Textiles guide

Textiles guide


From the history of textiles through to modern-day applications, we have embraced their use and are only limited by our imagination as to where they can take us.

living room designs 

Textiles surround our lives. They provide comfort, warmth, security and a visual feast for the eyes. We have come to expect them and the enrichment they provide. If we pause for a moment and imagine life without them, we come to the realisation it would be a life devoid of a significant factor that treats all our senses. 

Textile use provides us with a multitude of responses from our senses. Our eyes capture the light, texture and colour. Our touch experiences the fibres and texture. Our ears can hear the movement of fabric on the clothesline on a breezy day and our sense of scent takes in the heady aroma of freshly laundered linen. These various responses allow us to touch memories from times past or create new experiences.

The history of textiles and design is incredibly long and rich with a timeline extending back to Neolithic times, 12,000 years ago. Even before that time, the same principle was used to interlace branches and twigs to form protective fences, shelters and baskets. Once the practicality of interlacing these kinds of materials was understood, further experimentation with other natural materials probably produced the first basic fabrics and cloths. The basic desires during these times were the same as today, to cover and protect the body and home, a sign of status, to soften and provide comfort and as an art form or decoration.

Decorating with textiles comes back to a basic review of design fundamentals and a confirmation of what is aimed to be achieved by the use of them. Looking first at the actual textile, it can be broken into groups of texture, colour, and patterns and motifs. The definition of a textile refers to any material made from interlacing fibres.

Texture is the definition of surface attributes having either visual or physical variety. Soft velvet, coarse sisal fibre and colour alternation are a few examples. Cohesive use of texture creates harmony. However, mixing textures without context to one another challenges tradition and can create a contemporary ambience. Textures lose their visual variety when the viewer is further away, so small textures capitalise on visual interest without visually cluttering the room. The use of texture in textiles can also induce emotive responses. An example of this would be the use of velvet for an opulent and formal atmosphere.

Pattern in the context of textiles is the use of motifs using shapes, lines, colours and textures used to form a composition. If the motifs are too small or emphasise relief and depth that can be felt, the composition is known as a texture. The effective use of pattern in textiles is the transformation of a plain area into surrounds of detail. It can make a large space seem smaller and more elaborate or create a cosy feeling for a small room. Patterns help define shape and space. They give perspective.

It is important to be aware of how pattern is used in the context of the room you are decorating. Very similar size, colour, style, or tonal ranges of patterns being combined causes confl ict and lacks harmony. A single primary pattern can be selected from which secondary patterns of different scale, saturation, colour or style visually support. This tends to keep a room from overwhelming the viewer.

However, to create a contemporary appearance, secondary patterns can be placed together without a primary pattern. By combining many subtle secondary patterns, a room can maintain its openness yet look more dimensional. If this idea is a little too challenging, find one basic fabric that you love and build the room around it. Whether it is plaid, fl oral, striped or solid, make it the foundation fabric for the room.

The colour of the textile used in decorating will be a major factor in the emotional response to the room and needs to be carefully considered. Traditionally colours in textiles were made only from natural materials like plants and shells, and most faded over time. The rarer the natural material, the more expensive the textile was.

In England in 1856, chemist William Perkin came across a new purple dye while running experiments to synthesise quinine. Perkin’s colour “mauveine” started the chemical dye revolution. The colour purple had traditionally been made from the ingredient found only in two types of rare molluscs that lived along the eastern Mediterranean coast, making this expensive colour fit only for the robes of kings and princes. It is interesting how this has filtered through to our current responses to purple and the association of it being a “royal” colour.

Choosing the right textile for your purpose is essential. Poorly selected textiles can be high-maintenance and have a shorter life cycle than expected. The following list provides some basic textile choices for decorating:

Cotton is the most practical of fabrics. It holds patterns well, comes in many finishes and is easily made up into accessories and curtains for the home.

Linen looks gorgeous when freshly laundered and irons but wrinkles easily. You need to either use linen for the wrinkled effect or place it in an area where it will not be touched.

Velvet is magnificently formal and comes in many colours. Though they feel luxurious and elegant, velvets are very durable. A chair or sofa upholstered in cotton velvet will last through generations, if properly cared for.

Nylon and polyester fabrics can be woven to resemble natural fibres. They can also be fashioned into interesting sheers for draperies. With the use of modern processes, synthetic fibres can be now be made to look and feel like almost anything, including leather, suede and cotton.

Denim gives a casual look and is durable for many rooms in the home including children’s rooms and family rooms. Denim also has the versatility of being dyed to many colours.


Silk is fragile but has a beautiful sheen. It is available in a wide range of textures, from velvet to smooth, nubby to soft. It is best used for pillows or draperies.

The textiles used within your home will essentially be the proverbial icing on the cake and you will often find yourself being drawn to particular fabrics due to their texture, colour or pattern. Even if your home doesn’t have a place for it at the time, it is useful to collect a sample and keep it as a reference. Your response to the textile that is used is relevant to you and how your decorating scheme eventually unites. The space you feel most passionate about is usually that which provokes a significant emotional response from you. The final key in textile use, ultimately, is to follow your heart.