The power of textiles and accessories
When you walk into a room, your eyes may be drawn to a piece of furniture or to the view from a window, but the textiles and accessories (or lack thereof) in the space will also go a long way in determining how you feel about the room and its atmosphere. In this module, you will learn how designers choose the right accessories and soft furnishings. There is some overlap between the two, as some accessories are partially or wholly made of fabric.
What exactly are textiles?
The term “textile” refers to any item that is made entirely or mainly of fabric. The average home contains carpets, throws, rugs, tea towels, curtains and cushion covers – these are all examples of textiles. The texture and colour of textiles can make a big difference to the tone of a room. In Britain, mass-produced textiles were first made available during the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the roller printing machine and large-scale looms meant that factories could produce huge quantities of fabric every day. Prior to this paradigm shift, people had created their own textiles at home.
Natural fibres and their use in interior design
Before you learn how to select textiles and incorporate them into your designs, it is useful to acquire some background knowledge on how they are put together, how they are sourced and their key properties. All textiles are made up of fibres. Fibres fall into two key categories – natural and synthetic. Natural fibres are those harvested or extracted from plants, animals and minerals, which are all found within the natural environment. If you were to look at individual natural fibres, you would see that they are quite short. They are sometimes referred to as “staple fibres”. Silk is a notable exception, because these fibres are extremely long. Some silkworms can produce fibres up to 1,000 metres in length. The four most common sources of natural fibres are silk (harvested from silkworms), cotton (harvested from cotton plants), linen (harvested from flax plants) and wool (harvested from alpacas, sheep and other animals).
Once fibres have been harvested or manufactured, the next step is to turn them into textiles. This is a three-stage process. First, the fibres undergo a spinning process that turns them into yarn. You can see this for sale, usually in bundles, at most arts and crafts stores. They are then woven or knitted together, which turns them into a piece of usable fabric. Finally, a fabric is cut and finished. For example, it may be coated with a fire-resistant material to render it less flammable.
Cotton and linen are both renowned for their high absorbency, which makes them a good choice for summer clothing, table coverings, towels and tea towels. They are durable, can be draped easily and are available in a wide range of colours and textures. Most people prefer the feel of natural as opposed to synthetic fibres against their skin, so it is also a popular choice for bedding. The downside is that both these fibres are prone to creasing, particularly linen.
Silk and wool are both derived from animal sources and both are usually warm to the touch. Wool is often used in blankets and rugs, especially in colder months. It is durable and absorbent. It can be fine or coarse and knitted together in a number of ways, offering a wide variety of textures. Wool does not crease easily and so will retain its shape, even when subjected to daily wear and tear. Woollen carpets offer a good deal of underfoot warmth, even if they are difficult to clean. Wool requires a more careful approach to maintenance, compared with cotton and linen. It cannot usually be washed in a conventional washing machine and should be dry cleaned, in order to prevent shrinkage. Some people find it inconvenient to take their woollen textiles to the dry cleaners and prefer cotton or linen instead.
Fact: The UK produces over 20,000 tonnes of raw wool every year.
Source: British Wool
Silk has long been associated with luxury and the highest quality silks are expensive. It is generally used as a trim on accessories and other textiles, or as an ornamental drape. It is surprisingly durable, despite its delicate look and feel and does not crease easily. It has a distinctive sheen, which reflects light and creates a feeling of warmth. The main disadvantage of silk, aside from its cost, is that it requires dry cleaning to remove stains.
Synthetic fibres and their use in interior design
Synthetic fibres are created using chemical processes. They may be based on products found within the natural environment, but then undergo extensive manufacturing procedures that turn them into fabric. The four most common types are acrylic, nylon, polyester and viscose. All but viscose (which is based on petrochemicals or substances extracted from pine trees) are derived from naturally occurring products found in coal and oil.
Activity: The Textiles in your Home
(Time: 5-10 Minutes)
Choose a room in your home. Now make a list of all the textiles you see and use within that space. Are they made of natural or synthetic fibres? In each case, why do you think the manufacturers choose that particular fibre?
Polyester is sometimes used in bedding and drapes. It is unusual for designers to use fabrics made solely of polyester. Instead, it is often combined with cotton, to enhance the former’s durability and resistance to wrinkles. Fabrics made of polyester and cotton are sometimes called “polycottons” and are often cheaper than pure cotton blends. They can be washed at home and offer good stain resistance. This makes them a good choice for cushion covers, sofa covers and bedding. However, some people find polycotton to be significantly less breathable than cotton and that it feels noticeably harsher against their skin.
Viscose is often blended with other fabrics to make upholstery and can also be used to line curtains and other large swathes of fabric. It is popular for several reasons – it is softer than cotton, it holds dye well and it is more affordable than natural high-end fabrics. It can also be washed and ironed at home. However, it readily absorbs moisture to such an extent that its pattern and structure may suffer. It is best used as a component in woven fabrics. It also tends to crease.
Acrylic was originally created as a cheaper and more practical alternative to wool. It is less prone to shrinkage compared to natural fibres, it is warm and it offers a high degree of durability. This makes it a good option for rugs and soft furnishings that have to withstand a lot of wear and tear, such as carpets. When dyed, it retains its new colour. Acrylic-based textiles are a sensible choice in homes with children and pets, as they are stain-resistant and easy to care for. Acrylic/wool blends are also available. These represent a kind of compromise between the two fibres, because they are cheaper and easier to care for than wool.
Nylon is also highly durable. It has a somewhat silky finish, so is a more practical choice for people who like the appearance of silk, but are unwilling to spend a lot of money on silk fabrics. As is the case with acrylic fibres, it is usually used within a fabric blend rather than alone. It is easy to dye and can hold vivid colours. Nylon is also resistant to stains and, because it is breathable, is a sensible choice for textiles used in high-moisture environments. However, it often requires dry-cleaning.
Leather is not made from fibres, but it can play a key role in interior design. Leather is made from animal hide. The main advantage of leather is that it can last for many years without showing signs of wear and tear. Furthermore, even when it does begin to age, the slightly worn and crackled effect that results is often considered aesthetically pleasing. Leather is resistant to tearing and modern varieties are especially unlikely to peel. It does not require washing in a machine and it cannot be dry cleaned. Instead, most stains and marks can be removed with mild soap and water. Leather can also be “worn in”, meaning that it becomes more comfortable over time. For example, a leather sofa may have a stiff feel when first purchased, but within a couple of years will feel much softer. Leather can feel cool on hot days and warm during the winter. It has the unique ability to adjust to a person’s body temperature. It has many uses – it can be used in the manufacture of sofas, cushions, rugs, upholstery for chairs, headboards and even wall coverings. It can also be dyed.
However, leather is not without its drawbacks. It tends to be significantly more expensive that other materials. If large pieces of leather furniture are beyond the reach of a client’s budget, choosing smaller items such as a footstool allows you to make use of this aesthetic without spending too much money. It is associated with masculine interiors, which may be off-putting for clients who are looking to create a neutral or feminine space. One solution is to dye the leather a more acceptable colour, or to balance the look with “softer” accessories. Another disadvantage of leather is that it is a by-product of the meat and dairy industries, so some clients will reject it on this basis. For those who have ethical objections to the use of leather, faux leather furnishings are available. High-quality faux leather looks much like real leather, although it may have an artificial smell. It is durable, easy to clean and is easier to work with – it can be purchased by the metre, whereas real leather is purchased hide by hide.
What should you remember when selecting textiles?
To ensure that you choose the right textiles for a space, think about the following:-
How durable does the textile need to be? If they are to be used in a high-traffic area, or children and pets use the space on a regular basis, the fabrics you choose will need to be relatively durable and easy to clean.
Is the client looking for a formal look, a casual look, or somewhere in between? Traditional “heavy” fabrics and those associated with luxury are more appropriate for formal settings, whereas linen and other lighter fabrics create a more informal feel. With experience, you will also learn how to mix fabrics together to create a mood that falls somewhere in between.
Does the client want a uniform appearance, or a more eclectic interior? Keep colours, weights and patterns similar, if a client wants a soothing, neutral space. If they want to make a bolder statement, use contrasting colours and textures. However, be careful not to mix too many disparate textiles together, as the end result may look messy or amateurish.
Are you looking to add texture and visual interest via colour and pattern? Patterns can add a new dimension to a space and colours have an effect on the room’s mood. Use your knowledge of colour psychology, to select the most appropriate fabric colours and dyes.
How will the fabric interact with the light in the room? Lighter fabrics reflect light, whereas darker varieties absorb it. When placing textiles in a space, think about how they will interact with both natural and artificial light sources. Refer back to the module on using light as a design element, to refresh your memory.
Activity: Assessing the Practicality of Textiles
(Time: 5-10 Minutes)
Imagine that you are working for a client who tells you that they love the look and feel of silk and want to incorporate it into their sitting room décor. The client has two young children living at home. How would you integrate silk into this space?
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