Fabric Flaws


Choosing the fabrics must be the fun part of any project, surely?


Well, we did once almost causing a diplomatic incident by putting a British embroidery fabric on two authentic and very expensive 18th Century French chairs. But that's another story.


All the hard work on our client’s project had been completed with little incident. We just had to make and hang the curtains and we were done, on time. It’s always a great feeling to come through a project on time and on budget. More often than not we do just that, but never believe designers that will guarantee this either – there are just too many variables and you are dependent on too many people to make that promise.


To make a project work there needs to be someone in charge, we like it to be us, but with that comes the responsibility and the blame if anything goes wrong. As we scheduled the curtain hanging, accessorizing and handover with some confidence, disaster struck and the next two weeks saw our phone bills and stress levels rocket – all the time of course maintaining a calm outwards appearance!


Many designers emphasis their ‘hard’ skills as space-planners and interior architects to ensure that they are not categorized as ‘just’ decorators handling the ‘fluffy bits’, but this is a huge mistake. The choice of fabric for curtains, upholstered pieces and even smaller items such as cushions are vital to nearly every design. Indeed, a swatch of fabric is often the starting point for the whole scheme. If the aim of a designer is to improve a space, to make it fit for purpose - whatever the purpose the client has requested – then the fabrics can be the very thing that makes that happen.


Once we have made our selection, checked that the fabric suits the use it will be put to (will it fade, will it wear on any edges, has it passed the right rub tests for commercial use, fire resistance and numerous other things) then we present it as part of the scheme along with all the other selected materials and finishes. We have our favourites but alternatives are thoroughly considered and are offered to the client as part of an edited presentation – too much choice and you can see eyes glazing over.


Choosing is only the first step, we will have checked that the fabric has not been discontinued, what stock is held or when delivery is expected, how that fits the project schedule and that the price suits the budget. Then, when we know what we want and when we can get it, the ordering process starts. I am fond of saying that ‘interior design is not rocket science’ but controlling such a simple thing as a fabric schedule can often make you feel that you made the wrong career choice.


However, the curtains won’t make themselves and we’re not sure the client is up for ready-made ones so the ordering process has to start, and probably should have started 3 weeks earlier!


If you need 100 metres of fabric and they only have 50 metres in stock, then it is not as simple as taking the 50 to get your curtain people started and waiting for the rest. Fabric is produced in batches or lots and with any such process there can be slight colour changes that creep in between lots. So, the first thing is to make sure that the total amount of a particular fabric that you need is coming from the same lot, check the swatch that the company will send you for that lot (it may be slightly different to the studio sample you have used so far) then order away.


When it arrives, normally directly to your curtain makers or upholsterers, it is still your responsibility to check it’s correct, preferably before you are watching them hang the finished curtains. You’ve got the right fabric, the right amount, all from the same lot and it’s arrived in the right place at the right time, so all that is left to do is unroll a few metres to check it. All done, our confidence mounts. Did we check all 100 metres? No. Have you tried to unroll 100 metres of fabric? Manufacturing flaws in fabric are not so common that unrolling and checking 100 metre deliveries is necessary, but it is safe to say that any flaws will only become totally apparent after about metre 25!


The phone calls start. Curtain maker to us, us to supplier, supplier to factory and back along the chain – keeping the client out of it for the moment. If you are lucky, the supplier takes full responsibility, there is plenty from the same lot in stock and it’s on its way to you. If you’re not, it’s out of stock (you took the last), it’s an 8 week delivery, it’s just been discontinued or at worst it’s not their problem – you’ve cut the fabric and you should have checked it when you signed for it. I have some difficulty picturing an incredibly patient and understanding delivery driver chatting happily while you carefully unwrap the sixteen, impermeable layers of packaging, capable of protecting your fabric from nuclear fallout, or at least the vagaries of the delivery industry, unroll 100 metres of tightly rolled fabric and carefully check each centimetre for flaws before signing the form that states you have done all of the above and sending the jauntily whistling delivery man on his merry way!


We had that very awkward supplier (not used since) and a discontinued fabric – I am sure they aren’t, but the decision to discontinue a fabric, or at least the timing, seems somewhat arbitrary to me. Anyway, time to go back to the client.


A cheeky option is to say that as you are thinking about their project 24/7 and as you are a perfectionist you never stop looking for ways to make their project that little bit better and the new fabric that you have just discovered is just perfect for their scheme and yes we know we said the same about the original, now problematic choice, but this is the one, we must change. Not a great option though, It’s a cliché but ‘honesty is the best policy’ and it is the designer’s lot is to pass on bad news as well as the fun stuff to the client. Is it the designer’s fault in this case? Officially yes, you should check everything. In reality most designers check virtually everything as to do more is generally impossible. We are perfectionists, but I have read stories of designers demanding a whole tiled wall is replaced because a grout line was 1mm too wide. That is not perfectionist that is just pompous and arrogant, and maybe they should have been on site when the tiles were laid out!


Most suppliers are generally helpful, if you are lucky most clients will generally understand. So the real option, tell the truth quickly, find an alternative quickly and get on with it. Often the alternative actually may look better and once in place it never ceases to amaze how enjoying good interior design creates significant memory loss as to the problems in its creation.