Although fabric and textiles may not be top of mind like furniture, lighting and other integral design elements in commercial foodservice, they are impactful to the overall ambience.

Fabric and textiles can be incorporated in many different aspects of the design, and operators can take a layered approach throughout the space with these materials to enhance the guest experience.

The most obvious incorporation of fabric and textiles is in seating, table coverings and window treatments. However, fabrics also can be used in other facets of the design such as panels around the bar, delineating spaces as room dividers, aiding in noise control as an aspect of acoustical components, offering a visual element as part of art installations and as a light diffuser.

Common Materials

There are a number of materials designated for use in commercial foodservice. These tend to be durable, easy to clean, with good color stability and minimal off gassing (when volatile organic compounds or VOCs are released into the air).

Woven upholstery, made of synthetic fibers or a mix of both synthetic and natural material, includes nylon, polyester, wool, olefin and acrylic for commercial use. Leather, whether faux, bonded or genuine, is nonwoven.

Vinyl is most often used for covering chairs and booth seating because it is easily cleaned and stands up to heavy use. This is an affordable choice that is also popular with outdoor seating areas, but operators should note the service life is shorter than other fabrics. Acrylic blends are another option that performs well in high-traffic situations but the material’s cleanability is not at the level of vinyl.

Due to extensive research and new technology, fabric and textile choices have expanded in recent years. One innovation is silica, a material made from sodium silicate or water glass. This more costly vinyl alternative is durable and sustainable with minimal VOCs. With silica’s silicone coating, these fabrics clean easily with bleach.

Polyurethane fabrics are also popular with seating, as these are easily cleaned and don’t absorb spills.

For higher end dining, mohair, wool and leather materials are more costly, yet enhance the design and appeal of a space. However, unlike vinyl, silica and polyurethane, these options may not be as easy to maintain and clean.

Purchasing Considerations

When choosing fabric for foodservice spaces, durability and cleanability are key. Although visual appeal is dependent on the type of operation — fine dining versus quick service, for example — all must hold up under high-traffic conditions and maintain its appearance after cleaning. Draperies also should be wipeable and/or machine washable, although these fabrics won’t need to meet the same durability requirements as textiles intended for seating areas.

Woven fabric is a popular choice for its appearance, despite not being as easily cleaned as coated alternatives. For these materials, it is recommended a stain and moisture protective finish be added if it doesn’t come standard. This will prevent moisture from penetrating the fabric and facilitate easier cleaning and maintenance. It may be worth testing the feel and aesthetic of treated woven materials prior to purchasing, which ensures the integrity of the fabric remains intact.

Resilience under frequent and high-volume use is a requirement for materials used in foodservice environments. The Wyzenbeek test measures a fabric’s abrasion resistance and is used to assess durability. This machine works by rubbing an abrading material, such as a cotton duck fabric, back and forth across a test fabric. This motion, referred to as a double rub, is performed until the test fabric experiences noticeable wear. Experts recommend a minimum of 50,000 double rubs, although 35,000 is typically required by codes. The majority of commercial fabrics today measure 100,000 double rubs with this test.

There may be fabric requirements based on local codes. For example, antimicrobial materials can be specified for healthcare environments and hotels could be mandated to adhere to nonflammability materials. Commercial fabric also must adhere to local fire and safety codes. Fire retardant fabric may cost more but adds a vital measure of safety to the establishment.

Along with offering high performance, functionality and cleanability, comfort and appearance also should be factored in when choosing fabrics for the front of house.

With today’s supply chain challenges, it’s important to ensure fabrics and textiles are in stock or easily obtained
to meet necessary deadlines. If longer lead times are an issue, it may be necessary to seek a similar fabric that is more accessible.

Appearance, including colors, designs and textures, also comes into play. For a more luxurious aesthetic, designers recommend going with a neutral palette with pops of color and using texture to enhance the overall design.

For operators seeking functionality with textiles, acoustic drapery can be implemented to soften spaces, separate areas and reduce noise. Upholstered-covered panels also can be installed for the same purposes and add an artistic element to the design.

During COVID, many restaurants invested in outdoor spaces, where fabric performance is even more critical. For these materials, appearance, performance and cleanability are main considerations, along with UV, mildew and water resistance.

Residential-grade fabrics should never be used in commercial foodservice operations, as these won’t meet code requirements. In recent years, it has become easier to reproduce prints from different textile types, even those designated for home use. Even silk designs can be replicated on polyester faux silk materials.

Budgets also need to be adhered to. When looking at price, it’s prudent to spend more per yard upfront for a material that will last longer as opposed to recovering chairs and booths more frequently.

Design Trends

With fabric and textiles, design trends are dependent on the project. The operation’s brand and actual space typically dictate the look and feel of what’s chosen. When it comes to visual effects using colors and patterns on fabric, there are no rules. It’s about taking the right approach for the brand, while staying current.

In terms of material popularity, though vinyl for seating is most common, woven textile, polyurethane and leather are trending.

When choosing solids, a neutral background with colorful accents and prints is on trend. There also are florals, toiles and art deco designs with graphic patterns used in tone-on-tone effects.

Looking at color trends, bright orange is on the wane but red/orange has recently become more popular. Trending neutrals include warmer grays, taupe and walnut, along with a sophisticated beige and tan. For stronger colors, a rich green or deep blue with a touch of green in the background are prevalent trends. Calming hues, like greens and blues that bring the outside in, also have become more common.

When a large-scale pattern is cut and applied to all chairs, it creates a different look; the same is true when this is applied to the back of a booth. These designs can serve as an art piece and can be mixed and matched to create a unique design.

Incorporating fabrics unconventionally has become more common. For example, including a textured vinyl panel band as a bar front that has a leather look creates a distinctive appearance. Also, framing windows with a soft fabric to bring added attention and as a design statement works well.

Sustainability has become an initiative for many operations, and operators can incorporate fabrics that can be recycled or those with longer life spans to meet these goals. Environmentally-friendly recycled leather is trending but has a higher price point.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Each fabric will have different cleanability requirements, so operators should check the specification sheet and with manufacturers for specifics.

While some materials are cleanable with bleach, others require wiping with a dry cloth, soap and water, or sometimes with a soft brush to get into cracks and crevices. In some cases, rubbing alcohol can be used to get rid of stains, depending on the material. Keep in mind that table cleaning and sanitizing solutions can be damaging to some fabrics.

More delicate fabrics like silk are difficult to clean and maintain, but other natural choices like wool and mohair
offer easier maintenance.

Nowadays, commercial fabrics usually have a stain resistant coating in some form. Because this is not standard with all materials, it’s important to ask about availability and type prior to acquiring the fabric.

Fabric finishes that add durability, cleanability and help increase service life include Crypton, Nanotex, Silica, INCASE, GreenGuard and any type that is soil and moisture resistant.

It is important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and maintenance. Using the wrong cleaning products will impact the fabric’s warranty and service life.