids, herself and her husband, all at the same time. The seating had to meet what I call the ABCs of upholstery: It had to be affordable, blemish-resistant and comfortable. (Unfortunately for her, it had to be custom, too.) My solution was to create a sectional that would maximize the space and be appropriately proportioned to suit the long legs of her two very tall sons and husband. To further ensure that the piece would be comfortable, I specified down-wrapped foam cushions that allow one to sink in but don’t require constant fluffing the way all-down cushions do.
With size and shape agreed upon, the real test came when we considered possible fabrics. The client wanted something cozy and luxurious — think mohair or velvet — but much of what we looked at was either price-prohibitive (over $120 per yard) or too fragile. She winced when I suggested using an outdoor fabric for fear that the sectional would feel plastic-y, like the vinyl covering often found in diner booths or on restaurant bar stools. I assured her this wasn’t the case, especially given the wide variety and superior quality of outdoor fabrics currently on the market.
So you can imagine her surprise when I showed up at our next meeting with a selection of soft, textural fabrics in one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other. First I had her feel the fabrics. She was impressed. Then I had her watch while I dripped red wine onto each sample. To her amazement, the wine beaded off the fabric, the way water does when dropped in a hot frying pan. She was convinced. These were fabrics that could not only withstand potential frat boy abuse, but also would look and feel rich enough to grace her living room. The client ended up selecting Across the Horizon from Holly Hunt’s Great Outdoors Collection (www.hollyhunt.com, available through designers only) which feels so strikingly un-outdoorsy that even my very experienced upholsterer called after receiving the bolt of fabric to ask me what the content was (he guessed that it was a cashmere-wool blend — how wrong he was!).
The fabric, like most outdoor fabrics, is made from solution-dyed acrylic. Most fabrics start out as colorless fibers that are woven into yarn and then dyed. Solution-dyed acrylic is dyed before the yarn is ever created. A liquid acrylic solution is mixed with dye and then formed into a fiber and spun into yarn. This process creates a superhero-like product that is not only soft to the touch, but also colorfast and water-resistant.
I am one of many designers who have turned to these high-performance outdoor fabrics for indoor use. It makes sense, given that our homes have become more casual and our rooms more multifunctional. We need fabrics that can withstand the diverse demands of kids, pets and entertaining.
Fortunately for all of us, there are an ever-increasing number of solution-dyed fabric styles, colors and textures to choose from. Just recently, Ralph Lauren Home launched its new Harbor Club Outdoorcollection, which consists of preppy solids and stripes that were inspired by classic beach clubs and lakeside resorts. One can easily envision using them in a kids’ bedroom (a great choice for upholstered headboards) or playroom (www.ralphlaurenhome.com, from $90 per yard). Other favorite collections of mine, besides Holly Hunt (my first choice for neutral upholstery), are the cheery graphic prints and floral designs of Link Outdoor and the versatile stripes, solids, neutrals, prints and patterns from Perennials, both of which are available only through designers.
But for the at-home DIYer, there are affordable online retail sources. Check out the outdoor fabric section at Ballard Designs (www.ballarddesigns.com) and www.outdoorfabrics.com, which stocks the Sunbrella fabrics many people are familiar with. Locally, Calico Corners (www.calicocorners.com) and Joann Fabric and Craft Stores (www.joann.com) also have affordable options. Before you order yardage, however, make sure you check the fabric content; some more affordable designs are 100 percent polyester, which will have a very different feel from the solution-dyed acrylics. Polyester fabrics range between $20 and $30 a yard, whereas solution-dyed fabrics will run you $30 to $60 a yard (or more at high-end retailers).
When caring for your outdoor fabric indoors, use natural soap and lukewarm water, sponge spots briskly, rinse with clean water to remove dirt, then air-dry. I have also used Formula 409 and Mrs. Meyer’s All-Purpose Cleaner with great success. Just make sure you don’t overspray the spot and that you rinse it fully with clean water.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”
Chat Thursday at 11 a.m.: Angela Belt of Room and Board joins staff writer Jura Koncius for our weekly online Q&A on decorating and household advice. Submit questions at washingtonpost.com/home.
At Home newsletter Go to the Home & Garden page to subscribe to our e-mail newsletter, delivered every Thursday.