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What Is a Railroaded Fabric?

What Is a Railroaded Fabric?

Did you know that home decor fabrics can be made in either a standard layout or railroaded?  Read on to find out what that means, and how it could affect your next decorating project…

Designer fabrics are made in (usually) a 54″ width.  This means the fabric is woven in a piece 54″ wide, and in nearly unlimited lengths.  After it is woven, the fabric is rolled onto a bolt for shipping and storage, so there are no creases in the fabric.  Now, this railroading business can be confusing, so hang with me as I try to explain…

Fabric is typically woven with the pattern winding up into the fabric bolt.  A railroaded fabric, on the other hand, is produced with the pattern running perpendicular to the bolt – essentially turning the pattern 90 degrees.  The bottom photo below illustrates this concept with a black and white striped fabric.

In addition, even a standard fabric can be railroaded by applying the fabric to your project differently.  The photo below illustrates how the same standard blue striped fabric can be applied to the sofa in two different ways – standard or railroaded.  This seemingly minor difference can have big consequences if you don’t understand how it can affect an upholstery or drapery project.

Railroaded fabric

Photo courtesy Kovi Fabrics


Fabrics can be applied to a sofa, (or window or anything else), in two different ways.  One way they can be applied is in vertical sections, with several fabric widths required to cover the entire width of the sofa.  However, another way to cover a sofa is by using a railroaded fabric.  This allows you to cover the entire width of the sofa in one horizontal piece of fabric – without seams.

The same thing holds true for draperies.  If you want to make very wide drapery panels without seams, or a wide valance or cornice without seams, choosing a railroaded fabric (or railroading a standard fabric) is your best bet.

Even if your project does not include very large pieces of furniture or very wide window treatments, you still need to be aware of the direction of fabric you are considering.  If the fabric tag says the fabric pattern is “up the bolt,” the pattern is facing the standard way.  If the fabric tag says the pattern is railroaded, it means that the sample you have in front of you shows what the pattern looks like when the fabric is railroaded.  If you plan to use that fabric vertically, the pattern will look different as it will be turned 90 degrees.

The fabric tag below shows that this fabric is not railroaded – it’s a standard, up-the-bolt pattern.   If you don’t know this ahead of time, you may run into trouble when you order your fabric; you may find you have ordered too much or too little fabric to cover your windows or to reupholster your furniture.

designer fabric tag

You can railroad any standard fabric; you just need to be aware that the pattern will be turn 90 degrees to make that happen.  Sometimes – as with solid or textured fabrics – this will make no difference to the look of the fabric.  Other times – as with floral or striped fabrics – turning the fabric on its side will produce a very different (and sometimes odd) pattern.  You may also need to figure your fabric yardage differently in order to accommodate a different seam placement.

Some fabrics, such as drapery sheers, are made specifically for railroaded use.  Sheers often come in 118″ widths, so draperies can be made with no seams (seams are not pretty on sheer fabrics, so it’s best to avoid them if possible).  Wide fabrics like this are used in this way:  picture a 118″ roll of fabric standing on end near one side of your window.  Now, unroll the fabric by rolling the bolt from one end of the window to the other.  This is the advantage of railroaded fabrics; the 118″ width is enough to make a tall drapery panel with no seams, and can be made in nearly unlimited lengths to accommodate a very wide window.

If you are having furniture reupholstered, or custom draperies or valances made, your designer or fabricator will help you determine whether your fabric is (or should be) railroaded.  But, just knowing the meaning of that term can arm you with the knowledge you need to ask the right questions.

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