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Going into a drapery and upholstery shop can be a bit intimidating when you want to look at fabric samples. There are hundreds of books, each with dozens of choices to consider. The store’s designer is a valuable resource when considering what fabric to use for your project. Once you begin looking, you’ll notice all kinds of codes on the back of each sample. These codes have important information about the design, fabric construction and use, its durability, other factors that relate to how long the fabric will look good, and how to clean the fabric. Let’s look at the information that specifically relates to design.

Drapery Fabric Repeats

Fabrics with a pattern, whether woven, printed, or embroidered, will have a single pattern that repeats over and over to make the overall design. Except for plain fabrics, each fabric sample will have a “repeat” listed on it. Stripes will have either a vertical or horizontal repeat; anything else will have both. Consider any point on the fabric—let’s say it’s the tip of a leaf. This exact same leaf design occurs multiple times on the fabric. The horizontal repeat is how far you have to move left or right to come to the tip of the matching leaf in the next design over. The vertical repeat is how far you have to move up or down to come to the tip of the same leaf. The larger the pattern, the more fabric you will need to place the pattern correctly for your drapery or upholstery project.

For small pattern repeats, you can usually see the full design on the sample in the fabric book. The books aren’t big enough to do this for large patterns. To help you see what the whole pattern looks like, look for a photo of it on the back of the fabric sample or in the back of the book. Most drapery and upholstery fabric companies also show their fabrics online, though it’s hard to tell if the colors you see are correct. If you still aren’t sure, ask your designer to order a sample before you buy.

By the way, if you are calculating your yardage yourself, you’ll also want to pay attention to the fabric’s width, also listed on the label.

Railroaded Drapery and Upholstery Fabrics

Drapery and upholstery fabrics are sometimes listed as “up the roll” or “railroaded.” This can be an important factor when determining it’s best use.

Let’s say you have a stripe pattern that you want to use for a curtain. If the window is tall and narrow, you likely can use one piece of fabric for each curtain panel. Generally, stripes are woven “up the roll,” meaning that as you unroll the fabric, the visible stripes get longer and longer. If you unroll the fabric and cut each piece long enough to allow for top and bottom finishes, you will have no seams in your drapery panels.

window draperies fabric choices

The “railroaded” tag on this fabric makes it suitable for use on a wide valance or cushion. Because it is railroaded, the stripes on the finished piece will go up and down, with no seams visible on the face of the valance or cushion.

But what do you do when you want the stripes to be horizontal? You could turn the fabric, but then you will have to sew pieces together to get enough length, generally not very attractive for a drapery. The alternative is to look for fabric that is “railroaded,” which means the stripes were woven in horizontally. When you unroll the fabric, you’ll see more and more horizontal stripes as you go. If you use a little imagination, it looks like those wooden ties holding a railroad track in place.

Fabric railroading is not just for stripes. Patterns, especially printed ones, can be railroaded, too. In addition to curtains, railroaded fabric is good when you want to cover a long window seat cushion or couch. You can avoid seams and still have the top of the pattern be at the back or top of the cushion so it looks right.

Upholstery Fabric Colorways

Sometimes, when a drapery or upholstery pattern is available in more than one color, the fabric label will tell you how many choices there are. Look in the same sample book for other choices, or sometimes the label will list other sample books in which the pattern can be found. You may have to go online to see all the colors.

Curtain Fabrics Can be Reversible

Sometimes, but not often, either side of a drapery or upholstery fabric can be used. These fabrics are nice when the reverse side will show, though it usually looks different from the front. Even if you’ll never see the other side, you might choose a reversible fabric if you like the pattern that’s displayed on the back in the sample book. The correct side is the one you like!

Enlist a designer to help interpret those repeats and railroading,
and to help you find the right fabrics for your project.

sheer fabric for window treatments

The supplier of this sheer fabric chose to put additional information about how the finished product might look.

If you want more information on custom draperies or blinds or any of the other ideas here, contact Kim for your free in-home consultation – 513-398-5798 or email

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