Better living through chemistry has hit a bump in the road, and seat covers everywhere are about to get sloshed with something likely to leave a stain.
3M said recently it would phase out some of its most popular Scotchgard stain and soil repellents. For nearly half a century, the products have protected virtually every textile in our homes: upholstery, carpets, curtains, not to mention clothes.
Applied during manufacturing at the store or at home, Scotchgard products have helped keep red wine from sinking into your pastel sofa and mud from permanently staining your white rug.
The Scotchgard withdrawal was prompted by concerns about perfluorooctanyl sulfonate, or PFOS, a chemical compound used in the products that does not decompose in the environment or the bloodstream. Some brands of fabric protectors, including Guardsman from Lilly Industries and Teflon textile and carpet protectors made by DuPont, don't contain PFOS, according to their manufacturers. But the Environmental Protection Agency is looking at the entire industry here and abroad.
So now what? We asked some experts for advice on choosing fabrics that can withstand the stains and grime of everyday life. Performance is a matter of several factors, they say: fiber content, pattern, color and weave.
Basically, there are two types of textiles: natural and synthetic.
"In a Scotchgardless world, synthetic fibers are probably better," says David Brookstein, dean of the School of Textiles and Materials Technology at Philadelphia University. Stain protection is built right into the structure of many synthetics, he says. And some synthetics are better than others. Fabric containing polyester, for example, is more stain resistant than nylon.
But if you're looking for a totally stain-proof fiber, he says, "there's only one: polypropylene." Until now, it's been used mostly for casual and outdoor furniture "because it doesn't look as luxurious as cotton and silk." A fabric-content label should indicate if polypropylene is present in the fabric.
Posh Ultrasuede, a petroleum-based product that seems fragile, can actually stand up to stains and dirt. Washington designer Todd Davis of Brown Davis says it can even be cleaned in the washing machine. "Ink washes off," he says. "And a rep told us that you can restore the nap with sandpaper."
For high-traffic households, Davis says he often recommends fabrics with finishes and synthetic fibers intended for commercial areas like offices and airports.
Synthetics are getting stronger--and better looking--all the time, as shown by a host of examples unveiled recently at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in Manhattan. The Parsons School of Design in New York is working with Solutia, a specialty chemicals company, to develop high-performance fabrics for home furnishings. Christine Whittemore of Solutia says, "It's a big world out there that will benefit from man-made fibers with built-in stain resistance."
Woo, an Anglo-American textile design collaborative also shown at the furniture fair, introduced stain-proof polyester drapery sheers incorporating gossamer aluminum threads. And DesignTex, the fabric division of Steelcase, introduced "Presto Change-O!," a polyurethane and polyester fabric for the commercial market. It looks like iridescent satin but is billed as strong enough to withstand 80,000 rubs with a wire brush. That should get off a lot of chocolate.
Whatever the drawbacks, designers tend to like natural fibers, especially silk, cotton, linen and fine wools. Among these, Brookstein says, cotton is most vulnerable to spots. "It absorbs both oil and water-based stains, which is also why it's so easy to clean," he says. This would include nubby fabrics like chenille, especially when they're cotton based. "Chenille is very popular, but the loose weave makes it easy for stains to penetrate."
Of all the natural fibers, says Brookstein, the most stain resistant is wool because it contains lanolin, a natural oil that repels liquids.
Christopher Myers of Christopher's, a high-end fabric protection and cleaning service in Merrifield, Va., works with a lot of designers. He says one virtue of naturals is their predictability. "You know how cotton and wool will react to cleaning. You can't say that about every synthetic. Sheep have been around for thousands of years."
Washington interior designer Victor Shargai agrees. "Nothing cleans better than wool."
Whether you choose natural or synthetic, designers had down-to-earth advice for selecting fabrics that can take stain and dirt.
"Look for a fabulous pattern so busy you will never see the stain, like a design that looks a bit like an Oriental rug," says Shargai. And quilting can be the answer for plain fabrics like sailcloth and soft cotton, Shargai says. "It creates a ripple or pucker effect that casts a shadow."
As for color: "Pale colors like yellow and peach attract dirt," says Shargai. "Medium tones--say tobacco, especially if mottled--are always better."
Washington interior designer Thomas Pheasant, well-known for his serene white interiors, says, "Solid colors, dark ones as well as light, are the most unforgiving because there's nowhere to hide, especially if the stain is oil-based, like tomato sauce or chocolate, and leaves a ring."
Pheasant adds that "anything with a texture" is better than fabric with a luster. Two-tone, textured upholstery fabrics with a tight weave and subtle ribbing are good choices. One he mentioned is Donghia's Loop de Loop in deep blue or olive green.
Doni Kanka of Decorating Den in North Arlington and McLean says multicolored ethnic patterns are particularly good at hiding stains and dirt. "I design for young families and babies that have sticky fingers," she says.
Elizabeth Panzarella, a sales associate with Calico Corners in Springfield, Va., swears by quilted cotton matelasse, even when it's white. "I used it for my family room slipcovers," she says. "You just throw it into the washing machine."
Panzarella is on to something here. Until the perfect fabric protection comes along, says Decorating Den's Jan Bertin of Alexandria, Va., the current concern about fabric protectors "may mean a boon for slipcovers."