Searching for non-toxic upholstery fabrics

December 09, 2022

Searching for non-toxic upholstery fabrics

For any consumer who has tried to find a broad selection of untreated natural fiber upholstery fabrics, it just is not easy.  There are to-the-trade-only upholstery fabrics in all wool, silk and linen that cost $300+ dollars per yard. They do not show up organically in Google searches either since they are meant for interior designers and architects to purchase only. It is very difficult to determine if they have been treated topically or the dye class that is used.

There are plenty of blends of natural and synthetic with the greater fiber content being synthetic and a token percentage in natural fibers. This is far more common since synthetics are less expensive than natural fibers. Even if a weaver or textile converter that sells through retail channels names a pattern 'Linen Slub', it is still likely to be a 100% polyester or a synthetic performance fabric or be composed of 10% flax and 90% synthetic fibers.

I  recently listened to a podcast from Business of Home whose primary audience and followers are members of the architect and design community. The host, Dennis Scully, was interviewing Lori Weitzner, a very talented veteran textile, wallpaper and jewelry designer. Dennis asked halfway through the interview, "What is your opinion of performance fabrics"? 

Before I reveal her answer, I just want to share that performance fabrics, which are completely synthetic, have won over upholstery fabric manufacturers, upholstered furniture manufacturers, interior designers and consumers alike. They have improved in appearance and texture over the past 30 years and to an undiscerning eye, can look and feel just like a textured linen or wool boucle. However, they are very easy to clean and quite forgiving when treated poorly.

Most of the manufacturers of synthetic fiber performance fabrics pay to get the fabrics Greenguard Gold certified and this gives consumers who care about the purity a false sense of satisfaction that these fabrics are completely non-toxic. Crypton and Sunbrella fabrics are highly recognizable branded  performance fabrics that are completely synthetic and very popular.  Both are Greenguard Gold certified. Yet, many of their fabrics contained PFAS stain repellants until just recently when the the toxicity of PFAS became common knowledge and they had to reformulate the stain repellants to make them without PFAS. Stain repellants have had a  long history of reformulations that typically end in banning of a chemical in the reformulation once enough time has passed and studies have been conducted. We refer to these replacement chemicals as regrettable substitutes. Classes of flame retardant chemicals have had this same dubious history.

Now, back to Lori Weitzner's response about performance fabrics. Much to my delight and surprise, she advocated for natural fibers. Hooray! Lori has designed exquisite hand embroidered natural fiber fabrics and worked with small cooperatives around the world whose members execute her vision and bring these artisanal products to market, albeit to the trade.

Two Sisters Ecotextiles  (originally launched in 2007 as Oecotextiles) is the first company that brought elevated non-toxic and organic upholstery fabrics to the market with any success. They continue to be the premiere destination for higher end exclusively non-toxic home textiles.

Prior to their launch, companies such as Envirotextiles, Hemp Traders and Hemp Basic were importing hemp and and hemp blend textiles for apparel and home textiles into the U.S. from China and Romania.  They continue to do so and have experienced growth as consumers embrace natural, renewable and non-toxic textiles. They continue to focus on commodity cloths in basic colors. Envirotextiles was a pioneer in blending hemp and Tencel (under their Hempcel trademark) to produce upholstery fabrics with a soft hand. Envirotextiles is a business to business operation. Hemp basics and Hemp Traders will sell to consumers.

Foxrich Fibers introduced a line of  high quality colorgrown cotton (natural, green and brown) upholstery fabrics in the early 2000's that didn't garner much appeal among home textiles converters and retailers because organic seemed so mysterious, expensive  and  unattractive to them. All of the inventory was eventually sold to The Rug Barn and then they sold the remaining inventory of fabrics to High Seas Naturals in New Mexico. The owner of High Seas Naturals eventually retired and sold the remaining fabric that she had to Organic Cotton Plus and Freddy Farkel's Fabrics. (Freddy Farkel's advised  me that they still have inventory despite not showing it on the website. The founder of Freddy Farkel's Fabrics, Fred Shapiro, was the co-founder of Furniture, the first company to make non-toxic upholstered furniture since synthetics  began to be the norm.)

Dicey Fabrics (now defunct and absorbed into Valdese Weavers)  whose woven upholstery fabrics were sold to promotionally priced upholstered furniture manufacturers tried its hand at a yarn-dyed organic cotton upholstery fabric collection in 2007. Although the collection wasn't bad, it was greeted with the same flatline reception as previous organic cotton upholstery fabric collections.

Schumacher Terra came out with a truly beautiful line of woven organic cotton,linen,jute and bamboo upholstery fabrics and wall coverings around the same time. The collection name was By Nature. But, again, too early and not understood by the showroom employees.

Since these attempts, it appears that under the umbrella of sustainability, recycled polyester or rPet collections are more on trend, plentiful and in higher demand than actual non-toxic upholstery fabrics. While it is extremely important to keep as much trash that doesn't decompose or emit toxic fumes when burned out of landfills, these aren't environmentally or health friendly as they are made from petroleum. If we hadn't started producing so many products from synthetics then we wouldn't have so many of the environmental health issues that we do. The more that I read about plastic recycling, the more I start to feel as though it is a myth that the plastics industry bamboozled consumers  as opposed to something that  is routinely practiced.  It is beyond scary that microplastics are in water, fish, food and homes. 

I am asked on an ongoing basis why there isn't a greater variety of truly non-toxic upholstery fabrics. Despite growing knowledge by consumers about flame retardant foams in mattresses and sofas and PFAS in finishes on fabrics, not as much has been written about the other nasty components where the majority of adult consumers are getting their information. Digital platforms are most popular with people under 60 years old. However, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News aren't publishing articles about this topic.

It took a three part investigative award winning series by the Chicago Tribune to start to spread the level of awareness about chemical flame retardants in sofas because it was picked up by other popular periodicals. The information still is not common knowledge. 

Consumers can buy directly from Two Sisters Ecotextiles. We use them as our main upholstery fabric supplier. The prices aren't inexpensive, but they offer the most sophisticated  options.  If not too picky and on a tight  budget , as most people,  visit Hemp Basics, Hemp Traders or Organic Cotton Plus who sells Carr Textiles' GOTS certified organic cotton duck in many colorways. Wadzoodle is another website  that has some natural  and eco-friendly fabrics.  If you want a fun and creative printed fabric then you can try your hand at Spoonflower.  Spoonflower digitally prints patterns on demand that  are submitted by anyone using low impact pigments. There are many basecloth options including organic cotton and linen. You can print as little as one yard of fabric.   Give it a try.

In conclusion, I have seen very little growth in terms of options over the past 20 years other than the introduction of Two Sisters Ecotextiles. If one textile converter created a line of piece-dyed hemps or linens without harsh dyes and topical treatments  and sold it to a national fabric retailer, I think that it could be successful. I just don't imagine its happening soon when these companies are  feeding the demand for performance fabrics that can retail at under $25/Lyd. Synthetics will always be less expensive to produce.

 




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