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What is a Performance Fabric?

by Nick, Digital Specialist | March 6, 2021

Lots of furniture stores advertise that a couch has a "performance" fabric- but what does that mean? Are they all the same? What sort of performance can I expect from it?

There are many different reasons why a customer might choose a certain sofa over another, as well as certain things that one sofa might have that another may not. In salesperson lingo, these are called features and benefits- “features” that a certain piece might contain, and the resulting “benefits” for the customer. One of the most popular features that gets thrown around a lot is the performance fabric. Sounds great, right? Let’s dig deeper!

What is It?
Broadly speaking, a performance fabric is any fabric that performs better when it comes to spills and stains. They are supposed to be easy to clean, and should withstand the wear and tear from everyday life. In many cases, they are also resistant to color fading. Performance fabrics are designed to last longer and keep your new sofa looking new for as long as possible.

While this sounds great from an advertising standpoint, not all performance fabrics are created equal. There isn’t any standard by which a certain fabric can be classified as a “performance” fabric- it’s really just an umbrella term for a fabric that meets some or all of the qualities listed above.

Many years ago, fabrics could be protected from stains by using a spray-on product. Some people have called the safety of these products into question, so modern performance fabrics use threads that have natural traits to make them “performance”. In order to really find out how effective it will be against spills and stains, it’s best to dig into the content of the fabric- you can usually find this on the fabric label, but you can always ask your salesperson to track down that information as well.

What Different Types Are There?
- Olefin/Polypropylene: This is a synthetic fiber with a variety of uses, including furniture upholstery and rugs. It is valued for its stain resistance, strength, and ability to hold its color (also known as colorfastness). It is also resistant to moisture, mildew, and sunlight, making it a true performance fabric. The composition of the thread used to make this material makes it inherently resistant to stains, and also make it easily washable. It is upcycled as a part of petroleum production, making a better choice for the environment. It may have a bit of a rougher, woven texture as well as a hint of a sheen, but it is one of the best choices for performance.

- Polyester: Polyester fabrics may have gotten a bad rap from those shiny suits in Saturday Night Fever, but it’s a good choice as a performance fabric. It does not exhibit all the performance traits of something like olefin, but is usually softer to the touch, making it a good compromise for someone who wants some aspects of a performance fabric without sacrificing the “hand” of the fabric. Polyester is very durable and resists stretching and shrinking, but will not perform as well with stains as some other fabrics.

- Sunbrella: this is a trademarked acrylic fabric that is renowned for its strength and durability. They are inherently UV, water, mildew, and stain resistant, making it a great choice if you’re concerned about performance- after all, you’ll find Sunbrella fabrics on many types of outdoor furniture. It is very easy to clean. One of the biggest advantages with Sunbrella is how it’s colored- it is dyed all the way through the yarn, which means there is no chance for it to fade. The biggest issue with Sunbrella is its weight. Because the fabric is so heavy, it can sometimes pull itself apart, resulting in seam separation issues.

- Pleather, PVC, and Vinyl: No, we aren’t talking about the old discs you used to play music. All three of these materials are basically the same thing- they are tough, durable fabrics that are often used as a substitute (or along with) leather. However, unlike leather, they do not break in and get softer over time. It is very easy to wipe up spills and stains on these fabrics, but it tends to be stiff and rigid.

Long story short: if you see something advertised as a “performance” fabric, do a little more digging to see if will perform to your expectations!